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.

An East German Sherlock Holmes

"Sherlock Holmes" and "Dr. Watson"

“Sherlock Holmes” and “Dr. Watson”

In the 1985 delightful East German children’s film Operation Violin Case (Unternehmen Geigenkasten, dir. Gunter Friedrich), young Ole finds himself in a hospital bed with a broken leg after crashing during an attempt to fly using a kite as wings. His father begins to lecture him on the need for scientific theory: “You can’t just run off and try to fly like that!” he tells his son in exasperation. Ole, having heard too many of these speeches, turns to the hospital television and discovers a German-Austrian version of a Sherlock Holmes movie, the 1937 mistaken-identity comedy The Man Who was Sherlock Holmes (Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war, dir. Karl Hartl). Ole has found his next passion: solving crimes.

"Holmes," theorizing about the case

“Holmes,” theorizing about the case

Back home, he assigns his friend Andreas the role of Dr. Watson, and the two set of to solve mysteries – with the appropriate props, of course, including “Holmes’s” pipe, violin case and hat. It is not so easy to find crimes, though, with so many honest people around. Then they witness a bicycle accident, and Andreas notes that the harried cyclist not only refuses help but is also wearing a fake mustache. Clearly the man must be up to no good, a suspicion confirmed quickly when they find “Mr. Neumann” loading electronics into a van. The police meanwhile have put out a bulletin on a van full of stolen goods worth 10,000 East German Marks, and Ole and Andreas talk their classmates into skipping the first hour of school to help find the criminal. When that action fails, it is up to Holmes and Watson to solve the case, even if no one takes them seriously.

Neumann kidnapping Ole

Neumann kidnapping Ole

They do, of course, catch Neumann in the act, but he sees them as well and kidnaps Ole. Andreas informs the police, finds his friend, and the police find Neumann. The two boys are sent home to their agitated parents, awaiting punishment for skipping the entire school day and acting outside of the law. In an attempt to teach his son a lesson and perhaps keep him busy and out of more trouble, Ole’s father has decided that violin lessons are in order. The irony of pushing his son further into the Holmes character is lost on the adults, but not on the boys or on the cinema audience. The police officer who arrives at the house deciders that further discipline is unwarranted. He warns against not involving the police in further “detective mysteries,” but then proclaims that the boys have helped protect socialist society against those who would undermine it and presents the boys with a medal.

Despite the clear nod to socialist values, including black market activity as one of the worst imaginable crimes against the state, the film is impressive in its universal appeal as well as its references to German filmmaking. No ones finds it odd that two boys decide to imitate characters in a film made during the Nazi era about two detectives pretending to be Holmes and WatsonThis aspect of Operation Violin Case suggests that the 1937 film appeared on GDR television often enough to be an obvious reference and points to an acceptance of two British literary icons who lived a rather bourgeois lifestyle. The tension between judging individual actions against a responsibility to act as part of the socialist collective is also central to the film’s moral; here, again, a children’s film serves as a vehicle for communicating a socialist value system through the presumed innocence of children. Boys will be boys, after all, which is fine as long as they grow up into law-abiding socialist men.

 

Exotic-Erotic is in the Eye of the Beholder: Red-haired Sirens in Mongolian Fairy Tale Films

The Sea Princess begs Dawadorshi to accompany her to the Sea Lord's underwater kingdom.

The Sea Princess begs Dawadorshi to accompany her to the Sea Lord’s underwater kingdom.

You don’t need to trot out Red Riding Hood or Snow White to find tropes of erotic desire and deception in fairy tales – look East, or at least East of the Iron Curtain. There you will find the 1961 East German and Mongolian co-production Die goldene Jurte (The Golden Yurt, dir. Gottfried Kolditz and Rabschaa Dordschpalam), which premiered in East Berlin as part of the celebrations to mark the fortieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of Mongolia.

The story drips with fairy tale fetishism with the enchanting other. Although it starts out as a nightmare of Orientalist stereotypes, it quickly turns into a defiant, albeit ambiguous, stance against nativist conceptions of self and, well, non-self – or just everyone else. In this East-meets-West adventure, the East rather roundly dismisses the West and its decadent (female vampish) ways and triumphs in a criticism of consumerist-laden modernity.

The fairy tale trope is familiar enough, even if it is nomadic tribes in yurts instead of poor peasants in cottages: The wise lama Arat has entrusted the shepherd Pagwa with a grave responsibility. Pagwa must guard a chest that holds the secret to keeping the region fertile. Although the shepherd believes that the chest is filled with gold, it actually has a pseudo-scientific function of channeling the far-off sea to bring water to the otherwise arid land. In typical fairy tale fashion, Pagwa has three sons; the older two decide to steal the chest and be rid of their guileless and hapless brother, Dawadorshi, by sending him on an impossible mission. With common sense and a good heart, though, Dawadorshi fulfills three key tasks: He saves his people from death, helps a beautiful blind girl regain her sight and heals his father’s heartbreak over his wicked older sons. The youngest son turns out to be not so unworldly, after all. He wins the beautiful girl Sendema for his betrothed, creates a yurt-palace for his family and reunites his rehabilitated brothers with their father.

