Get yer terrific long-suppressed film history right here, folks — this is what it takes to get your movie banned in East Germany in 1965: Günter Stahnke makes a drama revealing forbidden capitalist-style competitiveness and dastardly backstabbing in a state-run industry. Think any of those Party censors would object?
Spring Takes Time
DEFA Film Library
1965 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 76 min. / Der Frühling braucht Zeit / Street Date March 2016 / available through The DEFA Film Library / 29.95
Starring Eberhard Mellies, Günther Simon, Doris Abesser, Karla Runkehl, Rolf Hoppe, Erik S. Klein, Friedrich Richter, Elfriede Née.
Cinematography Lothar Erdmann, Eckhardt Hartkopf, Hans-Jürgen Sasse, Kurt Schütt
Film Editor Erika Lehmphul
Original Music Gerhard Siebholz; ‘The Sputniks’
Written by Hermann O. Lauterbach, Konrad Schwalbe, Günter Stahnke
Produced by DEFA
Directed by Günter Stahnke
So you think artists over HERE have it bad…
Günter Stahnke experienced some late-career fame at the 1990 Berlinale film festival, where his East German feature Spring Takes Time was finally shown again after being banned for twenty-five years. Another of his films, a TV show that was never publicly screened, made a belated debut as well. Back in 1965 the East Germans conducted a major ideological housecleaning, banning a full twelve of their own productions. A creative frost descended on filmmakers that didn’t adhere to strict guidelines of socialist realism.
The DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst maintains the heritage of the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft, the film company founded in East Germany immediately after WW2 and in force all the way until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I’m fortunate to have been able to review a great many DEFA disc releases. They include earnest dramas and anti-Fascist memoirs, but also musicals, science fiction films and a number of notorious pictures that fell afoul of the Party censors. The engaging drama Spring Takes Time is one of these.
Spring Takes Time (Der Frühling braucht Zeit) is a situational ethics movie about big business decisions and conflict in the workplace. It’s a familiar dramatic subgenre in America, where popular books and films of the 1950s critiqued the new corporate culture that expected conformity to a set standard and for executives to sacrifice their personal lives to their work. The office politics movies The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Patterns, Executive Suite and The Best of Everything examine normally ethical people that play underhanded games to elbow out competitors and ‘get ahead.’ The musical and movie of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying satirizes the subgenre.
But such movies were impossible in East Germany. Its state-run economy, in theory, was based upon centralized control and the belief that an organization devoted to ‘the good of the workers’ is a better deal than aiming for profits. But in Spring Takes Time the East German executives are just as susceptible to power schemes as their capitalist counterparts. The intelligent and insightful screenplay describes a clash of personalities and work philosophies, and tries to leave the film’s conflict as an open question.
The cliché Soviet socialist realist movie is a corny drama about a tractor factory, where team spirit and Marxist principles solve all problems, both on the production line and among the patriotic, motivated workers. This far more realistic show is about a large company tasked with building a natural gas pipeline. The top executives Erhard Faber (Günther Simon) and Schellhorn (Horst Schön) want to finish ahead of schedule and win a production prize, so they pressure chief engineer Heinz Solter (Eberhard Mellies) into signing off on a section of the line before proper safety inspections and approvals are in place. The pipeline fails in cold conditions, spelling a major financial setback for the company. To fix the pipeline Faber institutes an emergency crash work program, suspending normal procedures including safety rules. Construction foreman Rudi Wiesen (Rolf Hoppe) is injured working in the middle of the night. To square things with the higher-ups, Faber insists that Heinz Solter write a report that scapegoats Wiesen for the pipeline failure. When he refuses Faber has him arrested – Solter’s signature assigns him the technical blame. Held by the security police and unable to talk to his family, Solter is expected to confess. But the investigating security policeman is impressed by Solter’s personal resolve, and digs deeper into the matter.
