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Berlin, Divided Heaven: From the Ice Age to the Thaw
Rebels with a Cause: The Cinema of East Germany
Touring Film Series

Die Legende von Paul und Paula (The Legend of Paul and Paula)

1972, East Germany (DEFA), color, 106 min.
Dir.: Heiner Carow
Script: Ulrich Plenzdorf
Camera: Jürgen Brauer
Music: Peter Gotthardt (featuring hits by Die Puhdys)
Cast: Angelica Domröse, Winfried Glatzeder, Heidemarie Wenzel, Fred Delmare, Dietmar Richter-Reinick, Frank Schenk.
35mm, English subtitles - renting information
VHS-NTSC, English subtitles:
DVD, English subtitles:


“[This film] shows that the 70s all over the
world, even in the GDR, were the 70s.”
        – Jennie Livingston, filmmaker, Paris Is Burning

Synopsis:

Still the most popular DEFA Film, this classic struck a chord with its portrayal of everyday life in East Berlin in this love story between a passionate single mother and a complacent, married bureaucrat. Paul, respectably employed but bored, is married to a woman whose only redeemable quality seems to be stunning beauty.

Paula, a single mother who works at a Prenzlauer Berg supermarket exchanging empty bottles for deposits, longs for a man and more passion in her life. Herr Saft, a tire salesman, tries tirelessly to win Paula’s heart. He is extremely decent and respectable, though much older than she, and seems he would be a good father to her children. Yet Paula isn’t passionate about Saft at all.  Paula and Paul meet each other in a bar and end up falling in love. Paul avoids deciding between her and his wife. Paula feels betrayed and deeply hurt, and resigns herself to pretending he no longer exists. Only then does Paul realize how much he loves Paula. He decides to win her back – his effort is so moving that their love becomes a legend in the neighborhood, intensified by a tragic twist.

Featuring the music of the East German cult rock band, the Puhdys, the film proved enormously popular, despite limited media coverage. The Legend of Paul and Paula remains a cult favorite today.

“I knew that the film would be good. It was going to be explosive and
 maybe it wouldn’t make it through, but it was going to be good.” 
        – Ulrich Plenzdorf, screenwriter

"Heiner Carow directed this 'legend' - a word already suggesting a detached approach to East Berlin reality - in an imaginative and easy-going way, placing it between realtiy and imagination." 
-Volker Baer in the Berlin Tagesspiegel, 18.04.1973

"We have not been spoiled with moving love stories in the cinema. Therefore my unconditional praise for this treatment of the love theme. I am all for talking about love in the appropriate sensual terms rather than having the topic rhetorically exhausted." 
-Fred Gehler in the Berlin Sonntag, 22.04.1973

About the Director:

Heiner Carow (1929–1997) was born on September 19, 1929 in Rostock, the son of a businessman. As a young man, he took part in a youth theater, and in 1950 he spent the year in Berlin attending directing classes at the DEFA Studios for Young Filmmakers.  Directors Gerhard Klein and Slatan Dudow were his mentors in the class. From 1952 to 1956 Carow worked as a director at the DEFA Studio for Educational and Industrial Films (Populärwissenschaftliche Filme).  In 1956 Carow made his first feature film, Sheriff Teddy, which reveals many similarities to Klein's "Berlin Films." His film, The Russians Are Coming (1968), was banned and labeled as ”contaminated with modernism.” The Legend of Paul and Paula became an unparalleled success, however, and is said to have been the longest playing film in German cinemas. Carow’s penchant for creating films that candidly reflected everyday life in socialism often put him into conflict with officials, but his professionalism and artistic acuity gained him the position of Vice President of the Academy of Arts of the GDR (1982–1993). He was awarded many film prizes, including a Silver Bear at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival for Coming Out, the only East German feature film about homosexuality. Since 1954 he was married to the film editor Evelyn Carow, who also had an accomplished career at DEFA. On January 31, 1997 Carow died in Berlin.

Major Films:

Sie nannten ihn Amigo (1959), Das Leben beginnt (1960), Die Hochzeit von Länneken (1964), Die Russen kommen (1968/1987), Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973), Ikarus (1976), Bis daß der Tod euch scheidet (1979), So viele Träume (1986), Coming Out (1989), Verfehlung (1991).

About the Scriptwriter:

Ulrich Plenzdorf was born October 26, 1934 in Berlin. His father was an active member of the Communist Party and a photographer for the Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung. Plenzdorf attended an alternative school, then studied philosophy in Leipzig. From 1955-58 he worked as a stagehand at the DEFA studios. After completing military service he studied screenplay writing at the Film Academy in Babelsberg, then began working as a scriptwriter in 1964. Plenzdorf became one of the best-known GDR writers, recognized for his youthful, biting criticism in screenplays, novels, and short stories.

Major Films:

Karla (1964), Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. (1972), Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973).

The Legend of Paul and Paula (Heiner Carow, 1973)

Heiner Carow’s The Legend of Paul and Paula was the most popular East German film ever made. Together with Konrad Wolf’s Solo Sunny (1980), it belongs to a select group of films which achieved cult status in the GDR. Based on a script by the well known writer, Ultrich Plenzdorf, Carow’s film was one of the first to profit from the more liberal climate that was ushered in with the change of political leadership in the GDR in 1971. After a difficult period for artists and writers – a period that culminated in the series of bans in the wake of the infamous Eleventh Plenum in 1965 – the replacement of Walter Ulbricht by Erich Honecker in 1971 seemed to hold out the promise of a new era of tolerance. In one of his earliest speeches, Honecker went as far as to declare that ‘Providing one starts from an established socialist standpoint, there cannot…be any taboo subjects for art and literature’. Indeed Ulrich Plenzdorf with his highly acclaimed novel, The New Sorrows of Young Werther (1972), was – at least to begin with – one of the principal beneficiaries of the new improved relations between writers and the State. But taboos or no taboos, the new climate of tolerance was short-lived, a fact highlighted by the expulsion of the singer-poet Wolf Biermann in 1976. And amongst those who, in the wake of the ‘Biermann affair’, decided to leave the GDR of their own accord in the late 1970s and early 1980s were a number of DEFA stars, including Manfred Krug, Jutta Hoffmann, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Katharina Thalbach and, of course Angelica Domröse, the star in The Legend of Paul and Paula.

The success of The Legend of Paul and Paula lies in the ability of Carow and Plenzdorf to present the life of ordinary GDR citizens in a wholly new and challenging format. Paula’s situation – that of a single parent trying to bring up two children whilst at the same time working as a check-out assistant in a GDR supermarket – was a reality with which many GDR citizen could identify. Indeed part of the originality of Carows’s film was that – in market contrast to such films as Horst Seemann’s A Declaration of Love to G.T. (1971) and Egon Guenther’s Her Third (1971) – it dealt not with a member of the intelligentsia, but with a uneducated (thought by no means unintelligent) woman employed to do a menial job. For whilst the drive to develop the GDR’s industrial economy at the beginning of the 1970s inevitably led to greater opportunities (and difficulties) for well-educated women in a predominantly male-dominated work-force, few film-makers had stopped to consider the plight of women at the other end of the scale – women like Paula – and it this respect, Carow’s film was well ahead of its time, anticipating the direction taken by such films as Erwin Stranka’s Sabine Wulff (1978) and Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle (1981).

We do the film a disservice, however, if we attempt to assimilate it to the canon of ‘women’s cinema’ in Germany as represented, for example, by Helke Sander’s The All-round Reduced Personality (1977) or the early films by Helma Sanders-Brahms. Given the extent to which The Legend of Paul and Paula is a celebration of the power of romantic love, those searching for a racial reappraisal of gender relations are bound to be disappointed. Not surprisingly, feminist’s critics have often fallen foul of the film, dismissing it as – to quote the title of an academic essay on the film – ‘a sexist schmaltz from the GDR’. Yet it is precisely in its relentless insistence that human beings must indulge the emotional, irrational side of their nature if they are realize their full potential that the revolutionary thrust of the film is both to be sought and found. Add to this the fact that of the two characters, it is Paul, a minor government official, who has the greatest difficulty in breaking free from the shackles of rationality and self-restraint, and it is not hard to see why the film occupies such a unique place in the minds and hearts of those who saw it.

But The Legend of Paul and Paula is much more than just an intense love story. It is, as its titles suggests, a ‘legend’. In order to underline the fairy-tale character of this love affair, Carow makes use of a provocative montage of fantasy and realism. At one moment we watch as the weary Paula all but collapses from the repeated effort of carrying coal from the cellar up the stairs in the block of flats where she lives; at the next, we are taken on a magical journey with Paula and Paula in a bed bedecked with flowers, a journey in which the logic of time and space has ceased to have any meaning. Given the deliberate use of such ‘Romantic’ elements – together with a corresponding refusal to adhere to adhere to the conventions of realism – it is tempting to see Carow’s film as making its own distinctive contribution to the renewed interest in German Romantic art and literature generally in the GDR at the beginning of the 1970s. And just as German Romanticism developed as a response to the often overly mechanistic approach to human nature endorsed by the writers and philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, so too the Romantic elements of Carow’s film serves as a reminder to us today that we ignore the irrational elements of human behavior at our peril.

Sean Allan
University of Warwick, UK

 

Related reading:

Rinke, Andrea. “From Models to Misfits: Women in DEFA Films of the 1970’s and 1980’s.” DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. Seán Allan and John Sandford, eds. New York: Berghahn, 1999. 183-203. Also appears in: Triangulated Visions. Women in Recent German Cinema. Ingeborg Majer O’Sickey and Ingeborg von Zadow, eds. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 207-218.

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