The Golden Yurt: A palace for the shepherd Pagwa (center) with his three sons. Dawadorshi sits (r) next to his betrothed, Sendema.

The Golden Yurt: A palace for the shepherd Pagwa (center) with his three sons. Dawadorshi sits (r) next to his betrothed, Sendema.

All of these accomplishments would be enough for most fairy tale films. When two directors with radically different approaches to filmmaking must work together, the tasks take on another layer of meaning. One of the film’s objectives was to show the beauty of the Mongolian landscape to East German audiences; not surprisingly, Dordschpalam wanted to showcase his country’s inhabitants, as well. It was not enough that most of the actors were Mongolian, apparently. If anyone in the audience was unsure that the Eurasian Steppe was home to people more virtuous, industrious and humane than their socialist brethren to the West, the Sea Lord (played by the classically-trained opera singer and actor Kurt Mühlhardt) and his red-haired vixen daughter (the model-actress Evelyn Cron) are clearly German. Western. East Germans as the West.

Dawadorshi gets entangled with these two creatures of questionable morals when he and his bride-to-be Sendema free a goldfish that has been trapped behind rocks in a lake. The fish commands Dawadorshi to follow it into the depths of the Sea Lord’s kingdom. His protests that he wants to return to his beloved stop suddenly as the camera zooms in on his eyes that glance up and down repeatedly at the fish’s new form. “What are you?” he stammers. “You were just a fish and now…?” The camera cuts to the hem of a sumptuous clingy golden gown and slowly follows its tight curves up the body of the beautiful sea princess with long red hair and enough exposed skin to show off her fair (Germanic) complexion.

The princess smiles enticingly at Dawadorshi, warning him that her father turns into a giant tortoise when he gets angry – a warranted fear, since she has been naughty for turning into a fish and swimming off to play without Daddy Sea Lord’s permission. The princess grabs Dawadorshi’s hand and brings him to her father with the stage-whispered plea to make him stay as her husband.The Sea Lord agrees and sends her away to put on her best dress and jewels.

Hedging his bets, the Sea Lord does not just offer Dawadorshi the reward of the sea princess; he commands him to take her. After pointing to her as she sashays teasingly in her bridal gown, the Sea Lord promises that she and all her playmates will obey the young hero and follow all his wishes before he can even utter them. Beautiful fair-haired sirens swim before Dawadorshi’s eyes, but he wants only to return to Sendema and his people.

The Sea Lord in his angry Tortoise form

The Sea Lord in his angry Sea Tortoise form

Angered, the Sea Lord turns into a giant tortoise, inhuman and inhumane. Dawadorshi’s insistence that he will not be cowed into obedience turns the Sea Lord back to his human form. He smiles approvingly at the young man’s successful passing of this “test,” and offers him help in his adventures.

The Sea Lord in his underwater kingdom.

The Sea Lord in his underwater kingdom.

The role of the sea princess seems primarily to serve as a spoiled plaything for other men. Even her own father uses her as bait to try and trick Dawadorshi into desiring her over his beloved Sendema. We can only assume that, had Dawadorshi chosen the sea princess, it would have been the wrong choice, one that he would regret the rest of his life. More important, it would have been the wrong choice in the eyes of the sea princess’ own father. The contrast between the flirtatious and sexualized (modern, German) princess-woman and the modestly-clothed (traditional, Mongolian) nomad-girl could not be greater – and the happy end of the story comes about because Dawadorshi rejected the other, or perhaps the anti-other.

So what of the sea princess? Her father values her beauty enough to employ her in the games that gods play, and is even angry when she runs – swims – off as a fish without his permission, suggesting he desires her company. But she is not a minor character in this story; Dawadorshi makes a life-changing decision for himself and his people in his loyalty to traditional ways and rejection of this temptress of civilization. Her feelings, though, are not explored beyond her apparent dismay that her father might be upset with her disobedience. Cast aside after being touted as her father’s grand prize for Dawadorshi, she will likely return to her former ways, playing with her friends until she gets bored enough to turn into a fish in the hopes of being rescued by another potential suitor. The decadent princess is thus the only victim of this tale, and it is a sobering moral. Modernity will not win out over tradition and heritage, and it cannot be rescued from itself. The brief G-rated peep-show of the sea princess’ attempt to seduce Dawadorshi is a brief highlight in her life, since she is otherwise doomed to a life of civilization.