At first glance Stahnke’s Der Frühling braucht Zeit acknowledges all the things that we in the West suspect about the Soviet-style centralized economies. This state-run company has the same problems we face in the West, with officials making decisions that place personal career benefit ahead of the public interest. Faber and Schellhorn pride themselves on doing a good job, but they shortcut the inspection process to win the company a prize, and to polish their career records. When the pipeline fails Faber goes into damage control mode. That Heinz Solter won’t cooperate in his scheme is unacceptable. He knows Solter is the best man for his job, but if he won’t play ball he’ll have to go.
If the arrest sticks, it will mean a prison term for Solter and disaster for his family. Looking for help, Solter goes to see Dr. Kranz (Friedrich Richter), a former company executive who has been forced into retirement in a similar scapegoat maneuver to protect the top brass. Solter doesn’t want to blame Kranz, and he certainly doesn’t want the wholly innocent Wiesen to take the blame. Solter’s beloved daughter Inge (Doris Abessner) is engaged to one of her father’s assistants. The young man has no qualms about writing a report blaming her father, as he openly hopes to be rewarded with Solter’s job. All of this finagling goes against the East German fantasy that all workers and bureaucrats selflessly devote themselves to the socialist good of the community.
Interestingly, the big boss Erhard Faber sees himself as protecting the greater good with his bad policies. Solter and Wiesen know that what Faber really wants is to put the company on a permanent crash-program basis, ignoring all the rules put in place for safety. Faber would run the staff ragged, and when mistakes get made, he’ll use the blame game to force the workers into double-emergency overtime mode to fix things. He’s out to break records any way he can.
Günther Simon (The Silent Star) plays Faber as a man incapable of self-doubt; he thinks that his viewpoint is the only good one, and his main problem is keeping his executives in line. Extras in the disc tell us that actor Simon got his start and became popular by playing workers of moral integrity. This makes the Faber character seem all the more subversive. When Heinz Solter doesn’t cooperate, Faber brings up the fact that the engineer is not a Communist Party member. He also slanders Solter’s war record behind his back, calling him a Nazi.
Eberhard Mellies plays Solter as equally strong-minded. Instead of doubting himself or scrambling for cover, he holds his ground. The security interrogator assigned to the case initially assumes that Solter’s silence stems from guilt. The tension peaks at an all-important board meeting, when Faber finally meets resistance from the board of directors that previously rubber-stamped all of his decisions. Just the presence in the room of the discredited engineer seems to affect them, even though Solter is technically under arrest and accompanied by the local chief of security.
Our image of how East Germany functioned (see the chilling The Lives of Others) makes Spring Takes Time seem a highly dangerous subject to produce in the GDR, what with casting doubt on the integrity and wisdom of important Party officials. Would East German audiences believe for a moment that a security police inspector would take the side of a suspect with so much bureaucratic power arrayed against him?
One would think that director Stahnke would find himself in hot water for just suggesting that systematic problems could exist in the Worker’s Paradise.
To our surprise, the case against Spring Takes Time concentrated on the film’s artistic point of view, and its production design. The film has a very spare look. Outside of the construction scenes, most of the show takes place on slightly stylized sets, offices and meeting rooms with few fixtures and large empty spaces. A music group called ‘The Sputniks’ provides the bouncy, rock-like music for the credits, a party scene and various transitions. Even some of the performances look a little stylized. Faber’s wife criticizes her husband but won’t do anything to help Solter. She encourages his daughter Inge, her student, to disassociate herself from the scandal. Loyal to her dad and offended by her boyfriend’s duplicity, Inge walks about like an expressionless doll. It’s a subtle effect, but her appearance may remind the viewer of Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face.
According to the film’s extras, the film’s major offense was the addition of too many artistic touches like this; socialist realism isn’t supposed to express an artist’s personal taste, but serve the collective needs of the masses. This really sounds like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t dilemma for the artist. Make it good, but do nothing to draw attention to your craft. It’s all a reminder that today’s (relative) Freedom of Expression shouldn’t be taken for granted.
The DEFA Film Library’s DVD of Spring Takes Time is a clean, sharp transfer of this long-suppressed East German drama. The audio is in fine shape as well. The flat aspect ratio is what’s listed in the IMDB, but the title blocks and most compositions suggest that it could have been matted off as wide as 1:66.
