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.
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.
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.