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One thing is clear in the films of postwar Germany -- the East Germans spent 43 years reminding their population that Communism had liberated them from Nazi tyranny and that the glorious GDR had abolished things like anti-Semitism. The DEFA Film Library has brought us East German films with strong pro-Soviet and anti-West messages, movies that attempted to provide alternatives to 'decadent' entertainment from the West, and a few where the ideology isn't so pronounced.
One very interesting East German title we've had access to is 1988's The Architects, a film surprisingly open about the desire of East Berliners to abandon their country for the West. But it didn't have a chance with the public, as the fall of the Berlin Wall made its theme instantly obsolete. The Architects split most of that year's Eberswalde Film Awards with an equally remarkable DEFA film produced in color, The Actress (Die Schauspielerin). It took home prizes for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction but most notably for Best Actress, won by a remarkably talented woman named Corinna Harfouch. Her knockout performance in The Actress is on par with any leading player anywhere. Unlike many other East German actors, Ms. Harfouch's career did not end when the sometimes harsh East German arts system collapsed -- see the superlative political thriller/horror story The Lives of Others. Many of us have seen Harfouch's chilling portrayal of Josef Goebbel's wife in the excellent 2004 film Downfall.
The Actress takes place in 1930s Germany but is not a history lesson about evil events. Provincial stage actress Maria Rheine (Corinna Harfouch) is frustrated that she's not getting the roles she wants until she's invited to join a theater company in Munich. The great news is tempered by the fact that her lover Mark Löenthal (André Hennicke) can't accompany her or even audition in Munich; the anti-Jewish laws have already made things difficult for his family. But Mark does go to Berlin, where the Nazis have set up a special Jewish Kulturbund Theatre -- with artists, advertising and attendance restricted to the Jewish community.
Maria's career takes off when Party officials in Munich laud her as the perfect representative of the Aryan ideal -- blue-eyed and blonde. She's fierce in her performances of Joan of Arc -- especially scenes in which the warrior Joan rails against the English invaders. Realizing that he and Maria can't be seen together -- especially after new laws strictly forbid fraternization between Aryans and Jews -- Mark breaks off their relationship and takes up with an actress in the Kulturbund. Maria sees the persecution of the Jews in Munich, and becomes more aware of the 'political' nature of the kinds of parts she is asked to play. To perform the 'religious fanatic' Joan, she secretly models herself after a Girl's Nazi Youth leader, who goes into a rage while shouting the values of the Reich. The critics love this interpretation, and the word gets out that Maria's career could have no limits. She instead throws it all away for love by taking a shockingly risky step -- she fakes her own death, buys a phony passport and changes her identity to Marya, Mark's wife. The noose is tightening around the entire Jewish population of Munich, yet she chooses to stay with him.
Beautifully produced and acted in all respects, The Actress need make no excuses. It's an anomaly in that nothing in its content makes it readily identifiable as a product of East Germany. It shows events from a subjective viewpoint, with the assumption that the audience already knows what fate lies in store for Jews that cannot or will not escape. The 1933 anti-Jewish laws are a serious event, and a title informs us in 1935 more oppressive laws are levied against anyone with Jewish blood. We know that it is 1936 because 'Marya' Löenthal is seen in a crowd with Olympic flags flying overhead. At one point the director of the Kulturbund Theatre announces bad news, and we expect to hear that they're all going to be arrested, or at least their theater outlawed. No, they're just moving to a new location, as their present building has been condemned. Several characters dream of exit visas they know they cannot obtain, but we don't know what is required to get one. The story ends before the war begins, before the Jews' plight became inescapable. The Actress doesn't point this out because the characters didn't have crystal balls to tell them exactly what would happen. Here in the States, a movie that didn't bring the entire holocaust into the story, would be accused of avoiding the issue.
A strong story of love among romantic actors, The Actress avoids nothing. It's about intolerable conditions, not delivering a sermon. Maria Rheine is a headstrong personality accustomed to getting her way. She can't stop acting for a moment, whether trying on the star's costume when nobody's looking ("I should have that part") or getting Mark's attention in a Greek play by demanding that he be more demonstrative in a love scene. She strings along another actor to fill the time. She's never in doubt, at least not romantic doubt. She trades a glamorous stage life for hiding out in an apartment, dyeing her hair and wearing frumpy dresses. Nobody has yet been forced to wear Stars of David, but the neighbors are already giving the Löenthals dirty looks. Their future is doubtful. Any other movie would be constantly reminding us that they must get out of the country. But The Actress is not a thriller; that option isn't open to people with normal incomes and no connections.
