Filmmaker Interviews

Helke Misselwitz: On Herzsprung and Filmmaking during the Wende

Herzsprung was your feature film debut. Could you please share with me, how it came about that you, as a documentary filmmaker, made a feature film.


I had had no choice but to work as a documentary director, as I was not allowed to make feature films.


I studied directing and received my diploma in directing at the Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. In their first year, all the students there work on a documentary, followed by a feature film in their second year; for their major they could choose. I chose feature films and received my diploma in that.


You were only able to study at the Academy if either the DEFA studios or GDR television had delegated you. That meant that you went back to work at the institution that delegated you after you finished your studies and had a permanent position there. I was supposed to return to the journalism department for child and youth television and take over a show for Young Pioneers.[1] This decision was set in stone.


I was 35—too old, I felt, to wear a blue neckerchief and conform. I passed up this permanent position and applied to the Feature Film Studio, but to no avail. There too, the rigid structures did not allow for any exceptions. The only door that opened for me was at the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films in Berlin, in the KINOBOX group, whose leader, Bernd Burckhardt, was very interested in the younger generation of directors. There I was able, pirate-like, to stretch my 3½-minute assignments—once into a 10- and once a 20-minute film—mainly short film essays made up of documentary and narrative elements.


I was still a student when I advocated for a studio for young filmmakers at the 1982 filmmakers’ association conference—for a studio outside the rigid structures of the film and television factories, where young directors could apply to make their debut film projects. After that a group of young filmmakers [the Nachwuchsgruppe] was formed and [director] Jörg Foth was chosen as its speaker. Not until seven years later—in fall 1989, when the officials had no other choice—did they promise a budget for a young filmmakers’ group in the Feature Film Studio and independent decision-making power for film productions. [After a long series of formalities, the group was finally officially established on January 1, 1990.] 


Separate from this, it was clear to me in November ’89 that the old structures couldn’t last and I would finally get the chance to make a feature film.



Your film was described in reviews as the first independent East German film production. Your film was conceived in the newly-founded DaDaeR production group, but then actually produced by the Thomas Wilkening Filmgesellschaft mbH, where you were one of the shareholders. What were production conditions like at that time—coinciding exactly with the Wende period—when all film production and distribution structures in Germany changed?


At the beginning of 1990, the DaDaeR group included in their production plans a film based on a script by a young female writer, under my direction. But between the script and its potential realization came the events of 1989-90. I couldn’t shoot the GDR story that was in the script as if unaffected [by these events]. So I wrote another script—Herzsprung—under the influence of the events that were strongly affecting the lives of East Germans.


Thomas Wilkening, who was the head of the DaDaeR group at the DEFA Studio for Feature Films in Babelsberg, soon realized that the DEFA studios would not survive much longer as a state-owned concern and proposed that we create a company together. We did this in April 1990, with the initial goals of producing my first feature film and “laying the foundation for a film workshop that is committed to a cultural conception of film.” We also called our company DaDaeR Film GmbH for a short while, until we decided to name it after the director and producer, Thomas Wilkening. In this period, financing films through foundations was relatively easy—and we had the added advantage that people were curious about us.



You cast well-known actors in your film, such as Eva-Maria Hagen and Günter Lamprecht. Could you please say something about the casting process?


I like it when actors exude a sensual presence, a natural eroticism, and when they represent people, that they might well have experienced themselves. I wanted to recount a melodrama—in other words, a drama with a lot of music—and for this I was able to seek and find actors and musicians in the East and West.


Certainly, it was also important for me what other roles they had played—like Eva-Maria Hagen’s unforgettable Traudel (in Vergeßt mir meine Traudel nicht, Don’t Forget My Little Traudel, 1957) or Lamprecht’s Biberkopf in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). There was also definitely a reverence for the DEFA star Eva-Maria Hagen, who had remained loyal to Biermann, also in terms of political conviction, and was boycotted by the DEFA management and excluded from further productions.[2] For her it was a kind of homecoming to a place she had not been allowed to set foot in for a long time.


I had discovered Claudia Geisler, who plays the main character, Johanna, at the Deutsches Theater. But I had actually wanted to cast her as the lead, Ramona, in my film Engelchen—a script I had been working on since 1989. Unfortunately, she fell ill at the beginning of the shoot in 1995 and we couldn’t continue our work. I regret it to this day. I really like her intricacy, her laughter, her stunning directness, and her still slightly noticeable Thuringian accent.



Your film premiered on November 19, 1992 in Berlin, was a success at the Film Festival in San Sebastian and was nominated for the German Film Award. The premiere took place at a time of increasing racism in Germany. How did people react to the film? What did they say about it, given that it focuses on exactly this burgeoning racism?


