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.

 

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.

screen shot

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.

cropped-vlcsnap-2014-04-16-21h40m58s190.png

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.

cropped-cropped-vlcsnap-2014-04-16-21h31m02s91.png

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.

 

Red Riding Hood Fights Back

Red Riding Hood with her father.

Red Riding Hood with her father.

In the East German (DEFA) 1962 fairy tale film Little Red Riding Hood (Rotkäppchen, dir. Götz Friedrich), we meet some of Red Riding Hood’s friends – and enemies. Her best pals are the ever-worried Rabbit and the clumsy and rather childish Bear. The Big Bad Wolf finds a partner in crime, Fox, both of whom are out to get Red Riding Hood and co.

3 friends: Red Riding Hood, Bear and Rabbit

3 friends: Red Riding Hood, Bear and Rabbit

As in the original story, Red Riding Hood must bring Grandmother a basket – no wine this time, but rather a healthy pail of milk, some bread, and the time-honored remedy for colds, a bit off snuff. While the three friends stray from the path and play around, Bear accidentally knocks over the pail of milk. No problem – Rabbit runs home to bring a new pail of milk, only to return and find Bear and Red Riding Hood leaving the path for the forest again. The wily Fox has tricked Bear to go in search of honey, while Red Riding Hood goes to pick mushrooms for Grandmother. Rabbit’s hand-wringing and begging earns him Red Riding Hood’s anger, telling him not to be a Hasenfuß (a scaredy cat; literally, a rabbit’s foot).

Red Riding Hood has chased away the evil Fox.

Red Riding Hood has chased away the evil Fox.

Predictably, it is a set-up: Fox and Wolf attack her, but they are no longer working together: Wolf hits Fox over the head with a stick and turns to snatch the girl, but Red Riding Hood has outsmarted him. She blows a handful of snuff in his face. He then sneezes so much that he must crawl away, with Red Riding Hood throwing stones after him. Fox has meanwhile finished off the rest of the basket’s goodies, but the exhausted Red Riding Hood is gleeful – she has outsmarted Wolf and does a little victory dance.

The jarring part of this scene is Red Riding Hood’s anger. She throws the stones not only to scare away Fox, but to hit him, that is, to hurt him. The fight has left her with dirt smeared on her face, her clothes disheveled, and a look of hatred that the camera captures in a close-up. What is the purpose of showing this new side of Red Riding Hood? She has defeated Fox, but the traditional fairy tale lesson is lost, since she once again wanders into the forest, allowing Wolf time to beat her to Grandmother’s. It is a turning point that is not really a turning point.

In a film that is otherwise careful to avoid outright violence (her hunter-father carries Wolf away to a place where he can do no more harm, his hunting rifle unused), Red Riding Hood’s reaction suggests a different kind of moral. Perhaps she will keep her promise to never stray from the path again, perhaps not. What is certain, though, is that the next time she encounters an evil-doer, she will know how to take care of herself.

 

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.

Looking for Breadcrumbs – The Fairy Tale Film that Never Was

Empty filmic spaces tell us as much about life and politics in East Germany as do the movies that made it to the Big Screen. I have often wondered, for instance, why the socialist film production company DEFA never made a live-action film based on “Hansel and Gretel.” DEFA pulled out most of the stops for other Brothers Grimm fairy tales favorites, like Red Riding Hood (dir. Götz Friedrich, 1962), and The Frog Prince (dir. Walter Beck, 1988). So what kept them from imagining a full-length movie version about two hungry siblings, a controlling stepmother, breadcrumbs, and a gingerbread house owned by an evil witch? There is, after all, much to love about the brother and sister team of Hansel and Gretel, who, chased away from home, wind up in an adorable cottage where the sister is in charge of fattening up her brother for the witch’s meal. Pathos, irony, murder, and a reminder to never, ever use edible objects to mark one’s way through the woods: this fairy tale had it all.

