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.

Nazi Fairy Tale Films

The phrase “Nazi fairy tale films” seems like either a bad joke, or else yet another area that Nazis turned into propaganda. Yet, Nazi film adaptations of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales represent important examples of children’s films in cinematic and educational history. Although the film industry in Nazi Germany came under the purview of Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda, he stated explicitly that children’s films should be free of Nazi symbols and ideology. It is time to lift the taboo of freely discussing Nazi filmmaking beyond the well-known overtly anti-Semitic and nationalistic films. After all, in 1940 alone, German film companies produced nine 35 mm feature films based on fairy tales, seven of them Brothers Grimm adaptations – almost half of the total nineteen fairy tale films intended for the Big Screen in Nazi Germany made between 1935 and 1944. From Puss in Boots to Red Riding Hood, Nazi fairy tale films offer us a unique glimpse into the values of good vs. evil that the Big Screen presented young cinema-goers – values that cannot be reduced to stereotypical Nazi slogans of the supremacy of the German race.

These films are not easy to come by, with rare exception, but I think this lack of access to films is part of the problem. What happens if Nazi fairy tale films were remastered as DVDs and made available through, for instance, the Goethe Institute or the German Center for Political Education – as many East German iconic films are? They would then become part of a clear socio-political framework that would situate them within German and cinema history. More important, they would not remain such a Big Secret, and more scholars than the few now writing about them could offer more interpretations than currently available.

Rumpelstiltskin, 1940

Rumpelstiltskin, 1940 

Let me give a small taste of some of these films, which I will be discussing in the weeks that come: Let’s start with the delightful Puss in Boots (Der gestiefelte Kater, dir. Alf Zengerling, 1935), which demonstrates the director’s successful transition from puppet films to live action films mixed in with the occasional costumed animal character and odd documentary film footage of animals (the lion jump cut is a bit odd, but the film still rates as one of my all-time favorites). And of course there is Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen, dir. Fritz Genschow and Renee Stobrawawhich, 1937), which smacks of Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939) Dorothy-in-Kansas reality (b/w) and dreams (bold color) of the fantasy world. Unfortunately, Red Riding Hood’s Nazi-era hunter is decked out in Nazi gear or else I would recommend it for any family film evening… maybe a bit of Film-Photo-Shopping could rescue it. Then there is The Rabbit and the Hedgehog (Der Hase und der Igel, dir. Alf Zengerling, 1940), interestingly particularly for the rabbit character, played by Paul Walker – a world-renowned actor of diminutive stature who, with Zengerling, managed to make a living in Nazi-era filmmaking, including starring in such classics as Rumpelstilskin (pictured above with the farmer’s daughter and the instruction to turn straw into gold, 1940). I lose trace of Walker after his last films in the 1940s – reason enough to open up the files and film-reel canisters and release Hitler’s celluloid princes, princesses, and all of their subjects to some scholarly scrutiny today.

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.