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.

Documenting Education

This semester I taught a grad student seminar called “Documenting Education” at the University of Vienna in the faculty of Philosophy and Education. I had planned on discussing the long-term documentary Die Kinder von Golzow (dir. Winfried Junge; later Barbara Junge and Winfried Junge, 1961-2007), about a school class in the German Democratic Republic. The department then asked that I teach the course in English, and I suddenly needed a new syllabus. I decided to keep the general theme of the course and expand it to ask questions about how media, and movies in particular, portrayed education (broadly conceived) and how people learn in a society. We read standard literature from how movies function pedagogically to whether advertisements on TV do anything but convince people to buy things to the issue of violence in video games and violence in society. We watched movies and clips from productions like The Blackboard Jungle (1955, dir. Richard Brooks), Lady Gaga music/commercial videos, and parts of Michael Apted’s Up-Series (1964-2012).

blackboard jungle movie poster

I had expected students to enjoy the mixture of media pedagogy theory with applying these ideas to films and other media of their choice, and that the use of visual material would help encourage them to read and write with confidence in a foreign language. I had not expected the intensity of our sessions, or the eloquent conversations they conducted on-line throughout the week, or that I would find myself so engrossed in reading their seminar papers that I lost track of time (birdsong is a good indication that the dawn has approached). What surprised me most was the variety of lessons that the students took from the class. Anthropomorphism in Disney films as an extension of Aesop’s fables, comparisons of teaching philosophies in films about the Vietnam War vs. about a school, the evolution of portrayals of lesbianism in the many versions of Mädchen in Uniform, including the 1931 Sagan/Froehlich and 1958 Radvanyi (starring Romy Schneider) versions and the play by Christa Winsloe that the films were based on, and so many more topics than I could have hoped for when I started the course. Every few years the combination of students and topic make for a dream team of a class, and this was one such semester. My only regret? That we did not document our own education during the course.