Filmmaker Interviews

Dieter Wolf: Our Own James Bond

DEFA dramaturg Dieter Wolf remembers the production of For Eyes Only — Top Secret, the film that became an East German box office hit in 1963.


You worked as a dramaturg on For Eyes Only, which was a project of the Solidarity artistic production group at the East German DEFA Film Studio. Could you please explain the structure of artistic groups within the studio...


At the end of 1956, director Kurt Maetzig[1] openly declared that “the time was ripe” for founding artistic groups with more autonomy in script development and production. In the following years, directors, writers and other film artists responded to his call and formed artistic groups that each had its own dramaturg. There were eight of these groups in 1960; but it was only after the Second Bitterfeld Conference in 1964 that centralized dramaturgy was entirely dissolved and chief dramaturgs became the cultural-political heads of the artistic groups. The studio management confirmed this new structural organization on September 1, 1964, and dramaturgs were appointed to be the leaders of the artistic groups: chief dramaturgs Werner Beck, Willi Brückner, Dr. Günter Karl and Willi Paech became the heads of the Berlin, Johannisthal, Roter Kreis and Children’s Films artistic groups, respectively; head dramaturg Klaus Wischnewski took over Heinrich Greif; and I headed Babelsberg.


This openness to decentralization ended after the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED [Socialist Unity Party] in 1965. Thereafter, all important positions—including the Minister for Culture—were appointed anew, the chief dramaturgs and artistic heads were re-assigned, and the studio returned to a rigid central-ism. In 1966, the chief dramaturgs became the heads of little groups of 4 to 5 dramaturgs, each working on their own film projects. (Klaus Wischnewski was dismissed without notice, and Dr. Karl turned to writing screenplays full-time.) From this time onwards, the artistic groups were dramaturgy teams, with directors joining for a limited time or specific projects. The Babelsberg group managed to retain director Konrad Wolf from 1966 until 1980—that is, from Ich war neunzehn (I Was Nineteen) to Solo Sunny. We were very fortunate!



Heinz Hafke is listed in the credits as the dramaturg of For Eyes Only. Between 1961 and 1966, you had been the chief dramaturg of the Solidarity artistic group. In what ways were you involved in the production of the film?


When I joined the Solidarity group in 1961, dramaturg Heinz Hafke and director János Veiczi had just started working on developing the story of For Eyes Only. Very soon, Hafke moved to the DEFA Studio for Popular Science Film, however, so I had to take over his work and responsibilities.



How did the production of the film come about?


In 1957, the press office of the Ministry for State Security published a small propaganda pamphlet entitled Flucht durch die Nacht: Ein Tatsachenbericht vom geheimnisvollen Verschwinden zweier Panzersafes des amerikanischen Geheimdienstes (Through the Night: A Factual Report about the Mysterious Disappearance of Two Safes). The DEFA Studio and author Hans Lucke got their hands on the pamphlet and Lucke wrote an exposé based on it. Director János Veiczi, who had joined the Solidarity artistic group before me, was not happy with Lucke’s draft. So we were looking for an author who could write us a thrilling and adventurous crime story—for the first time in the Kundschafterfilm genre.[2] Veiczi, who was very much interested in co-authoring the script, suggested asking Harry Thürk. I had the delicate task of informing Hans Lucke about the change of authors. Luckily, I was able to offer him a leading part in the film, as he was also a skilled actor; he played the role of MID’s Colonel Rock.



Harry Thürk wrote the scenario, advised by director Veiczi. And Veiczi wrote the script, advised by Thürk...


Harry Thürk was known to us as a controversial, but widely-read suspense author. The film adaptation of his thrilling popular war novel, Haus im Feuer (House in Flames), had been stopped during production—despite many editorial changes in the script and the replacement of director Herbert Ballmann by Carl Balhaus. Already when the book was published—but even more during filming—officials accused Thürk of choosing the wrong hero (the central character is a brave German soldier who behaves like a human in extreme situations), and for the atypical representation of an unusual event on the eastern front. For our story, however, we thought Thürk would be the right author. The collaboration between the author and the director was not always easy, and I had to mediate between them from time to time.



One repeatedly reads that For Eyes Only was the first Kundschafterfilm produced at the DEFA Studio. Could you draw from any past experience with this genre? Or was it completely new territory for you and/or the studio?


We had no experience with the Kundschafterfilm genre at all. It had been an absolute taboo at the studio until then.



Why do you think that this genre—internationally called “spy film”—had been taboo?


