Film directors trying to express themselves in East Germany had a tough row to hoe, yet quite a few of them dared to stray beyond the confines of social realism. The DEFA Film Library has two new releases from 1966 that were banned and shelved before they could be finished — and weren’t seen until they were patched together in 1990.
When You’re Older, Dear Adam
Defa Film Library
1966-1990 / Color / 2:35 / 74 min. / Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam / Street Date April, 2016 / Available from the DEFA Umass Film Library / 29.95 (separate release)
Starring: Stephan Jahnke, Gerry Wolff, Manfred Krug, Daisy Granados, Rolf Römer, Hanns Anselm Perten, Wolfgang Greese, Günther Simon.
Cinematography Helmut Grewald
Film Editor Monika Schindler
Original Music Kurt Zander
Written by Egon Günther, Helga Schütz
Produced by DEFA
Directed by Egon Günther
Berlin Around the Corner
Defa Film Library
1966-90 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 83 min. / Berlin um die ecke / Street Date April, 2016 / Available at DEFA Umaas Film Library / 29.95 (separate release)
Starring: Dieter Mann, Monika Gabriel, Erwin Geschonneck, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Kaspar Eichel, Harald Warmbrunn.
Cinematography Peter Krause
Film Editor Evelyn Carow
Original Music Georg Katzer
Written by Gerhard Klein, Wolfgang Kohlhaase
Produced by DEFA
Directed by Gerhard Klein
The DEFA film library has already given us several East German films that were banned in the year 1965, when the party operatives cleaned house of undesirable productions. Most, like The Rabbit is Me (Das kaninchen bin ich) or the recently-reviewed Spring Takes Time (Der Frühling braucht Zeit) had premiered or were in release when an executive order yanked them from theater screens and reassigned their makers to less attractive duty, like TV work. But these two new releases smothered in the womb, when in the work print stage. Therefore they weren’t finished until the Berlin Wall fell 24 years later.
When You’re Older, Dear Adam is a light fantasy with a child as a main character. It’s filmed in anamorphic Totalvision, and a very attractive Eastern German color process called ORWO (ORiginal WOlfen), that has an interesting history of its own. The movie is supposed to be a cheery and inoffensive light satire about everyday life and innovation in the East German ‘worker’s paradise.’ Anybody with an inkling of how draconian the DDR could be, can imagine how unwelcome some of the content seen here must have been. A hint: the ideological frost initiated by the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED Party was called Kahlschlag, which means “clear-cutting.”
Much like the American fantasy of the late 1940s The Boy with Green Hair, Egon Günther and Helga Schütz’s When You’re Older, Dear Adam begs to be interpreted. Young Adam (Stephan Jahnke) wishes his mother weren’t working in a distant city. Rowing in the park of his beautiful hometown of Dresden, Adam is given a flashlight by a (magic?) swan. When the flashlight is aimed at somebody who is not telling the truth, that person becomes weightless and floats in the air. Adam’s father Tember (Gerry Wolf) is a research scientist who takes on the job of mass-producing copies of the flashlight. Nobody seems to take the flashlight seriously, nor do we hear what use will be made of the copies. It certainly doesn’t make anybody happy. Adam finds that almost everybody lies, and when he loans it to his father’s assistants Erasmus (Rolf Römer) & Caroline Daisy Granados of Alea’s Memorias del subdesarollo) they discover that each is lying about loving the other.
The real purpose of the movie is vague, but we certainly notice a mild criticism of Tember’s workplace. Tember avoids managerial responsibility at all costs. The serving manager of the research lab / factory duplicating the flashlights admits freely that he doesn’t know how to do his job; he just tries to butter up the somewhat pompous Minister of Production (Günther Simon of The Silent Star). A problem arises with the manufacture, which is okay because nobody seems to want the flashlight anyway. Meanwhile, Adam has fun with his father’s associates and waits for his mother to return.
When You’re Older, Dear Adam seems to be a gentle way to poke fun at the industrial hierarchy, which suggests that real state-run businesses were a mess of inefficiency and incompetence. Unless there are hidden topical meanings in some of the plot points, it seems a rather fuzzy allegory. Nobody seems all that impressed by an anti-gravity device… people could just say a fib under the light and float skyward like The Flying Nun. No, everybody who tries the flashlight doesn’t like it, and the lovers that hope to use it to confirm their love are disappointed as well. Thinking they’ve been given the one functioning original, various characters get rid of the flashlight without guilt or doubt.
