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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 - renting information
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

Synopsis:

Susanne 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 Berliner Zeitung

“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 Films

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.

The Bicycle (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 understandable.

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.


Andrea Rinke
German and Film Studies 
Kingston University

 

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