I wanted to unfurl a look at a landscape and the social relations that had formed the people. The story is set in January 1992, two years after the end of East Germany. But the biographies of the figures in the film are deeply rooted in German history. Johanna tells about her father, who was Polish and in a concentration camp. On the death march that took him through the villages of the Prignitz in 1945, everybody turned away, except one young girl—Johanna’s mother.


If you were attentive, you could notice a latent xenophobia in the GDR too. Foreigners lived isolated in dormitories, in ghettos. Everybody who came to work in East Germany—like Vietnamese, Cubans and Africans—stayed foreigners and kept to themselves. There was almost no opportunity to experience them as humans, except at universities or academies, where they often had to study things they didn’t want to study. But that’s another story.


Reactions to the film were ambivalent—not about what I told, but rather about how I told it: laconically and with a pictorial quality based on fairy tales of the German Romantic period. This divided the reviews into bright, differentiated and analytical reflections and affirmations, on one hand, and, on the other hand, strident rejection: Why should one summon up an appreciation for the games of right-wing youths?



How did the permanent political and social changes taking place in society impact your plot?


They inspired this story in me. The mass layoffs. The closing of social facilities, in particular—facilities such as kindergartens and company-owned cafeterias, in which mainly women worked—put them out of jobs. This had economic, but mostly psychological effects. It was harder for men to deal with than for women; they suffered from the loss of prestige, especially in the country, where the agricultural cooperatives were closing down fast. The story of Johanna’s husband was based on real events in Thuringia that I read about in the paper. A man had filled up on alcohol and run amok, killed all animals in the barn and then committed suicide. The younger people moved away, looked for work in West Germany—like Johanna tries to do at the chocolate factory. When only old people remain in the villages, every stranger is met with mistrust. You try to get them to leave for fear that they might take away your women or men—along the lines of: Our women are ours!


When I was working on the script, the attacks on the Vietnamese people in Hoyerswerda had not yet taken place. When we shot the film, the center for political refugees in Rostock-Lichtenhagen had not yet been burnt down. But I did not feel—either before, or after these events—the need to change my story or react publically. I wanted to talk about the people and their desires, their hopes and how they tried to live them. And that it doesn’t work for everybody that it can also end tragically.



When we met in Los Angeles in March 2009, when Herzsprung screened as part of the premiere of the WENDE FLICKS series, you mentioned that you had not seen the film for many years. What do you think about your film today?


I like the somnambulist beauty, the humor and the hope that each figure tries to bring to life. At the same time, in some scenes I would stage the characters’ desires in a more vital and edgy way—arrange it, choreograph and photograph it more rhythmically. And today I’d like to try out how it would work if Nino Sandow played Soljanka—who desires Johanna and unintentionally kills her at the end. And Ben Becker played the stranger. Not cast the roles so unambiguously, in order to underline that it’s against the stranger, the unknown, and not against the representative of an alleged race.



During our work on the WENDE FLICKS film series we heard many stories about what happened to the films that were made during the Wende period in Germany: that the rights’ holders and distributors changed several times; that the original negatives had been left, untouched, at the duplication facility for almost 20 years . . . as was the case with your film. When we decided to have a new 35mm print of Herzsprung made for the series tour, we asked you to check and approve the print. What happened that day?  


The approval screening of the new print turned out to be literally the last screening to take place at the duplication facility in Babelsberg, which had formerly been the duplication facility of the East German DEFA studios and had later been privatized as Babelsberg Postproduction GmbH. Four days later, they closed the company down and all the employees lost their jobs. The newest shareholder, Electrofilm, had not wanted to invest in the new digital technologies needed to keep the company up-to-date.


It was especially sad for the woman who worked with light and color grading to bid her work place farewell with this film. The first images in Herzsprung—the scenes with the kitchen workers who lose their jobs—had been filmed in the kitchen of the DEFA cafeteria. It was right across the street from the duplication facility and already disappeared a few years ago.


I don’t know exactly how long the duplication facility was in existence. It was perhaps already functioning in the times of Bioskop, or when the UFA studios moved to Babelsberg in the 1920s. In any case, with the closing of this facility there vanishes an important branch of Babelsberg film production, which was once famous for its efficiency—with all the necessary facilities in one place—and which it, curiously enough, still advertises today.


[1] The Young Pioneers was the East German organization for school children from first through seventh grades.

[2] Eva-Maria Hagen was involved with the critical East German singer-songwriter Wolf Bierman from 1965 to 1972; she and many other artists protested his expulsion from the GDR in 1976. 




Extra info:

This exclusive interview with director Helke Misselwitz was conducted and translated by Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Film Library in August 2009.


The DEFA Film Library would like to thank Helke Misselwitz for this interview.

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