This film ended the secretive media taboo on the secret service activities of East German spies, who in the GDR were called “scouts” or even “scouts for peace.” This fact in itself promised that a political crime story set in the present would be a popular movie sensation. But our success far exceeded all our expectations.



Were you familiar with any spy films produced in other countries, including East Bloc countries?


I did not know of any examples of productions from other socialist countries. Maybe they didn’t even exist.



Critics often mention that For Eyes Only was a direct response to the first British James Bond movie, Dr. No. But considering the timing—Dr. No was released in Britain on October 5, 1962 and opened in West German cinemas on January 25, 1963—it wasn’t even possible for your film to have been influenced by the James Bond movie. You had already started shooting For Eyes Only in 1962.


Yes. We were very proud that we had created an entirely different type of hero before “007” and that ours had preceded James Bond.



Alfred Müller plays the lead in the movie. How did this come about?


Müller was a “young” star at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. Above all, we wanted the actor in the leading role to be unknown to the film and television audience; but by the same token, we needed somebody with the charisma of a media star. His gestures and bearing as a no-name likeable person, full of irony and understatement, helped create a character who was unexpectedly popular. By year’s end, his performance as the double agent had attracted over one million viewers.



The opening credits of the film read: “This film’s plot is fictional. Similarities to actual events and real people are intended.” To what extent was the film team familiar with the story of the original spy, Horst Hesse?


As mentioned before, the only basis for the plot development was a small Stasi propaganda pamphlet about exposing an American plan, called MC 70, that included military options in case of an emergency or “Day X” and the upheavals in the GDR that would ensue.



It is very interesting that, although Horst Hesse got a lot of public attention, he apparently knew nothing about the film’s production. What do you think was the reason for keeping him away from the project?


A plainclothes “comrade” with the little red Stasi ID card—who mumbled his name, “You can call me Horst (?)”—showed up on the set once or twice. Why they kept him away from the film team remains the secret of the Stasi press and propaganda department. They probably wanted to lord their authority over information over the filmmakers. It was embarassing that this also continued during the film’s marketing campaign and after the film was released.



The DEFA Studio often assigned expert advisors to film teams. Who took on the role of expert advisor for the production of For Eyes Only?


We only had short-term advisors for details to do with interiors and the storyline. Internal studio screenings of the rough cut were held for Gerhard Kehl, the head of the Stasi press department, and Günter Halle, his supervisor at the Stasi political department. I don’t remember that they had any “professional” objections or asked for changes. This didn’t come up until the official acceptance screening, when we were criticized—of all things—for our casting of actors representing the Stasi.



What happened at the state approval screening?


We sent the film—evaluated and highly praised by the studio management—to Berlin for official state approval. This approval was an act of state that was reserved for the Deputy Minister for Culture, Prof. Hans Rodenberg, who was responsible for film. As was usual, we watched the movie together; afterwards, we expected to have a friendly and complimentary discussion and that the film would be released to the public with state approval.


Instead, significant political accusations were leveled at us because of how we had cast three supporting roles. In question were the roles of the Stasi colonel and his two colleagues at Stasi headquarters in Berlin, with whom Hansen is in contact. In keeping with convention, Veiczi had cast them more as proletarians; now we were told that those who had come up with the super-coup should have a stonger intellectual aura. As a result, the very popular DEFA actor Harry Hindemith was replaced by Martin Flörchinger from the Berliner Ensemble (who had the slight Viennese accent of a Burgtheater actor!) as the tactical guiding light; his colleagues, in almost silent roles, were played by Horst Schönemann and Eberhard Esche. The new shots they wanted (although the set had already been dismantled) also required a new mix. Such a change—in the casting of three roles long after the shooting, final editing and sound mix—was very unusual and was meant to strengthen how the representatives of the Stasi appeared in comparision to the opposing side, which seemed to be portrayed quite authentically. Prof. Rodenberg did not criticize the director for this “political mistake,” but rather Siegfried Kabitzke, the head of the artistic group, and me, as chief dramaturg.



Perry Friedman, a Canadian singer who lived in the GDR, and Victor Grossman, who had moved to the GDR in the 1950s, play supporting roles in the film. John Peet, a British journalist who had defected to the GDR, plays the doctor. How did this casting come about and was it a conscious choice?


Veiczi was a known director with strong contacts in the Berlin cultural and media scene. His close relations with the foreign “lay” actors were all to the good, in terms of the desired authenticity of the opponents, especially since their presence in the film is minimal.



Although Perry Friedman and John Peet play important supporting roles, their names are not listed in the film credits.