There are plenty of stories about a magic spell or whatnot that forces people to tell the truth; Jim Carrey made a pretty funny movie called Liar Liar (1997). Perhaps a more apt similar story is Alexander Mackendrick & Alec Guinness’s science fiction fantasy The Man in the White Suit, about a miraculous invention that is so revolutionary that everyone wants it suppressed. When You’re Older, Dear Adam seems content to be a low-key comedy about some fairly ordinary people. Because nobody is particularly impressed by the fantastic levitating flashlight, it’s not clear what the film’s dramatic intentions were.
Some of the images at the beginning have a ‘flat graphic’ look that takes advantage of the Totalscope screen for wide compositions. There are no bold graphic flourishes, at least not as the film was finished (I’ll explain in a second). The special effects are okay, but nothing outrageous. A film crew come to cover it don’t think it’s very special either. Erasmus and Caroline are in for a couple of musical numbers, which are nicely shot but also rather tame. The choreography is just a couple of dance turns (see the outrageously silly DEFA musical Hot Summer) and the camera doesn’t do anything either.
When You’re Older, Dear Adam was shelved when in work print form. We’re told that its makers more or less knew that their show was all but doomed even as they were filming it. Not only was it locked away, some whole scenes and audio for others was thrown away. The experts think that some of what was tossed was the ideologically offensive material. The 1990 restoration is an attempt to reconstruct the work print. Script pages (subtitled) of missing scenes and dialogue pop up every once in a while. It looks like some shots are present to fill gaps. An early shot with Adam standing on a roof is a stage wait, which even includes an unwanted crewmember’s head peeking into the shot. But as assembled most of the show seems intact. We are a bit unsure what’s going on when music plays over two-shots of people talking and no speech is heard or subtitled — was that the plan?
The DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst tells us that Gerhard Klein and Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s Berlin Around the Corner had to be pieced together as well, but the show we see looks and sounds great, with only an occasional bit of rough audio. Klein and Kohlhasse’s biggest film was the fairly well-known Berlin -Schönhauser Corner from 1957, a look at disaffected teenagers that are into rock ‘n’ roll instead of the approved socialist youth associations. Content that we would call propaganda is strongly stressed — a kid who tries to defect is received by West German agents in league with United States spies.
We’re told that the team made two more ‘Berlin’ films. Filmed roughly ten years later, this fourth tale is a realistic, adult look at the reality for some disaffected young factory workers. Young factory worker Dieter (Ekkehard Schall from Berlin -Schönhauser Corner) is upset by the bureaucratic rules that keep him and his young friends below the pay grade of older workers. Dieter and a less reliable friend get in trouble when they pad their time cards, and engage in various rip-offs outside of work. They also chase girls. While the friend makes a fast score at a dance, Dieter commits himself to the pursuit of the gorgeous Karin (Monika Gabriel). Karin sings and sometimes works as a film actress, but her day job is in the kitchen of a distant factory. Separated from her husband, she’s attracted to Dieter despite the fact that he has no money and wears a black leather jacket. Dieter finds himself at the middle of a labor dispute. To infuriate their union, he and his buddy purposely work twice as hard and show management that everybody could be more productive. Unlike his friend, Dieter begins to feel a sense of comradeship on of the work floor. The elderly manager Hutte (Hans Hardt-Hardtioff) wants Dieter fired but ends up giving him good advice. The beloved machinist Paul Krautmann (Erwin Geschonneck of Kuhle Wampe, Sun Seekers and Naked Among Wolves) works overtime milling repair parts for the machines, and even little screws that can’t be found due to industrial shortages. Paul worries so much that he has a heart attack. Dieter listens to these men, and gains some perspective on his situation. As a result, Karin gravitates toward a relationship with him.
The excellent Berlin Around the Corner is a mature look at labor problems in industry, that would apply on either side of the Berlin Wall. It’s honest about problems in the factory, mostly procurement of materials and labor grievances. The immature young workers got factory jobs and were trained for special skills, but now are mostly concerned that they’re being exploited. The older workers aren’t sympathetic because they are old enough to remember the war and the years of hardship that followed. Some carry a cloud of fear over their heads. Paul is convinced that things could go bad again, at any time, which is why he’s made frantic by small problems, such as when the workers wastefully leave their machines running while they go on breaks. The film’s labor meeting is not the kind of Soviet nonsense where people stand up to make speeches about Lenin or dedicate themselves to work harder while waving flowers. There’s an intelligent discussion of differences but also workers that want to ignore the whole business. I can’t see that scene making the Party bosses happy.
Dieter has a portable radio (think for: listening to Western broadcasts) and wears his leather jacket and cowboy hat on his motorbike to announce his rebel status. Any East German committee would freak out at the idea of making him a hero: he punches out an old man, rips off an old lady and beds the girl in a scene with a fleeting slice of decadent Western-style nudity. But the whole point is that Dieter is a Prodigal Son who can be redeemed. He listens when the old manager tells him to relax, because he’s going to inherit everything the older generation fought for. And he begins to identify with Paul, a marvelous old guy who only wants to contribute his bit to the work effort. At the end Dieter is taking off with his new girlfriend in hopes of a better job elsewhere. I’m not sure that the East German Authorities would have approved of that notion either – many workers considered essential didn’t have the freedom to jump to more desirable jobs.
Director Gerhard Klein Berlin series was unfortunately stopped with this worthy final chapter. As both star Ekkehard Schall, the two Berlin pictures now out on disc are a great double bill about East German rebels without a cause. The production makes fine use of locations in Berlin and its gritty docudrama look compares with English kitchen sink dramas of the time. The acting is excellent and Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s intelligent screenplay lets us discover the characters in a natural way. It works, as Dieter begins as bad news but warms up as he starts to act more responsibly to those around him. The authorities were unmoved: Klein’s film was banned for “portraying generational conflict as insurmountable, exaggerating problems in manufacturing, and showing socialist reality as unfriendly and dreary.” No, I’m still not ready to move to East Berlin of 1966.
Writer Wolfgang Kohlhaase tells the story of the film in a ten-minute video interview. The way he tells it, having one’s movies censored or banned was par for the course. Once again, because the tide had changed, he and Klein knew they were in trouble before they were finished. When they had the work print and mix done, nobody wanted to see their film. Gerhardt Klein; career ended very soon. He was only able to shoot one segment of a movie the next year, while another project several years later went unfinished. Kohlhasse had it somewhat better — he was demoted to TV and worked on films that ‘wouldn’t offend anybody.’
Berlin Around the Corner was also finished for the first time in 1990, and looks very good. Apparently all the negative was saved (?) because the film quality is very good, as is the case with When You’re Older, Dear Adam.
The Umass custodians of the DEFA library have prepared a touring film screening series of their collection called Banned! DEFA’s Forbidden Films of 1965-66.
The DEFA Film Library DVDs of When You’re Older, Dear Adam & Berlin Around the Corner are both excellent encodings. As stated above, Dear Adam is in color and enhanced for widescreen; the Totalvision image looks a standard 2.35:1. Berlin is B&W flat full screen.
I had trouble bringing up the English titles on one Blu-ray player but everything played find when I switched to another. Also, on the player I used Berlin defaulted to widescreen and I had to manually change the scan back to 4:3.
The films come with an assortment of text essays encoded as DVD-Rom material covering the shows from both artistic and historical points of view. The full list is below.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When You’re Older, Dear Adam and Berlin Around the Corner
DVDs (separate purchases) rate:
Movies: Adam Good; Berlin Excellent
Video: both Excellent
Sound: both Good
Supplements, Adam: Biographies & Filmographies, A Process of Searching: When You’re Older, Dear Adam by Lukas Foerster, film historian; A Photogenic Set Design by art historian Marcus Becker, Humboldt University Berlin; Released 25 Years Later by Erika Richter and Rolf Richter, film historians.
Supplements, Berlin: Biographies & Filmographies; Berlin Chapter IV by Henning Wrage, Gettysburg College; Jeans, Leather Jacket, Cowboy Hat: The Costume Design Concept in Berlin around the Corner by Annette Dorgerloh, Humboldt University Berlin; Official Decision Statement on Berlin around the Corner (1966); a 2001 Interview with Scriptwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase (11min).
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Separate purchases, each with one DVD in keep case
Reviewed: April 22, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson