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Der Bärenhäuter (The Bear-Skinned Man)

1986, East Germany, 82 minutes, color
Director: Walter Beck
Screenplay: Walter Beck
Director of Photography: Günter Heimann
Music: Günther Fischer
Actors: Jens-Uwe Bogadtke (Christoffel), Janina Hartwig (Katarina), Pedro Hebenstreit (Crow/Devil), Manfred Heine (the Green One), Hans Teuscher (Duke), Heidemarie Wenzel (Baroness), Dieter Wien (Osmund), Gerhard Vogt (Poldi), Leon Niemczyk (Niklaus), Fred Delmare (Gustav), Marina Krogull (Susanne), Trude Brentina (Old Woman)
Based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm
VHS-PAL, no subtitles - renting information


When Christoffel returns from war, he finds that his family's house has been reduced to rubble and that his parents have died.  In a desperate state of mind, he makes a pact with the devil.  Christoffel receives from him a magic jacket-- whenever he reaches into the pocket, he finds more and more gold coins.  But in order to keep the coat, Christoffel is not allowed to wash, cut or comb his hair, or shave for seven years.  Furthermore, he may only sleep on a bear skin on the floor.  If he keeps his promise, he may keep the coat.  If not, he will be in service to the devil forever. 

Christoffel thinks this will be an easy enough promise to keep.  After all, he has just returned from war!  But he soon finds that money can not buy friends, and that no amount of riches can compensate for a lack of society.  For the longer Christoffel goes unwashed, the more people tend to avoid him;  he finds that he is unwelcome both in wealthy and in poor circles.  Resigned to his fate, he moves into a jail cell, where he plans to wait out the rest of the seven years, but while there, his plan takes an unexpected turn.  He frees an innocent jeweler, and, despite his appearance, wins the heart of the jeweler's daughter, Katarina.  It is her support that encourages him to keep his pact.  When the seven years have passed, he returns to the devil, to be washed and freed of his obligation.  Only then will he return to Katarina, as an upstanding man. 

As a result of the stark set, at times reminiscent of a stage, as well as the repeated images of people fleeing Christoffel's company, there is a distinct sense of alienation in this film.  Der Bärenhäuter is certainly among the darker of the DEFA feature film fairy tales.  Although most critics praised the film, particularly director Walter Beck and actor Jens-Uwe Bogadtke, they also commented on the melancholy tone, as created by the music and set, which was not to be avoided. 

The film's very clear message, money doesn't bring happiness, overpowers the other themes, which could have been expanded to give the film greater depth and complexity:  friendship is worth more than possessions, money can make people greedy and power-hungry, don't judge a book by its cover, a promise made must be a promise kept, and so on.  Some critics wondered whether the importance of these ideas would be lost on younger children, and, despite the happy ending, Der Bärenhäuter does seem intended for a somewhat more mature audience.

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