I assume that this was their own wish. Maybe they didn’t want to compromise their journalistic reputations by being instrumentalized in a DEFA “propaganda film.”



A technical question: The original script outlines which scenes are to be spoken in English with German subtitles. But in the final version of the film the English-language scenes are voiced over in German. You can hear the English dialogue, but at times the German translation is not identical. The German translation has stronger Cold War overtones at times. What were the considerations in deciding to use voice-over?


The distributor of the film, as well as movie theater managers thought subtitles would disrupt the viewing experience and be challenging for the audience [publikumsfeindlich]. Veiczi nevertheless decided against a fully dubbed version in order to maintain some degree of auditory authenticity.



The movie is set a few days before the Wall was built and was filmed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. These two events changed the global political system and aggravated the Cold War. Did having these events in the background affect filming the movie? Did they influence the film’s storyline?


These events did not influence shooting at all, but they confirmed our certainty that this could become an important film.



For Eyes Only was released two years after the Wall went up. You might expect that many GDR citizens were angry about the Wall, whose construction the film attempted to justify. But people flocked to the movie theaters and For Eyes Only became the most successful DEFA film of 1963. How would you explain this success?


After the Wall went up and the orders to fire were issued in August 1961, these issues were far less demonized than after 1990—except perhaps among people whose families were affected. The majority of people who wanted to (or had to) stay were worried by the hysteria about the status of Berlin on both sides of the Wall and had a critical perspective on mass emigrations out of the GDR. The thousands of border crossers—who lived in East Berlin and worked in West Berlin, earning their salary in West currency, with an exchange rate of 1 West for 4 East Marks—were not well-liked by GDR citizens. The run on groceries and books by visitors from the West seemed unfair to those living and working in East Berlin; and anyone who wanted to buy high-end goods, such as industrial and optical products, had to deal with inconvenient identity checks. So it seemed that the short-lived economic upswing after August 13, 1961, absolutely justified closing the border and building the Wall so criticized by the West.



The film is now fifty years old. What do you think about the film from today’s point of view?


The movie is a political and artistic product of its time and today its aesthetic seems old and naïve. In 2008, Gunther Scholz made a documentary entitled for eyes only – Ein Film und seine Geschichte (For Eyes Only – A Film and Its History). The film is based on a 2002 interview with Horst Hesse. It is an important and artistically well-made contribution—not sneering or dismissive—to a critical discourse on a DEFA film made with political intentions; it’s a valuable commentary on the feature film, which I would highly recommend.



Is there anything else you would like to add?


I would like to thank researchers and students abroad, especially in the UK and USA, for their interest in our work and our experiences as participants and observers of this specific period of history. The critical and academic accounting of the DEFA legacy that has emerged deserves a lot of respect, especially in comparison to the attempts of German historians and film scholars, who primarily treat DEFA as a part of the propaganda of a „second German dictatorship.“



Dieter Wolf has worked with many famous authors—including Wolfgang Held, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Günther Rücker and Harry Thürk—and has been involved in the production of acclaimed films by important directors, including: Mama, ich lebe (Mama, I’m Alive) and Solo Sunny, by Konrad Wolf; Der Aufenthalt (Turning Point), Der Bruch (The Break-In) and Bockshorn (Taken For a Ride), by Frank Beyer; Bis dass der Tod euch scheidet (Until Death Do Us Apart), by Heiner Carow; and Einer trage des anderen Last (Bear Ye One Another’s Burden), by Lothar Warneke. He is the author of important works on DEFA, including Sozialistische Filmkunst: Eine Dokumentation (Dietz Verlag Berlin, 2011); Zwischen uns die Mauer – DEFA-Filme auf der Berlinale (Berlin, 2010); Gruppe Babelsberg – Unsere nicht gedrehten Filme (Das Neue Berlin, 2000); Bevor der Film ins Kino kommt – Von der Idee zur Leinwand (Kinderbuch Verlag Berlin, 1984/87). And he is the editor of the book Lebensläufe – Die Kinder von Golzow (Schüren Verlag Marburg, 2004).


[1] Kurt Maetzig was one of four license holders of DEFA when it was founded on May 17, 1946. Starting in 1947, he worked as a feature film director and was the founding dean of the German Academy for Film in Potsdam-Babelsberg in 1954, which he headed for 19 years.

[2] East German film artists called the genre Kundschafterfilm ("scout" film) instead of spy film.



Extra info:

This interview was conducted by Hiltrud Schulz in April 2013. 


Translation by Hiltrud Schulz and Skyler Arndt-Briggs, DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


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