Losing a Guardian Angel

The film poster for "Bockshorn"

The film poster for “Bockshorn”

What would you do if a creepy man in a bar claimed that he had sold your guardian angel – but could get it back to you for a price? If you are Mick, the older of the two boys living on the street, you might be wise to this trickster “Landolfi” and tell him to get lost. If you are the young Sauly, you might be confused that he knew your name (Mick’s “He overheard it!” does not convince you) and begin to wonder whether you had been living without a guardian angel all this time. It would explain a lot for two homeless boys trying to figure out how to get to the beach. Sure, they’re pretty clever and know how to survive – but is that enough?

Mick and Sauly (filmportal)

Mick and Sauly (filmportal)

Frank Beyer‘s 1983 film Bockshorn (Taken for a Ride) – tells the story of two boys’ adventures hitchhiking through a fictive country that looks suspiciously like America and Cuba. They let themselves get tricked (ins Bockshorn jagen lassen) into Landolfi’s attempt to punish them for rejecting his favors. Although they had wanted to make it to the beach, Sauly becomes literally sick with the thought that he might be missing a guardian angel, so they go off to look for it in the town of Prince. Mick, trying to solve the riddle of this guardian angel story, tries desperately to find the Mr. Miller who supposedly bought the angel from Landolfi. The joke is on him, since everyone in the town is named Miller and no one has a clue about angels, real or imagined. The boys continue on their way, Sauly gets sicker and Mick is at his wits’ end. They track down Landolfi, but even his incredulity that they would have believed such an absurd story is not enough to turn their fate around. Sauly, still longing for a guardian angel, uses his last energy to try and attack Landolfi, but falls to this death.

Sauly attacking Landolfi (filmportal.net)

Sauly attacking Landolfi (filmportal.net)

If Sauly’s tragic death seems to be the result of a con man’s evil sense of humor, we would not be so moved by the poetics and larger moral tale of the film. In some ways, Sauly and Mick had both lost their guardian angels long ago when they wound up homeless. Although they try to look out for one another, they are ultimately only two children faced with a world that does not want them. Mick is not old enough to be a father figure for Saul and himself both; the few adults who want to help them turn out either to be scheming against them or not entirely trustworthy. In the family town of Prince, not a single Mr. Miller takes them in. On a farm, the family offers to let them stay in exchange for back-breaking work for Mick. The disappointment turns the film title’s warning into an ominous foreshadowing. There is no reason to think that Sauly would have lived happily ever after had he not been bullied about by Landolfi in the bar; the problem is that he and Mick were in a place where there was no one to care for them. It is more than a road movie, despite some characterizations of it as such. Hitchhiking is not child’s play, and their initial good luck at tricking adults out of money and food does not make them good candidates for the open road. They did not have a family or home, a situation they are confronted with at every turn when everyone else seems to have one, whether biological or a family of like-minded friends. That is the real tragedy, and one that is not new to the twentieth century. Homeless children are not safe in or from society, and there is nothing they can do but hope the next truck driver who stops for them is honest and will get them to the beach. They had been tricked long before they met Landolfi – they had no escape for a life in which the search for a guardian angel is their best hope of survival.

Socialist Fairy Tale Dystopias: “Land Beyond the Rainbow”

Few tales provide a better staging for a “good versus evil” post-socialist fairy tale film than Herwig Kipping’s 1991 Land Beyond the Rainbow. Set in an imaginary village, Stalina, in the days leading up to and after the GDR’s brutally repressed 17 June 1953 uprising, or worker’s revolt, Kipping’s film draws on a number of East German film aesthetics – including fairy tale films. Kipping himself never suggested that the film should be read as a fairy tale, but it is hard to miss the reference, even if unintended. The bright colors and exaggerated characters allow for a multi-layered morality tale, but one that has been radically upended and shaken about. It is a fairy tale gone bad, one that shows the tragi-comedy of promises made with promises broken, where uncertainty and fear are in a precarious balance with hope.

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The Rainbowmaker tries to convince Marie that Hans (r.) is too violent for her.

Kipping shows few children in the film, but three children play the role of the protagonists. Two boys, Hans and the Rainbowmaker, and a girl, Marie, fend for themselves, at least when they are not being coerced by the grandfather/mayor into raising new memorials to Stalin, or when local hooligans – or are they latter-day partisans of uncertain loyalties? – harass the children. The adults bother only to notice the trio – of course the number three here, one of fairy tales’ magical numbers – when parents or other authority figures need something from one of them.

