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.
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.
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 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.