Reel Stories about Wende Flicks

The Multi-Talented Christian Steyer

The following biographical sketch draws on information from Christian Steyer's German-language website, Like the interview with Bernd Sahling that follows, it was composed and translated by Hiltrud Schulz.


Christian Steyer became famous in 1970s East Germany as a heartthrob on the silver screen. While he was still a student at the Academy for Performing Arts in Berlin-Schöneweide, director Lothar Warneke cast him in his first role in Es ist eine alte Geschichte (It's an Old Story, 1972). Girls across the country immediately fell for the good-looking actor with curly blond hair and a charming smile. In rapid succession, Steyer then appeared: as the unfaithful lover in the GDR classic The Legend of Paul and Paula (1972, Dir. Heiner Carow); as the romantic figure who leaves to see the world in Too Young for Love (1973, Dir. Bernhard Stephan); and in the 1973 banned film, Die Taube auf dem Dach (Dir. Iris Gusner), which was just re-discovered and released in Germany this year. Since the early 1970s, Steyer has acted in over 50 films; his last role was in Tom Tykwerís love story Drei (Three), which premiered at the 2010 Venice Film Festival.


Although he first had success as a movie actor, Steyer's first love was music. Raised in a musical family, as a child he apparently aspired to "become Mozart." At the age of 10, he played the organ for Sunday services in his father's church; at 13, he was accepted into the advanced children's class at the Academy of Music in Leipzig. During high school, he got interested in composition, improvisation and theater; he performed chansons and gospels; and met the French channsonière Fania Fénélon - former member of the women's orchestra at Auschwitz - who lived in the GDR and with whom he then studied. In the mid-1960s, he studied piano at the Music Academies in Leipzig, then Dresden. In 1967 he won the Radio DDR Special Prize in the second GDR Chanson and Song Festival.


Steyer's professional career as a musician and composer began in the 1970s. He was was one of the founding members of the East German rock band Karat and played the piano for the famous popular singer, Frank Schöbel. His unusual compositions, sometimes using home-made instruments, were used in many films and he wrote full scores for eleven East German DEFA productions in a close collaboration with director Helmut Dziuba. Steyer has been teaching at the Academy for Music in Berlin since 1993. And now one of his most recent compositions - choir music presented at the "Urban Plant" pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010 - has brought him international attention as well.


The following interview with Bernd Sahling about Christian Steyer's DEFA film music was conducted by Hiltrud Schulz in November 2010. Sahling was born in Naumburg and studied at the "Konrad Wolf" Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg from 1986-1991. He then worked as a freelance writer and director until he got a scholarship to attend Columbia College Chicago and Northwestern University. Sahling has worked in both film and television and has taught seminars and workshops on children's film. Sahling's Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers) - a film about two blind children that he wrote and directed - won several international awards, as well as the German Film Award for an Outstanding Children's Film.


Bernd, you worked as the assistant director on Helmut Dzuiba's production Jana and Jan (1991). You and Dziuba also co-wrote the script for your international success, The Blind Flyers (2004, Die Blindgänger). Both of you have also collaborated with composer Christian Steyer. Steyer wrote the scores for almost all of Dziuba's films - beginning with Untergang der Emma (1974, transl: The Sinking of the Emma), Rotschlipse (1977, transl. The Red Ties), Sabine Kleist, Aged Seven (1982, Sabine Kleist, 7 Jahre...) andForbidden Love (1989, Verbotene Liebe). Why do you think Dziuba collaborated with Steyer on so many films?


Christian has a knack for staying in the background. He only places music where it supports and enriches the film and rejects using music to illustrate the film. His music is "open"; he doesn't want to force any feelings. Sometimes a single instrument, barely developing a musical motif, like a rustling that accompanies the character through the film. This approach is perfect for Helmut Dziuba's manner of storytelling; his feature film stories are told like documentaries and leaves his audience to draw their own conclusions. I assume that this is why the two of them have collaborated so often.


Christian Steyer wrote the musical score for Jana and Jan. Could you share some of your thoughts about this collaboration? Was Steyer involved in the production from the beginning? 


I'm not sure at what point Christian got involved in the production.  He certainly read the script early on, because he knew he'd be composing the score. At some point Helmut showed him the rough cut, then let him go. After having worked together so often, Helmut trusted that he'd come up with meaningful ideas. 


What role does the music play in Jana and Jan?

Jana and Jan is a very hard film, in  a juvenile detention center around the time the Wall fell. The story takes place among young people who hadn't had it easy. It would stand to reason that you'd add lots of music - like Punk, for example, or Heavy Metal. But in their last collaboration, Helmut Dziuba and Christian Steyer remained true to themselves and told the story with respect. The music is often part of a scene, for example the droning national anthem sung in the courtyard, or the Russian song that Jana sings to the soldier. Many scenes have no music in them at all and are brought to life through silence and pauses. Christian found a piano motif that accompanies Jan's search for security and family through the film. This motif reinforces this sense of searching: it has something tentative about it that also holds out hope and brief moments of harmony. Helmut and Christian's collaboration resulted in a brave film, whose consistent workmanship could only have been created in a period of transition. It would not have been produced in the GDR, and it would certainly not be made today. In this sense, it is doubly a "Wende film."


