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.

 

Socialist Puppet States with Strings – Not a Fairy Tale

Rolf Herricht with Colleague Marie Gold.

Rolf Herricht with Colleague Marie Gold.

Once upon a time, or rather 1955, after a few attempts in the first postwar years to make animation films in Babelsberg – whether silhouette, puppet, or what we think of as animation films – the DEFA Studio for Animation opened in Dresden. The film short A Fairy Tale Only (Nur ein Märchen, dir. Carl Schröder, 1963), perhaps better translated as “It’s Just a Fairy Tale,” is exemplary of the few puppet films made there, for children and, occasionally, adults.

The puppet film is saturated in irony. The famous actor Rolf Herricht narrates. He appears on an empty set, informing the audience that he has been asked to tell a fairy tale in the interest of education and national cultural heritage “and all that,” and presents his selection of “Mother Hulda” (“Frau Holle,” sometimes known as “Gold Marie and Pitch Marie” or “The Good Sister and the Bad Sister”). He explains his reasons for the selection: It is ideologically unproblematic and well-known, and has been appropriately updated for a contemporary audience.

Mother Hulda (Frau Holle) with Rolf Herricht in "It's Just a Fairy Tale."

Mother Hulda (Frau Holle) with Rolf Herricht in “It’s Just a Fairy Tale.”

He starts off with “Once upon a …no, let us say once upon now,” and introduces the characters, all hand puppets: First comes Mother Hulda, who has since earned an additional degree to better herself (referring to the numerous attempts to push women to take advantage of continuing education); then Gold Marie (“no need for further explanation,”), and the equally infamous Pitch Marie, whom he regards with a bit of disapproval. He hesitantly notes that the evil stepmother is a bad pedagogical role model, so we will forget her. The next shot is of the People’s Collective “Brothers Grimm,” where the forewoman Mother Hulda is delighted to employ two new workers “from the people” in order to fulfill her production quotas. Socialist hilarity ensues.

Colleague Marie Gold arrives to work early, bakes tasty loaves of bread, and picks all the apples just as they are becoming ripe using a “climbing machine” (a ladder). An ideal socialist woman-worker, it is not surprising that she receives her daily wages of golden talers from Forewoman Hulda.

Colleague Pitch Takes a Power Break.

Colleague Pitch Takes a Power Break.

Colleague Marie Pitch, on the other hand, shows up late and must powder her nose while the bread burns, lazes about so that the over-ripe apples are fit only for jelly, and leaves her workplace untidy when the whistle blows: “Quitting time!” she yells with glee.Colleague Pitch receives the same wages for her poorly-executed work.

Rolf Herricht falls out of character as a narrator and walks on-screen, asking Forewoman Hulda whether both young women had earned the same pay for unequal work. “Yes,” responds Forewoman Hulda, “exactly according to law.” Herricht complains that it is supposed to be different, that hard work is to be rewarded and laziness punished. The puppet Mother Hulda leans back to get a better look at Herricht’s face and says dryly, “Right, in fairy tales!” Herricht gapes and turns the audience, shrugging his shoulders – socialism is no fairy tale, not even when puppets are involved.

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.

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.