The Woman and the Stranger
The Woman and the Stranger & The Mistake
DEFA / UMass Amherst
1984, 1991 / Color /1:66 flat letterbox / Die Frau und der Fremde; Verfehlung / Street Date November 9, 2009 / available online at the DEFA Film Library Website
Starring Kathrin Waligura, Joachim Lätsch, Pter Zimmerman; Angelica Domröse, Gottfried John, Jörg Gudzuhn.
Cinematography Roland Dressel, Martin Schlesinger
Original Music Reiner Bredemeyer, Stefan Carow
Written by Rainer Simon; Wolfram Witt, Heiner Carow
Produced by DEFA
Directed by Rainer Simon, Heiner Carow
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
We've been enjoying East German movies from the DEFA studio for years, mostly through First Run Features: the political thriller The Murderers are Among Us, the Sci-Fi The Silent Star and the crazy musical Hot Summer. For some time now DEFA has been releasing its titles as educational fare, directly through The University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass). Just last year we reported on the rare Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?, a pro-communist movie made in Germany just as the Nazis were taking power.
The two separate titles in this review were release in July and August of 2009 and are available at the website above; they're intended for institutional viewing but I had access to them and have decided to give them a review. The movies are interesting and well made, but the transfers and encodings have "issues". More on that below.
From 1984 The Woman and the Stranger is from a book by Leonhard Frank; unlike many East German pictures, it avoids present-day politics by being set at the end of WW1. It was also suppressed for twenty years but the stated reason is literary rights, not party censorship. DEFA's promotional material say that it is the only East German film to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, held in the West.
The basic idea has seen frequent use in literature and film. Two German prisoners of war labor somewhere in Russia, digging an enormous cross-shaped trench, an abstract mission that allows them plenty of private time to share their thoughts. These tend to be poetic and somewhat theatrical, but work very well considering the context. Richard (Peter Zimmerman) is married to and in love with Anna, who he hasn't seen in years; he keeps his sanity by describing every facet of his life with her to his buddy Karl (Joachim Lätsch). Karl in turn cries because he has no woman to go home to. But Richard is taken away to the East on some other kind of work detail. When the war is over, Karl walks all the way to Richard's German city, finds Anna (Kathrin Waligura) and begins behaving as if he were her husband. He knows all about her and about the apartment, even that the sink needs fixing. The neighbors come to believe that Anna's husband has come home. Eventually Karl tells Anna the truth. She has a paper from the government certifying that Richard died in a POW camp, so she accepts Karl (now going by the name Richard). But just when they've settled down and are expecting their first child, guess who shows up, having been held extra years in a far-off labor camp .... ?
The Woman and the Stranger has an excellent feel for faces and places. Particularly good is the neighborhood housing block with its gossips, playing children (we're reminded of old pictures like The Last Laugh) and newlyweds taking special vows at a local statue. The excellent script (by the director, Rainer Simon, said to be an established talent at DEFA) keeps our interest and the actors, especially Ms. Waligura, are charming. It's a good show.
The second film jumps ahead to 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It's a Wende film, a name given to anything having to do with the collapse of the oppressive East German Communist government. Some Wende films made just before the wall came down were considered instantly obsolete and did poorly, like the excellent The Architects from 1990. The Mistake focuses on a particular injustice as seen through the framework of a love story. Director Heiner Carow had a fluke blockbuster hit (in East German terms) with his 1974 screwball romance The Legend of Paul and Paula; here he uses the same actress, the excellent Angelica Domröse, playing a youngish grandmother trapped in a collectivist catch-22.
Free spirit Elisabeth (Domröse) stays cheerful by bathing nude with her grandsons in a wading pool and doing her best at her job as housekeeper for the boorish, alcoholic Mayor Reimelt (Jörg Gudzuhn), who makes frequent unwanted passes. Elisabeth has two grown sons. The first participates in illegal protests with other dissenters, while the other is a married go-getter East Berliner determined to do well at work to win special favors, like a better apartment and car, and a vacation. Elisabeth is cruelly criticized but expected to drop what she's doing to care for his boys whenever the son wants. But Elisabeth meets a visitor from Hamburg, a sailor named Jacob Alain (Gottfried John of Goldeneye and several other 90s Hollywood films). They fall in love and begin a torrid romance. They're just getting around to figuring out how she can slip away to the West to be with Jacob forever when they discover they're being followed: incensed that "his" Elisabeth should be involved with another man, Reimelt has turned them in to the Stasi police.
The Mistake is an absorbing show somewhere between a romance and the paranoia of The Lives of Others. East Germany isn't seen as a necessarily horrible place, but with the various privations and lack of opportunities, it's not very attractive. The main recreation among adults appears to be getting drunk at parties. Elisabeth's ambitious son is a thoughtless jerk but no more so than many people elbowing their way forward in our capitalist system. Where things get bad is in the application of the law. The mayor carries little authority to do anything constructive but wields plenty of clout should he decide to denounce somebody. In this case it's obvious that he'll make Elisabeth and Jacob suffer for thwarting his plan to make Elisabeth his mistress.
Angelica Domröse charts her character from unhappy employee to nervous girlfriend, never taking a false step. She and Jacob are continually frustrated by an inability to find privacy for themselves. Late for a Christmas meeting, he discovers that she's given up and gotten drunk instead -- but he instantly understands why. When it looks like Reimelt has ruined her chance at happiness, Elisabeth first undergoes a breakdown of morale, a depression made worse by the arrest and torture of her dissident son. She then makes a very costly decison.
DEFA and UMass's separate releases of The Woman and the Stranger & The Mistake are worthy titles that unfortunately have not been given a good mastering for DVD. The problems appear to stem from a poor conversion from PAL or SECAM to NTSC. Colors are not the best but the picture pixillates on sharp motion and odd banding turns up whenever the camera pans left or right ... it's not pretty. The Woman and the Stranger fares slightly better as the transfer looks a little more stable. But the image still breaks up in the same way. UMass is distributing these films for educational purposes and they're both worthy dramas, but UMass should reconsider how viewers will regard these serious flaws.
Audio is good on both titles. The language is German with English subtitles.
Both films come with biographies and filmographies. The Woman and the Stranger has a brief interview with director Rainer Simon, who can't remember much about the film because it was relatively easy to get made, unlike so many projects that were stopped or ruined by official committees. The Mistake has several DVD-Rom text extras, essays, a review and an interview with director Heiner Carow. Another extra is a very good little promo on the Wende Museum right here in Los Angeles, in Culver City. I wasn't aware of it but it has a website.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Woman and the Stranger & The Mistake rates:
Video: Fair -- / Poor ++
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 18, 2010
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson
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