A product of the current collaboration between First Run Features and German distrib IceStorm Frank Beyer's Spur der Steine a.k.a Trace of Stones (1966), a film banned by East German authorities for twenty five years, is a surprisingly frank caricature of the now-defunct state and the ideology that inspired it.
Hannes Balla (Manfred Grug) is an outspoken and overconfident man whose antics have earned him the respect of his co-workers. At the construction site where Balla earns a living he is also the spiritual leader of a group of eccentrics whose actions are a threat to the workers' moral. A forceful Party Secretary is promptly sent to the site, together with the charismatic engineer Kati (Krystyna Stypulkowska), to restore order. But instead of peace and progress the construction site will become the stage for a controversial love triangle.
Based on Erik Neutsch's novel of the same title Trace of Stones is a free-spirited, sharp, and impressively well-acted satire whose critical undertones are indeed as far reaching as I have seen in East German cinema. Surprisingly frank and at times openly dismissive of the socio-political restrictions imposed by GDR's elite the film uses a friendly language which is obviously misleading.
During the first half of the story Balla and his closest friends are seen unceremoniously disregarding an official Party procession in favor of a local bistro. Under the influence of alcohol the group strips naked and jumps in a public fountain while stunned visitors and workers from the construction site observe them. A policeman attempts to address the group only to eventually find himself drenched with water. The scene is bold and openly-provocative.
What follows up does not surprise. The film veers off in a familiar direction where Beyer carefully walks the fine line of socialistic lessoning: massive collective meetings where workers are seen debating Balla's behavior become the focus of attention. In the middle of this incredibly disturbing and artificial environment a love affair comes to life - illogical, unexpected, and controversial. Then the story ends.
Shocking? Not really.
Trace of Stones actively brings back to life a time when even the most absurd of ideas were flagged as normal - the collective "evaluation" of those who did not fit the Party puppet-profile, accusations of immorality, the subversive spin on anything and anyone who did not follow the path mapped out by the communist apparatchiks. It is quite a surreal experience to see how incredibly controlled even the most intimate of thoughts and desires were.
As a character study Trace of Stones is just as impressive, though at times shockingly bold given the conditions under which it was filmed. There is a rebellious sense of nonchalance which as expected did not sit well with the state censorship leading to the film's eventual banning. Obviously, however, even during a time of enormous creative stagnation directors found ways to expose and ridicule successfully those who regarded themselves as untouchable. Trace of Stones is an excellent example how it was all done.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 but not enhanced for widescreen TVs the print provided by First Run Features appears to have been sourced from a PAL port without the proper conversion adjustments. As a result there is plenty of "blurring" and "ghosting" which becomes very distracting as the film progresses. Aside from that the overall quality of the print is rather impressive: it is clean, with a good contrast, and a passable color reproduction (black and white). Yet, the PAL-NTSC conversion issues noted above negate just about everything positive I have to say.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with a German DD track and burnt-in English subtitles the audio is passable. The dialog is clear and easy to follow. Still the fact that the subtitles are imposed might be drawback for some. I did not detect any audio drop outs or hissing(s).
There is a great text essay which explains the history behind Trace of Stones, how the film came to exist, and what it was meant to reveal. It is interesting to note that there was a specific political message behind it: to capture a social reality which was in total contrast with that promoted by Western cinema. Next, there is another text-piece titled Censored! Traces of Stones where the fate of the film is addressed and specifically the manner in which SED managed to censor it. Next, there is an interview with Krystyna Stypulkowska, the actress who played Kati, in which she recalls her unconventional character. The interview is extremely interesting as the actress talks about some of the political conditions as well as specifically addressing Kati and what she was meant to represent within context of the story. Next, there are Biographies and Filmographies also supplied in a text format. Finally, there is the original DEFA theatrical trailer.
I am especially fond of these little seen in North America, if at all, Eastern German films First Run Features are now releasing through their collaboration with DEFA. These are works that offer a tremendous opportunity to witness a style of filmmaking, and to a certain degree a piece of history, which was never examined properly on this side of the Atlantic. Unfortunately as much as I enjoyed Trace of Stones I am going to only recommend that you rent it given some of the technical issues described above.