Also included is Stahnke’s 1962 TV movie Monolog for a Taxi Driver (Monolog für einen Taxifahrer). The very appealing show is about an unhappy taxi driver searching for the husband of a young woman giving birth in a hospital on Christmas Eve. The film’s slight allegorical conceit is amusing, and the taxi man’s voiceover monologue, which reminds us a little bit of our own Travis Bickle, is excellent. He’s played by Fred Düren of The Flying Dutchman, but the voiceover is spoken by the better-known Armin Mueller-Stahl. Much like the Cuban hero of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), the taxi driver has plenty of gripes about socialist life in the GDR.
Most of his complaints are cleared up as a comic misunderstanding, and he ends the show with a hearty laugh. But his disaffected attitude is what we remember.
Just the week before Monolog was scheduled to air, Günter Stahnke’s other TV show Fetzers Flucht made its debut. It’s about an East German who flees to the West, and then decides that he needs to flee right back. Once again the East German authorities had little use for entertainments that approached national issues from any but a strict social realist viewpoint; the show was banned. As we learn in the DEFA Film Library’s extras, Stahnke took a major political hit. Monolog was already scheduled to air but the telecast was canceled. It was not seen until 1990.
All this is covered in great detail in the disc extras. The disc contains twelve minutes of interview bites with Günter Stahnke. He explains that his career was stalled for several years. Although he eventually found steady work in TV he never again was allowed to make a feature film.
The other extras are DVD-Rom text files. The article Constructive Stylization by Annette Dorgerloh details the trouble over Spring Takes Time’s set design. Its minimalism was deemed too ‘formalistic.’ Dorgerloh tells us that the GDR exported modern-styled modular furniture, yet seemingly didn’t like it to be depicted in their movies. Making a bit more sense is the charge that the film encourages ‘an alienation between the individual and society.’ The movie was likened to Kafka, a connection I don’t see. Solter is in a tight spot, but he knows exactly what’s going on and is secure in his own mind as to where the problem lies. To me that doesn’t seem very Kafka-like. Spring Takes Time offers ambiguities and socialist realism demands clear solutions. That the party would ban an entertainment based on such criteria is much more like Kafka than anything in this movie.
Another gallery gives us the set sketch designs that so offended the East German censors. The stylization is so discreet that it’s difficult to imagine it attracting such criticism. None of the essays say so, but from this uninformed viewpoint it almost feels as if the designs were attacked so that the critics wouldn’t have to go on record debating the film’s political content.
The essay Symbol and Signal by Detlef Kannapin analyzes the film in more depth, and offers more historical detail to explain the daunting political climate for films and artists. The GDR had supposedly left the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” phase in 1960 and now was in the “socialist lifestyle based on the education of awareness” phase. As Stahnke discovered, that awareness was still sternly monitored by the security state. Dieter Wolf’s essay The Late Spring rounds out the disc’s thorough study. We learn that the movie suffered a couple of minutes of cuts before its brief release. A rougher arrest scene and part of a teacher-student confrontation were ordered deleted from the film in advance of its premiere.
It must have been tough to be an Eastern Bloc filmmaker faced by this kind of censure. The filmmakers were regularly shown films from the West and from less-strict neighboring countries, that could express a much wider range of human experience. The lesson seems to have been that any East German director who put his personality into a movie, or tried for an artistic effect of any kind, was asking for trouble.
By Glenn Erickson
Spring Takes Time
Supplements: Full presentation of Monolog for a Taxi Driver (GDR, TV, 1962, 37 min.); Interview with Günter Stahnke, (2014, 12 min.). DVD-Rom text essays: Symbol and Signal by Detlef Kannapin, film historian; Constructive Stylization by Annette Dorgerloh, Humboldt University Berlin; The Late Spring by Dieter Wolf, former head of artistic group Babelsberg; text biographies & filmographies; original posters (1965 and 1990); gallery of set design sketches by Georg Kranz, set designer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 10, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson