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Rebels with a Cause: The Cinema of East Germany
Karbid und Sauerampfer (Carbide and Sorrel)

1974, b/w, 84 min. Feature
Dir.: Frank Beyer
Script: Hans Oliva
Camera: Günter Marczinkowsky
Music: Joachim Werzlau
Cast: Erwin Geschonneck, Marita Böhme, Manja Behrens, Margot Busse

35mm, English subtitles
- renting information
VHS-NTSC, English subtitles:

”One of the best German film comedies.” 
- The Oxford History of World Cinema


In the summer of 1945 right after the end of World War II, factory worker Karl Bluecher, known as Kalle, sets out from Dresden for Wittenberg to try and procure carbide, which is desperately needed for re-starting production in a destroyed factory. It is not by chance that Kalle is the one to go: On one hand, his brother-in-law works at the carbide plant in Wittenberg; on the other, Kalle is a vegetarian and so would definitely manage to nourish himself on roadside plants on his journey. He does get through to Wittenberg and could return to Dresden with seven drums of carbide, if only he had the required means of transport... His return journey is quite an adventure. Kalle gets to know Karla, a young peasant woman, falls in love with her (and she with him), yet does not stay with her because his colleagues in Dresden are urgently waiting for the carbide. At one stage, Kalle is arrested by Soviet officers for alleged profiteering, and then released again. He foils American officers and manages to cover quite a stretch home in a military motor-boat. He escapes a man-crazy widow, a mined forest, a ship-wreck and many other calamities. Meanwhile, he takes up all sorts of odd jobs. Eventually, he gets back to Dresden with only two drums of carbide. Still, that will do for a new beginning. However, there is no keeping Kalle at work with his colleagues - he is heading for Karla. Combining fast-paced humor, keen social observation and popular appeal, this film reached over 1 million viewers in a short three-month period.

The screenplay was a lucky find for director Frank Beyer, as it was for the leading actor Erwin Geschonneck, a man whose self-confidence and laconic wit had gotten him through many ups and downs.  Beyer had to first take his film to Moscow, since GDR officials often questioned humor which flouted political authority. The hearty laughter of the Soviet functionaries there gave the green light for a German premiere.

"Giving away details of the storyline and the gags would be spoiling the fun. Besides, many of the punch-lines are so cinematographic that retellling them would prove difficult."
                                           -Margot Schroeder in the Berlin Junge Welt, 03.01.1964 

"A film for Erwin Geschonneck. That long face, that thin mouth - altogether that matter-of-fact dryness. Take pity on those sides of yours - they will be splitting once the joke gets to the laughing muscles!" 
                                       -Hans-Dieter Schuett in the Berlin Junge Welt, 07.03.1984

About the Director:

Frank Beyer is known for having directed some of the most powerful and historically significant films at DEFA. Born in Nobitz in 1932 he studied theater in Berlin, and then directing at the renowned Prague Film School (FAMU). From 1958 to 1966 Beyer directed films such as Naked Among Wolves and Five Cartridges, as well as Carbide and Sorrel. In 1966 Trace of Stones was banned and Beyer was expelled from the studio. He then directed for the stage and began a prolific career in television, which continues today. In 1974 he re-emerged at DEFA with Jacob the Liar, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Since German unification, Beyer has primarily worked in television, creating feature films such as St. Nicholas Church (1995), an account of the collapse of the GDR. In 1990 Beyer became a member of the Academy of Arts and in 1991 he was awarded the State Film Prize in Gold for lifetime achievement. The Film Museum Potsdam recently purchased the Frank Beyer collection, including materials that provide an in-depth view of his life and work.  Frank Beyer died on October 1, 2006, aged 74, in Berlin after a long illness.

Carbide and Sorrel (Frank Beyer, 1963)

Carbide and Sorrel (Karbid und Sauerampfer) was the sixth film of Frank Beyer, after Konrad Wolf arguably the most successful director of the DEFA. This film is a flashback to the immediate postwar period from a vantage point twenty years later and from inside a “protective” Wall which had been built two years before the film was made. Many East German filmmakers, Beyer among them, have viewed the erection of the Berlin Wall, bitter reality though it was, as potentially productive in one respect: They hoped it would produce a buffer enabling artists to address sociopolitical problems in the GDR candidly, a process which had theretofore been impeded by the potential instrumentalization of such critique by the ideological foe in the Cold War. Frank Beyer told actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, commenting on the building of the Wall: “Es war richtig, was sie gemacht haben: Mauer zu, dann haben wir endlich Ruhe!” (“What they did was correct: Wall us off—and now leave us alone!”). But that protected artistic space was short-lived; in 1965 the 11th Plenary Session of the SED (the East German Communist Party) lashed back, confiscating the majority of the DEFA films produced that year and hiding them in vaults of the Polibüro, where most of them remained for a quarter century. Carbide and Sorrel (not among the confiscated films, having been completed before the 1965 political chill) is one of the notable films from that brief period of increased candor between the building of the Wall and the 11th Plenary Session. It comments upon the political exigencies, the infrastructural devastation, and the motley pragmatics of human coping in the Soviet Zone of occupation in the immediate aftermath of WWII with candor and refreshing wit.

