Reel Stories about Wende Flicks

Heinz Kersten on The Mistake

Heinz Kersten—one of the very few film and theater critics to pay attention to what was going on on both sides of the Wall—wrote the following review of Heiner Carow’s film The Mistake for the RIAS radio station in 1992. It can be found in his 1996 compilation. The Mistake premiered on March 18, 1992, at the International movie theater in Berlin.


In almost all his films, Heiner Carow tells love stories. They do not “fade out with a happy ending”—as [Kurt] Tucholsky observed about the “dream-products” of the old UFA film studios. Even in earlier, conflict-shy DEFA years, Carow’s emotionally-charged love stories knew no happy endings. Their protagonists are summiteers who are spared the pain of love, because they fall before reaching the peak.


In 1973, Carow attained an audience of over one million with The Legend of Paul and Paula. Now, Angelica Domröse—the lead actress who played Paula and later moved to the West—once again appears on screen in a tragic love story. This time she plays Elisabeth, a 50-year-old woman, one of the last victims of the division of Germany. She, above all, makes this latest film by the director whose most recent success was Coming Out (1989) worth seeing.


Surprisingly, the short story on which Carow’s film is based, by the Leipzig author Werner Heiduczek, was published in the GDR in the mid-1980s. It was too early to consider making a film adaptation, however; the story of an East-West German love destroyed by the Wall couldn’t overcome the taboos at the Babelsberg studios.


The taboos barring the screenplay by Wolfram Witt fell only with the Wall . Now the story could be intensified, such that the lead is finally surrounded by new walls: those of a prison. She shoots the mayor of the village, who was responsible for expelling her fiancé, Jacob (played by Gottfried John), from the country—because Jacob, who like Elisabeth is widowed and experiences this late love, is from Hamburg, in West Germany, and the mayor, whose office she cleans, is jealous of him. That the mayor finally rapes her gives Elisabeth her ultimate motive.


The 750-year celebration of the village of Bubenau provides a culminating backdrop that distorts this kind of East German festivity like a funhouse mirror. This scene, which reaches a grotesque climax with parading buxom village women dancing the can-can, is a break in style from the otherwise realistic portrayal of daily life in the final days of a faded country. The mayor, as played by Jörg Gudzuhn, is not an unsympathetic or bad person, but rather one of many perverted idealists with limited imagination.


At first, political realities reach Elisabeth, an apolitical lower middle-class woman, only peripherally through her sons: the oldest is a party-line journalist, while the youngest is a student active in the opposition. This expresses the division that in the GDR sometimes also divided families, but also makes the film more schematic. Like Frank Beyer in his adaptation of Der Verdacht [1991, script by Volker Braun and Ulrich Plenzdorf], Heiner Carow looks back with anger at a state whose most repulsive attributes included interfering in the private lives of its citizens. In the meantime, this state, as well as the location where the film was shot, have vanished. The village close to Leipzig has given way to brown coal strip-mining. Thus, in a double sense, The Mistake has become a record of the past.


Translation by the DEFA Film Library – Online publication courtesy of Heinz Kersten


Heinz Kersten was one of very few West German critics who focused on East German theater and cinema, making his a rare cultural voice from across the Wall. In So viele Träume, a compilation of his reviews, Heinz Kersten writes: “An evening at the Kosmos movie theater (or at the International, or Colosseum) in East Berlin, the next morning at the RIAS radio station in West Berlin, and in between an almost sleepless night at my desk.… This ritual was repeated almost half of my life as a film critic.”

Born in Dresden, Kersten studied German literature, journalism and theater theory in Berlin. He then became a freelance film and theater critic—first on the radio (RIAS, Deutschlandfunk) and later in print (Tagesspiegel, Frankfurter Rundschau). Kersten still reports from national and international film festivals, such as those in Berlin, Karlovy Vary, Locarno and San Sebastian, and continues to write reviews of new films for Freitag, Neues Deutschland and Deutschlandradio. He is currently working on his autobiography and lives in Berlin and Filicudi, Italy.

So viele Träume (Berlin: VISTAS, 1996) includes Kersten’s reviews of almost 250 DEFA films, written from the1960s until the closing of the DEFA studios in 1992.  Mehr als Theater - Kritikerblicke auf Ostberliner Bühnen 1973-1990 (Berlin: VISTAS, 2006) gathers his reviews of East Berlin theater productions from 1973 to 1990.


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