Hansel and Gretel, Illustration from "Die Gartenlaube," 18

Hansel and Gretel, Illustration from “Die Gartenlaube,” 1894

To be fair, the fairy tale did make its way to the Dresden animation studio as a 1975 hand puppet short feature. A year later, the comedic duo Rolf Herricht and Hans-Joachim Preil played the parts of Hansel and Gretel in a trailer for DEFA’s summer film line-up. In this brief version, the “children” encounter an attractive, singing witch, who wants nothing more than to lure them into the magical world of cinema during vacation. Perhaps part of the trailer’s cast made filmmakers nervous about any further mention of Hansel and Gretel. The witch was none other than the young Nina Hagen, who a few months later followed her expatriated stepfather Wolf Biermann from East Germany into the West and a successful record career.

But the Grimms’ fairy tales had staying power, enough to overcome even political intrigue. Given the line-up of DEFA fairy tale films, it seems more plausible that the story itself presented too many obstacles. Key parts of the tale would have proven difficult to change for a happy socialist ending, and DEFA filmmakers were most successful when they did not tinker too much with the general arc of the Grimms’ narratives. “Hansel and Gretel” is about a society marked by insufficient food supplies, parents who force their children out of the house and Gretel’s heroic saving of her brother by pushing the witch into the oven to burn to death.

Nina Hagen as a witch, this time in "7 Dwarves: The Woods are Not Enough," 2006. FAZ 10/24/2006

Nina Hagen as a witch, this time in “7 Dwarves: The Woods are Not Enough,” 2006. FAZ 10/24/2006

These were not topics that could be transformed into a feel-good, socialist-humanist morality tale. Two desperate German children tricking an elderly woman in to a fiery death would have summoned unwelcome images of the Holocaust – an association that would have been impossible to ignore or treat lightly. The witch would have to be burned properly for the end to make any sense, as demonstrated by Rudolf Jugert’s forgettable 1971 West German production of the fairy tale. In that 8 mm version, a confusing blinking red light pulsed underneath an apparently cold oven, making it more of a convenient container in which to jail the witch instead of a place to turn her to ash. This was one part of the German national heritage that the East was willing to ignore. Still, “Hansel and Gretel” marks the top of many lists of DEFA movies that are noticeable for their absence. One wishes that DEFA might have given it a shot.

Children’s Films and Films for Children

vlcsnap-2013-05-29-22h14m49s241.png

Final triumphant scene of father and son in “Somewhere in Berlin”

I have been writing on children’s films specifically for half a decade, and began to include them in my general work more than a decade ago. Yet, the more I write about, research and watch them, the less confident I am in my answer of what a children’s film is. Part of the dilemma is that filmmakers seldom know what their target audience is, evening arguing the point with studios up until the point that a film is premiered (in which case the audience seems to have the say). The third film in the East German film production company DEFA’s repertoire, Irgendwo in Berlin  (Somewhere in Berlin, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, 1946) has consistently been included in volumes about East German children’s films. The story of a boy struggling to understand his despondent father, returned from World War II, the film might well have spoken to other young children after the war who despaired at ever seeing the “real” return of their fathers – the letters of a young Brigitte Reimann who described her Vati’s disheveled appearance at the train station where the family went to meet him after his release from a Soviet POW camp come to mind. Certainly, Somewhere in Berlin has enough pedagogical messages to instruct young boys (never mind the girls) as to how to push their fathers to re-assume their roles as heads of household and the nation. Still, given the choice between that much reality and the brilliant colors and fantasy of the Soviet folklore film The Stone Flower (dir. Alexandr Ptushko, 1946), released the same year in German cinemas, would children or even their parents willingly have chosen Somewhere? Or does Somewhere merit the category of children’s film more because of its subject matter – the everyday tragedies and victories of young people – than does a film that must make its appropriateness for a children’s audience explicit by framing the movie with an old man who tells the tale of the “stone flower” to a group of excited children?