Rebels with a Cause: The Cinema
of East Germany
Das Fahrrad (The Bicycle)
1982, color, 89 min. Feature
Dir.: Evelyn Schmidt
Script: Ernst Wenig
Camera: Roland Dressel
Music: Peter Rabenalt
Cast: Heidemarie Schneider, Roman Kaminski, Anke Friedrich, Heidrun Bartholomäus
35mm, English subtitles -
VHS-NTSC, English subtitles:
"The Bicycle is a little story packed
with tremendous hope
... it raises important and essential questions of personal
responsibility and what we can expect from life."
- Norddeutsche Zeitung
is a single mother in her late twenties. She tries to make ends meet for her and
her child by doing un-skilled work. She has no principles, and fritters away her
time in discos or hanging out with old friends. When she gets to know Thomas, a
young engineer who has just been made head of his department, she is tempted to
get into closer contact with him, especially since she discovers that he so very
different from her. At the same time, however, her dreary job troubles her. Not
without reason, she sees her work as something she cannot take pride in, so she
quits her job. But what is she to live from? She faces big money problems which
becomes worse when her daughter becomes ill. In desperation, she commits insurance
fraud. But her scheme is discovered and the matter is passed on to the State prosecutor.
During this time, Thomas has grown more attached to her. He knows nothing of her
criminal offence. He finds her a job at his workplace and the two of them are very
happy. The relationship promises to last and this is why Susanne finally admits
her crime to him. But this admission burdens the relationship to such a degree that
they separate. Yet, Susanne, who has become more self-confident and mature, now
continues on her own.
Despite its rare view of everyday socialism
from a woman's perspective, GDR officials were critical of this frank portrayal
of a less-than-ideal socialist citizen and turned down all invitations for the
film to be screened abroad. In West Germany, however, Evelyn Schmidt’s film
received much praise for its critical view and feminist approach.
"What succeeds most, to my mind, is the way the
film grasps and addresses the character´s social context - it is judgmentally
unobtrusive and completely accurate (Camera: Roland Dressel)."
-Guenter Sobe in the
“A sensitive portrait of a woman by DEFA director Evelyn Schmidt . . . .
Remarkable are the sympathetic portrayal of a work-rejecting outsider and
the realistic description of East German daily life.“
- Lexikon des Internationalen
About the Director:
Evelyn Schmidt was born in Görlitz in 1949 and
moved to Berlin in 1963. She spent a year as an apprentice with East German
television and graduated with a degree in directing from the Film and Television
Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg in 1973. Schmidt participated in Konrad Wolf's
master class at the Academy of the Arts in Berlin and began directing in the
1970s. From 1977 to 1990 she worked as an assistant director and later as a
director at the DEFA Studio for Feature Films, debuting with Infidelity
(1979). Since 1990 she has directed documentaries for television and produced 13
plays at an experimental theater. Schmidt has also taught film and acting, and
is currently working on a children’s movie.
(Evelyn Schmidt, 1981)
During the late 1970s and early
1980s, criticism of East German society, such as that tacitly implied in The
Bicycle, was often voiced through young women on screen. As the ‘natural’
inhabitant of the domestic sphere, a permitted private space of intimacy beyond
public control, female misfits were used to express more general feelings of
disaffection with everyday life under socialism. The Bicycle is a prime
example: on its release, it was indirectly censored by limiting its release to a
few performances in minor cinemas only and without any prior advertisements
whilst at the same time having it dismissed as a flop in scathing film reviews
in the official papers. The career of Evelyn Schmidt – one of the few East
German women directors who had set out as a privileged student in a master class
by Konrad Wolf– was nipped in the bud.
The Bicycle transgressed the officially proclaimed norms and expectations
of a ‘good’ socialist film on various levels. Most crucially, the portrayal of
the female protagonist presented the ‘wrong’ kind of heroine according to the
criteria of the ‘sozialistisches Menschenbild’ (socialist image of the new man).
The so-called ‘positive model hero or heroine’ was intended to combine both the
characteristics of a realistic and credible person with the potential for an
ideal personality of the future. For instance, in several films produced up to
the late 1970s, the filmmakers tended to portray model heroines, who were well
educated, professionally qualified and politically conscious, who knew exactly
what they wanted, and who were able to address and solve their problems.
In those earlier years, the preference for female protagonists by predominantly
male film directors may have been due to the fact that strong screen heroines,
who were portrayed as men’s equals in their new roles in the work place, could
best be used to illustrate the emancipation of women under socialism which was
essential to the East Germany’s self-perception as the ‘better’ Germany: as a
society of true equals, morally superior to the west.
In East German cinema of the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, there emerged
a new kind of female protagonist. These heroines tended to be loners and misfits
struggling to survive on the margins of society, expressing views and attitudes
which clearly deviated from those held to be worthy of a socialist hero.
Susanne, the protagonist of The Bicycle, is a single mother and an
unqualified menial labourer, who can get only monotonous and badly paid factory
jobs. In a moment of crisis and to make ends meet, she reports her bicycle as
stolen and claims the insurance money.
As the crime rate in East Germany was very low compared to the West, petty
crimes, such as theft and fraud would be considered serious offences by most GDR
citizens. However, in The Bicycle, the desperate situation experienced by
one of the weaker members of society, her poverty and loneliness are depicted in
such graphic detail that her descent into delinquency is justified by making it
This view challenges the concept of a socialist society where nobody is left to
struggle on their own, where there is always the work collective standing by to
help. Very subtly, and more often through visual imagery than through verbal
discourse, this film implies that it is society which is failing someone like
Susanne rather than the other way around. It is quite clear to the viewer
observing the heroine’s body language and facial expressions, which show very
strong feelings of fear, shame and guilt, that she is not a cold-blooded
habitual delinquent. In fact, throughout the film the heroine is portrayed as
someone who is not naturally devious, but rather is an individual forced into
cautious reticence and withdrawal by a repressive and controlling environment.
This portrait of a screen heroine was found unacceptable and met with scathing
comments by most East German critics, one of whom, at the time, characterized
Susanne as ‘a screwed-up misfit, suspicious towards everybody except her obscure
drinking mates in the disco-cellar’ and dismissed the film as a ‘lame expression
of grumpy discomfort with society’ (Renate Holland-Moritz, 1982).
Curiously, however, in the course of the film, this apparent ‘loser’ is shown to
be worthy of our sympathy and respect, being portrayed in a positive light and
inevitably drawing sympathy and a sense of identification form the viewers. In
an interview conducted after the demise of the GDR, the director Evelyn Schmidt
summarized the comments made by viewers who had seen the film in local repertory
cinemas: ‘Those discussions revealed how many people dreamt of holding on to an
internal liberty the way Susanne does’ (Elke Schieber, 1994).
The central, yet ambivalent metaphor for Susanne’s development throughout the
whole film is her bicycle: from characterizing her as a vulnerable young woman,
exposed to the hostile elements while struggling to get past heavy traffic in
the pouring rain, to being the hidden evidence of Susanne’s descent into crime,
until finally becoming a metaphor of autonomy and empowerment. In the film’s
closing sequence, one of the very few shot in bright sunlight, the bicycle has
come to express the bond between mother and daughter; Susanne is finally
succeeding in teaching her small child to ride the bicycle on her own, passing
on her newly gained sense of independence and liberty.
German and Film Studies