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DVD SAVANT

The Rabbit is Me


The Rabbit is Me
First Run / Defa
1965 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 109 min. / Das kaninchen bin ich / Street Date March 25, 2008 / 24.95
Starring Angelika Waller, Alfred Müller, Irma Münch, Ilse Voigt, Wolfgang Winkler
Cinematography Erich Gusko
Production Design Alfred Thomalia
Film Editor Helga Krause
Original Music Reiner Bredemeyer, Gerhard Rosenfeld
Written by Kurt Maetzig, Manfred Bieler from his novel
Produced by Martin Sonnabend
Directed by Kurt Maetzig

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

First Run Features' series of East German releases has so far concentrated on movies with carefully controlled political themes. 1949's Rotation is less concerned with its story than with claiming that West Germans and Americans are colluding with ex-Nazis. 1967's Hot Summer tries to counter 'decadent' western youth films with its own version of a beach party movie, complete with insipid musical numbers.

But the East German studios did produce a few exceptions that deviated from the ideology of the party line. In one particular season in late 1964, a change in Soviet leadership signaled a relaxed cultural outlook to the satellite states. The filmmakers at Deutsche Film (DEFA) were actually encouraged to challenge the status quo. This brought on a brief flurry of features critical of the socialist state. The political wind-shift lasted only a few months, at which point conditions returned to a 'normal' state of everyday repression. Previously approved releases were banned, and several filmmakers were shorn of their careers. A dozen or so completed films were refused distribution or pulled from theaters, and a couple of pictures were halted in the editorial stage. All were immediately banned, to remain unscreened in locked vaults until the Berlin Wall came down twenty-five years later.

The notorious group of banned 1965 features was dubbed 'The Rabbit Films', after Kurt Maetzig's The Rabbit is Me, a spicy bit of realism that amounts to a full frontal assault on the notion of justice in East Germany. Beautiful Angelika Waller plays Maria Morzeck, a college hopeful eager to major in Russian and get a good job "as a translator -- or travel agent." Those plans are ruined when her older brother Dieter (Wolfgang Winkler) is arrested for anti-socialist slander. This is before the Berlin Wall has split Berlin in two, and Dieter's frequent trips to the western sector have already attracted suspicion. Maria and her Aunt Hete (Ilse Voigt) are expelled from Dieter's trial for reasons of National Security, and he goes to prison for three years. Interrogated by a school official, Maria refuses to condemn her brother, an attitude that puts an end to her scholarship: "I don't even know what he's supposed to have done." She has no choice but to take a job as a waitress, fending off the advances of lonely men. When Maria eventually succumbs to the advances of a persistent, well-off customer, she discovers that he's Paul Deister (Alfred Müller), the judge that convicted her brother.

Maria falls in love and becomes Diester's mistress. Further complications ensue at the Diester vacation house, where they see a fisherman get in hot legal water for publicly insulting the military when drunk. Although the locals understand the need for legal flexibility, Diester holds to a draconian position. Maria leaves Diester when he answers her questions about her brother's case with platitudes and double-talk -- Diester's at the top of the legal system yet balks at a simple explanation of his principles. Confronted at the country house by Diester's jealous wife (Irma Münch), Maria finds an air rifle pointed at her head. "It's only for hunting rabbits," says the wife, and Maria realizes that she's the rabbit, in more ways than one.

The Rabbit is Me tackles a sticky theme with a good humor atypical for East German films. Charmingly independent, the attractive Maria fends off the customers at the cafe with knowing remarks. Only the school and prison officials are incapable of understanding a joke; they seem duty-bound to disapprove of any and all natural human behaviors. Out at the lake community, the local mayor is also the tax collector and chief law enforcement official. He retains a human perspective on political problems that Paul Diester seems to have lost. Maria finally understands Diester's motivation when he asks her to help him turn fashionably liberal. Now that the Berlin wall has gone up and things in East Berlin have 'settled down,' Diester doesn't need to be so harsh on minor political offenders. If Maria withdraws her petition for a pardon for her brother, it will help Diester readjust to the new order of things.

(Spoiler) Thus Maria discovers just how corrupt the East German legal system has become. Diester was ruthlessly harsh on her brother for careerist reasons, to protect his position from competitors in the legal system. Now that things are more relaxed, he wants Maria's help to erect a more liberal facade. In other words, Diester and the court system have little or no commitment to justice; the lives of people like Maria and her brother mean nothing.

The Rabbit is Me is breathtakingly daring when one considers when and where it was made, the East Germany of The Lives of Others in which STASI agents are intent on rooting out every malcontent and ideologically suspect artist. When the political tide reversed itself, director Kurt Maetzig survived the wrath of the Communist committees only because he was a founding member of DEFA and one of the industry's best-established artists. First Run has already released Maetzig's fascinating 1960 Science Fiction epic The Silent Star, in which every speech champions the Soviet bloc's humanist values over the aggressive, warlike United States. The Rabbit is Me holds out hope for a cultural reawakening that never happened. Near its conclusion, Maria bathes standing up naked in a tub, a scene clearly symbolic of washing away the lies of her relationship with Paul Diester. The movie is too intelligent to be considered propaganda of any kind. It's funny, compassionate and highly recommended.


First Run Features' disc of The Rabbit is Me is a clean B&W transfer from well preserved elements. The English subtitles are removable. The extras on this release are even more illuminating than is usual for a DEFA import. Director Kurt Maetzig talks at length about the effects of the ban, and regrets having to state publicly that his film was an error. The pro-Maetzig argument during the investigation was that he got involved in the movie by accident, when the director actually instigated the film and helped author Manfred Bieler with the adaptation. Other lesser-known artists were effectively blacklisted. The entire affair with the "Rabbit Films" demonstrates that ideological witch hunts were a fixture in every political system.

A separate interview allows former Minister of Culture Hans Bentzien to explain the specific party politics behind the Rabbit Films incident. He comes off as a well-meaning functionary in a Kafka-like bureaucracy. More interesting is a piece that presents film clips of other banned shows. One depicts a couple of anti-social nonconformists, but by and large none seem as interesting as Maetzig's. University of Massachusetts professor Betheny Moore Roberts contributes an insightful text essay on The Rabbit is Me and the Banned Films of 1965/66. She says that the backlash against the Rabbit Films centered on the notion that the younger generation shouldn't be questioning the socialist revolution that suffered so badly under the Nazis -- even though director Maetzig was 54 when he made the film, and his part-Jewish family had suffered terribly in the 1930s and 40s.

The disc extras round out with some bio-filmographies of the director and his stars. The packaging promises some newsreels about the film, but they don't appear on the disc menus. The image on the disc cover is of the unhappy wife, not the star Angelika Waller.  1


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Rabbit is Me rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interviews with director Kurt Maetzig and former Minister of Culture Hans Bentzien, text essay, docu on banned films, biographies and filmographies.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 30, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

Footnotes:

1. Note from reader George Godwin, April 17, 2008:
George says that if one puts the Rabbit is Me disc in a computer player and select "VTS_10_1", the promised newsreels do indeed appear and play; In other words, the disc has a menuing error. I no longer have my review copy, so I've missed them.

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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