You and Christian Steyer then worked together on your short film Lied für Anne (1985, Song for Anne) and on the feature film The Blind Flyers (2004, Die Blindgänger). The music plays a very special role in this film, because the story is about two blind girls who love music and want to sing in a band. Steyer's music for this film won the Golden Sparrowfoot award at the 2005 Childrenís Film Festival. Why did you choose Steyer to write the score, and how was working together? 


The sound for the first short film I made at the DEFA Studio consisted in a single song. I shot it without sound with an old French Camèflex camera, which couldn't record sound. The film was an exercise I did during my voluntary service and was not meant to be publicly screened. We just recorded the song and then edited the film based on the music. During the approval screening, the general manager of the studio said he wanted to offer the film to PROGRESS, the East German film distribution company; to do so, we were to record the song in a professional studio with DEFA-musicians. Well that was way over my head; I couldn't arrange the song for two instruments and had never been in a music studio. Because I really liked the way Christian respected the unique qualities of a film, I asked him if he would write the arrangement and come to the studio with me. That's how the wonderful interlude without vocals came about. It's still very moving today and it's why the film still shows up at festivals from time to time. Christian spent a lot of time on the project, without even getting an honorarium.


With The Blind Flyers,  I had to work closely with Christian before starting to shoot the film, because many scenes were to be directed as playbacks. That meant the music had to be ready before we started to shoot. Our approach was unusual, in that we didn't choose instruments that are in the kind of band that's best known to young people. There was no bass guitar or synthesizer; instead we chose the bajan-accordion and saxphone. This didn't meet the expectations of some people, who they had been counting on using more catchy music for marketing purposes. The vocals are closer to chansons than rock'n'roll and have fantasy lyrics that are intertwined with the dramturgy of the story. It took a while to get all that pushed through and Christian suffered through it all at my side. He didn't abandon me even when whole sections of the crew distanced themselves from me - which always happens when the director refuses the producer's directions. I had hoped for Christian's support when I initially approached him, because I knew the producer wouldn't appreciate the musical concept. 


There was also a second reason I wanted Christian to write the music. A film about blind people could very easily slip into sentimentality and become a tear-jerker. Itís a trap that I only partially succeeded in avoiding with Lied für Anne. Christian's musical ideas are warm-hearted and intelligent, but never sentimental - sometimes they're downright minimalist. That's exacly what I thought the film needed.


To what extent did Christian Steyer's music influence the film images? Or was it the other way around, that Steyer was inspired by your images?


The music for a film competition submission is like a video clip, even if it's not the way we're used to on MTV. In that case, the music determined the rhythm for shooting and editing. For the band Bloody Brains, as well, the music determined what images we looked for . On the other hand, Christian also allowed himself to be influenced by scenes we'd edited. For example the farewell scene, in which Herbert touches Marie's face and you hear the familiar accordion motif with no accompaniment. The music was played so hesitantly, as tender as his touch on her face.  Not easy task for a musician who actually wants to follow the melody, not a montage of images. 


I was at almost all the music meetings, in the studio at night, and followed it all. It was a fascinating time - a constant exchange between director, composer and musicians. We also adjusted the playback music to the editing, so that it really looked like the young people were playing the music themselves, including the unevenness and wrong notes. This wasn't easy for a professional musician either, especially not for a drummer who once in a while comes out of rhythm.


Steyer wrote the film music, as well as the music the band played in the film. Did Steyer teach the young actors the songs? And, if so, how did it work? 


Neither Inga nor Marie played the instruments that we envisioned for them. So Christian worked very hard with them and kept practicing. He also had to teach the vocals to the young singer; we'd cast her in the film because we liked her interpretation of the song. It was really a lot of work, because there weren't only the playbacks of the competition; there were also playbacks of street music and in the attic, in the entrance hall.... The film benefited from the fact that Christian is not a classical composer, but rather a multi talented musician who himself also worked a lot doing voice-overs and as an actor. So he helped develop the idea that the lyrics are Marie's memories of her deceased father. And he created the lyrics for "all du sonne migun" himself. His way of working with the lyrics and the composition is not tied to a particular time or fashion; it consistently follows the characters and their conflicts.


How important is the music in a film for you? Do you think that music has a role in a film and is necessary to create or communicate atmospheres? 


Somehow I get the feeling that only one composer writes the music for all the big productions. The same string motifs, tone distributions and constructions overshadow every scene and prompt, or even force every emotion. Few films still trust silence, or the interpretation of the actor or even a single sound. It's not much fun, and itís definitely not innovative. Music can extend a story, can add another layer. Only no one wants to work this way anymore. Music is certainly - along with editing - the way that producers and TV stations get involved in filmmaking. I think that today the use of music in films is determined more by those who fund the project than by directors and composers. That's why it all sounds too similar.

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