Meryl Streep would have wanted this role. Maria Rheine. She is constantly testing out her acting in front of mirrors, with her colleagues and of course on stage. She keeps a photo of Marlene Dietrich on her makeup mirror. We see the one 'happy' play, a scene where the Greek heroine embraces her lover and then declares that she's drunk with love. Director Siegfried Kühn keeps several separate backstage environments (the little theater, Munich, the Berlin Jewish Theatre) straight, and heightens Maria's star performance by using a large stage turntable for changing scenery (it's quite a construction) as a choreographic element -- Maria appears to glide back and forth before the camera. As played by Ms. Harfouch, Maria is no paragon but a strong-willed woman willing to stake her life on her desires.
The final scene pulls off a pretty slick trick that presents several themes all at once. Having erased her own identity and put herself in jeopardy by living with a Jew, Maria/Marya has claimed that she can't possibly go on stage at the Kulturbund Theatre - her faked suicide will be found out. Yet we see her auditioning for a role there and making a huge impression on the judges (and us). She plays Judith, the Biblical Hebrew lover-patriot-assassin in a classic play by Christian Friedrich Hebbel. The scene gives us an 'Aryan' princess who pretends to be Jewish to play a Hebrew character much like Joan of Arc, but a fighter for Jewish freedom. This heroine saves her people by crossing over to the enemy side, becoming the enemy general's lover, and then murdering him. Maria/Marya/Judith can now employ her fiery talent for her new chosen comrades.
The movie is a refreshing addition to the backstage intrigue drama. In a way, Maria/Marya's seemingly unwise choice does make a little sense -- if non-Jews can't attend the performances, her chances of being unmasked as a runaway stage star are lessened. Corinna Harfouch and André Hennicke make a fine romantic couple, and the movie happily dispenses with cliché's like professional jealousy. When 'Marya' arrives unexpectedly on Mark's doorstep, he just tells his lover from the theater that his wife is back and it's all over. Maria has a rich friend with government connections willing to help her fake her suicide and to secure new identity papers for her. Who would think that somebody would ask for fake Jewish I.D.? Director Kühn's designers create a plausible Berlin with only a few crowd scenes, and we never feel as if the production is cutting corners.
Movies about Nazi Germany in this period are almost always tragic, sad, horrible or all of the above. The Actress acknowledges the grim reality while telling a highly attractive romantic story. It leaves us impressed by its dynamic main character, who knows very well that her story will not have a happy ending.
The DEFA Film Library's DVD of The Actress is a winner deserving of a mainstream release. It's true that some DEFA releases are more appropriate for academic use, but fans of good drama will love Corinna Harfouch -- just don't remind them that in Downfall she plays a character who poisons her own children.
The handsome transfer has excellent color, especially in such beautiful scenes as a shot of a giant ugly National Socialist statue being carted through a pre-dawn street. The audio is also recorded and mixed well; Maria likes to listen to American blues records, and some Chopin music is used in counterpoint with composer Stefan Carow's new cues.
The disc contains DVD-Rom text articles on the Kulturbund Theatre, director Kün and actress Harfouch, by Rebecca Rovit, Deiter Wolf and Victoria Lizo Renshyn. We also get Eduard Schreiber's 1989 movie Traces, a study of the elderly actor Martin Brandt, who plays a small role in The Actress and had a fairly important one in Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg. A member of the Kulturbund Theatre during the years covered in the movie, Brandt is said to have escaped Nazi Germany at the very last moment in 1941; in his first American film Thirteen Rue Madeleine he played opposite James Cagney... as a Nazi officer.
I'm told that The Actress "was not part of the DEFA mainstream" and so perhaps did not have to follow the Party line in all matters. The DEFA Film Library has plans to distribute more of Siegfried Kühn's films on Region 1 DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Actress DVD
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.