The film has a simple narrative structure: There is a problem to be solved, and its solution requires a journey. A group of workers has gathered in the rubble of what was once their place of work —a cigarette factory in Dresden— with the intent of rebuilding it. But they lack carbide, essential for the welding work that must be done. Kalle, the only non-smoker of the group, is charged with the task of procuring it through his brother-in-law in a distant town. The procurement proves simple enough and is narrated deftly, but then the real challenge begins: How to move seven barrels of a rationed raw material from Wittenberg to Dresden with no means of transportation and without being detected by Soviet authorities?

The story is narrated as a series of encounters with people who provide a variety of transport opportunities and a socio-psychological panorama of devastated Germany: an energetic and beautiful farm girl who shares with Kalle both her horse-driven cart and her bed; two truck-drivers who gobble up the mushrooms a famished Kalle had unwittingly braved a mine field to harvest; Russian officers who “tax” Kalle’s load by a few barrels after detaining him for some time; an undertaker, who gives Kalle a lift in exchange for his delivering the eulogy for a corpse neither of them knew; an opera singer and a young girl, eager to escape to the American bank of the Elbe, who leave Kalle stranded with what is left of his load on a rampart in the middle of the river; an American officer in a motorboat who collects him and the carbide from the rampart, only to be stranded in turn when Kalle absconds with his boat and his officer’s cap; two scammers who make off with the carbide at dawn on foot, rolling the barrels down the road (toward Dresden, a detail that increases Kalle’s tolerance of this temporary theft).

Kalle’s twofold struggle —against the stasis of barrels and against getting caught— is further complicated by trials and encounters which illustrate and comment upon the postwar condition: Hunger, trickery, human dislocation and loneliness, mined forests. But grim as these realities are, the film treats them lightly, with classic comic devices which validate their reality while providing the opportunity for ironic distance. The film looks back at hard times from the vantage point of substantially better ones and provides a gauge for measuring the relative accomplishments of the GDR, of a generation that had resolved staggering problems with some success.

It does so with tact and with more candor than censor might have allowed in a non-comic genre; the stranded American is not the only victim of Kalle’s cunning—he also outwits a blockheaded Soviet officer. The factory his coworkers want to rebuild is anything but essential to the building of socialism (a cigarette factory), and Kalle’s role in its rebuilding is anything but heroic. He is not eager to undertake the task and grumbles repeatedly along the way; he doesn’t even have a personal interest in its rebuilding— he doesn’t smoke. He withstands the wiles of a horny widow along the way, but only because he is too drunk to make love. And he no sooner makes it back to Dresden with what is left of the carbide than he abandons his co-workers to join the farm girl whose unborn child, as he learns from letters she has been sending to him at the factory, he has fathered.

The deceptively light humor this film maintains is carried largely by the expert performance of Erwin Geschonneck. Several roles contribute to this tone well, particularly non-working class figures, such as the widowed owner of a lumber mill with the wonderful name Clara Himmel (a pun which mean “clearer skies”), whose bourgeois airs are humanized by her desperate attempts to seduce whatever man happens by, and the lecherous opera singer whose self-estimation is as over-sized as his ample body.

Reference is made to some of the classic themes of the DEFA, but in passing and with a grain of salt: building socialism (smokers build a cigarette factory); victory of fascism (hungry Kalle finds shelter in a hay loft, sleeps with an empty stomach, only to discover after the Soviets have already done so, that he was sleeping on a vast store of luxurious foods stowed away by the SS). The second time he is arrested by the Soviets we learn, in one of the in-the-know exchanges between party members so recurrent DEFA films, that Kalle is a communist, but it seems here irrelevant except as a means for getting him out of a tight spot. Kalle is more Kumpel than comrade.

Carbide and Sorrel is an enjoyable period piece and an interesting document of its era. Its successful comic realism provides the casual viewer and specialist alike a rewarding viewing experience.

Karen Kramer
Stanford University

Karen Kramer, a native of California, has lived in Berlin for three decades. She directs the Stanford University Program in Berlin, where she teaches film, theater, and cultural studies. In addition to numerous scholarly texts, she has published poetry in English and German. 


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