Mothers and fathers do not take care of their children in Stalina, and the children are not always nice to their parents. Land Beyond the Rainbow might be an updated Hansel and Gretel tale, where parents send their children out into the wild with benevolent neglect, rather than obvious malice. The children, rather than push the witch into an oven (or kill their parents, in an earlier Brothers’ Grimm version of the tale), are violent, with Hans blowing himself up in the middle of the village. Stalina makes a mockery of the GDR’s claim to be country where children were to be the future of socialism; it also dismisses any belief that children could even be manipulated for that purpose.

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The Rainbowmaker tries to show a rainbow to Marie through a prism.

Children manipulate each other in Land Beyond the Rainbow. The witch in this re-telling has become a devil, or rather, the evil Hans. He has imprisoned Marie psychologically, forcing her to watch him crush baby chicks that she then buries. She cannot leave, believing, perhaps, that she can save him, or at least prevent him from further cruelty. The Rainbowmaker, the “good” boy, is a silent, effeminate character, with longish hair; the Rainbowmaker must wear a headband that keeps his bangs out of his eyes – forcing him to see. Marie completes the triangle of lovers as the girl who is torn between two suitors, playing both of them, yet afraid to lose either of them. The Rainbowmaker tries to convince Marie that she is too good for Hans; Hans walks over and yanks Marie away from the Rainbowmaker’s side. She turns back to look at the Rainbowmaker, but she does not protest as Hans pulls her along.

At a 2012 Modern Language Association session, the fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes once dismissed this film (and thus my reading of it) as “ekelhaft,” disgusting, one that he saw only as Kipping’s chance to get back at a system that wronged him. To be sure, the film can be disturbing: If senseless violence and greed were not enough to make the audience uncomfortable, then the practical violence of skinning a pig and pulling out its entrails is enough to make even village butchers avert their eyes. Still, fairy tales are not really fairy tales without an element of the horrific that fights against an element of goodness. Ultimately, Land Beyond the Rainbow is an apocalyptic fairy tale where love not only does not conquer all but exists only within the duality of love and hate.

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Marie, poetic monologue on life.

This is the fairy tale of ages that is also the heart of this “disgusting” film: the three children, those three entities, function as one. Juliette, Paris, and Romeo; Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost; Adam, the serpent, Eve; Eve, Cane, and Abel; Joseph, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary. These three children are in passionate love, in all senses of the word, and it is up to us to keep our eyes open to watch and understand them and thus Kipping’s dystopian fairy tale, even when it offends our sensibilities.

 

War Orphans in Film – No Happy Endings

Of all of the post-World War II films that addressed the problems of orphaned children, the Hungarian film Valahol Európában (Somewhere in Europe, also known as It Happened in Europe, 1947) elicited the most shocked public outcry about the youngest victims of the war. Directed by Géza Radványi, who wrote the screenplay with writer Béla BalazsSomewhere in Europe continued with the filmic trope of pointing unrelenting, accusing fingers at the adults who had allowed the onset of a war (i.e. pretty much everyone) that continued to punish young people long after the last shots had been fired and bombs had been dropped in Europe. Unlike the films Somehwere in Berlin (Irgendwo in Berlin, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, 1946, DEFA/Germany) or Germany in the Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero, dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1948, France/Germany/Italy), Radványi’s work focused on war orphans themselves, instead of employing children as part of a larger plot about societal renewal. Somewhere in Europe is a cry of anguish, not a lesson on shame or the politics of reconstruction.

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Screenshot of children attempting to hang the conductor in “Somewhere in Europe.”

Radványi positions a group of wandering children who find their way to an abandoned castle against the adults of the surrounding village who gleefully shoot at – and in one case kill – the “juvenile delinquents” who steal food and supplies in order to (barely) survive. He does not pretend that the children are innocents; indeed, he highlights the ways in which the war and its end pushed young people into criminal acts. Most haunting is perhaps the scene at the castle where the children decide to hang the once-famous conductor who also resides there. When the slightly older leader of the group, Peter, stops them from killing the older man, he asks what motivated them to want to execute another war refugee. The answer: “For fun.” These are children who have learned not only to fend for themselves, but to imitate the behavior of the adults they have encountered, and who abandoned them.

Radványi offers a supposedly happy end for everyone. The local villagers realize that they should be helping the children instead of treating them like the enemy; the children wash their dirty faces and put on suddenly clean clothes and happily wave from their castle – officially now theirs – to the conductor as he heads off across the green pastures of Hungary towards, one presumes, a rekindling of his musical career. I find this “happy ending” rather unhappy and troubling. Forgetting the fact that, in hindsight, the castle would likely have been nationalized in the next years, we are still left with a group of children who have no means of feeding themselves. There is no garden in sight, and the larder of meat left by the conductor will run out at some point. True, the villagers have recognized the errors of their ways. But for how long? There is no talk of caring adults looking after the children’s well-being, or even feeding them. When do the children start pillaging again? The castle is not an orphanage. It is at best a temporary solution, one well-suited to the needs of the time, that is, to find a place where children could be forgotten, at least temporarily.

Screenshot of wandering orphans in "Somewhere in Europe"

Screenshot of wandering orphans in “Somewhere in Europe”

I do not think that Radványi or Balazs intended for their audiences to take away this other message of accusation; the story of war orphans, however, had few happy ends in any postwar society. Somewhere in Europe, in this sense, unconsciously documents this second act of tragedy, in which adults learn to feel solace that children can be saved – from themselves and from their experiences. It is only a temporary salvation; not even a fairy tale would know how to fix this tragedy. If this reason is not enough to bring Somewhere in Berlin more fully into international scholarship and history and film studies classrooms (it has excellent English subtitles, since the United Nations supported the postwar international distribution of the film, helped along by such politicos as the then-French president Auriol Frack and his Dior-clad wife exclaiming that this was a “must-see” film), then the curious use of the nineteenth-century American melody of the folk tune “O Susanna” that the children sing-shout in the castle would surely peak anyone’s curiosity.

Food, Love, and Fairy Tale Films

Screenshot, "How to Marry a King"

Wedding Banquet, “How to Marry a King”

This still is from the East German fairy tale film How to Marry a King (Wie heiratet man einen König) from 1968, directed by Rainer Simon. It is a good example of the Janus-faced approach that the German Democratic Republic had regarding its films, especially those guaranteed to attract a young audience: On the one hand, the Ministry for Culture praised this film’s attention to detail, from the medieval castle and court set to the division between royalty and “the people.” On the other hand, socialist functionaries complained that young people would miss the subtlety of a king and queen struggling to make sense of love and passion as a means of making sense of the world around them. What particularly worried the powers-that-be was the lengthy banquet scene – reports before the premiere insisted again and again that children would be bored watching the couple eat.

How wrong the critics were – a good feast was and is a treat for the eyes and imaginations of young and old audiences alike. The sheer variety of the dozens upon dozens of dishes, from stuffed pig to exotic fruits make for mouth-watering scenes, must have provided audiences in a country not known for its abundance of food a hint of what could be. Before the Happy Ending comes, a fairy tale must stop several times along the way, and a good banquet for royalty is a satisfying test of the couple’s ability to get along. Does one need to understand the erotic undertones of the King (played by the theater actor Eberhard Esche) placing a cherry on a point of the Queen’s (Cox Habbema) crown to smile at their playfulness? Would a child not be able to laugh at the Royal Couple teasing each other with food?  It is not quite a scene from the cafeteria lunch room, but the use of mealtimes to grab the attention of a cute girl or boy is hardly an adult invention. How much more satisfying – for adults and children – to watch a couple begin a relationship by trying not to spill wine on each other than to see them kissing (too obvious and boring for the grown-ups; too icky for youngsters to suffer through).

Perhaps, though, socialist functionaries were more worried about the food on the Royal Couple’s table than about viewers’ attention spans. Nowhere in the film is there a suggestion that the Royal Couple is evil for having access to seemingly all the food in the world. Nor do any peasants watching the banquet appear to harbor ill-well towards those with more of, well, everything. After leaving the darkened cinema with its sense of magic and possibility, would East German audience members be able to imbue their rather more modest evening meal with passion, fun, even flavor? Love in the time of socialism was certainly attainable – but for most East Germans, it would not be accompanied by a wedding banquet of excess. The film’s popularity and the Ministry for Culture’s dissatisfaction with it might have been two sides of the same Royal Coin: the East German population watched a utopia that still seemed within reach, while the modern-day rulers knew that such dreams, even in 1968, would never come true. How to Marry a King, then, offered the wrong rewards for a socialist Happy End. Exotic foods would never be part of even the most ambitious five-year plans.