Appellate Judge James A. Stewart looks into a time capsule of postwar East Germany and finds a suspect jar of blood sausage and a few cigarettes.
"If we want to make cigarettes again, the machines must run."
The Soviets began DEFA, the East German film agency, in 1946 to win minds in its new territory (according to Wikipedia). Unfortunately, it was just a coming attractions trailer for the German Democratic Republic. This film, with the German title of Karbid Und Sauerampfer, looks back at the days right after World War II, just before the formation of DEFA.
Facts of the Case
A group of men sitting in the ruined Marcella Cigarette Factory in Dresden just want to get the machines up and running. They need carbide for welding—and Kalle's brother-in-law in Wittenberg can get them some. Kalle (Erwin Geschonneck) doesn't even smoke, but he's the one on whose shoulders the responsibility of bringing cigarettes back to East German resides. Thus begins his journey, walking against a tide of people wheeling along their possessions, as the bouncy opening score begins.
He gets to Wittenberg and gets seven barrels of carbide rather quickly. End of story? Not on your life, since Kalle has no way of getting the barrels back to Dresden. Thus begins a journey through more than 300 miles of a postwar Germany that's full of misery and poverty, shortages, bureaucracy, and soldiers who might arrest Kalle at any moment (and do, several times).
It's made sweeter by an encounter at the factory with a woman leading a horse-drawn cart. Kalle tells Karla (Marita Bohme, Polizeiruf 110) he's going to Dresden and she offers him a lift, but only "as far as that house," which he can see as she points. He's invited in for dinner and stays for the night. As they sleep together, Kalle tells her he's an intense dreamer, but he always forgets his dreams. Marla tells him she dreams of being a movie star. She gives him a mirror that contains her portrait, so they can be together—if he looks at it the right way. Thus, that first night follows him through his journey.
It's no surprise that in such a situation, Kalle's seven barrels will begin to dwindle, especially once he encounters the Russian army, which needs carbide to keep its vehicles running.
Restaurant customer: "A cup of coffee, please."
That droll exchange might not have been a laff riot, but it does bring a chuckle or two and tells us volumes about life in East Germany under the Soviet Union. Carbide and Sorrel is a lot like the jokes that circulated behind the Berlin Wall. The droll chuckles and occasional slapstick are linked to an empathetic look at the deprivations and oddities of East German life after the war.
When a starving Kalle decides to hunt mushrooms, he does so in a minefield, not seeing the large warning sign until a man calls out to him. After his frightened dash out of the mine area, the man can only look at his prizes and say, "That's a butter mushroom." When Kalle gets a ride with his carbide, he tosses the tin with the last of the mushrooms back into the woods and it lands on a mine.
When Kalle goes to sleep in a barn, he awakens to find the Soviet Army there. The commander magnanimously offers to arrange papers so he can deliver the carbide, but the supply officer tries to confiscate the precious barrels for his own use, leading Kalle into a battle of negotiating will. He gets to keep four barrels, but finds that even then, the Soviets have switched one barrel on him, giving him a barrel of chalk instead.
Kalle lives on his wits, getting the upper hand on the people who try to trick, cheat, or stop him along the way. That barrel of chalk goes back to the Soviet Army at the next "taxing" encounter. When two vagrants try to sneak off with two of his barrels, Kalle lets them go on for a while before stopping them, since they're hauling part of his load for him. This cunning made the character interesting, since he's not the helpless, hapless sap of a typical slapstick comedy.
In a scene that plays too Soviet, Kalle steals a boat from a cowardly, profane blowhard of an American soldier. Since the war had just ended when the film was set, it didn't seem like he'd had time for his moral bearings to go over the Wall. On the other hand, Erwin Geschonneck himself was a communist before World War II. He last appeared on German TV in 1995 in a movie directed by his son (according to IMDb).
There's grain here and there, but the images on this black-and-white film aren't too bad. As for the production, there appears to be a lot of rear projection when Kalle is on transport. There's also some undercranking and bouncy music that isn't a good match for the mild droll humor. Kudos to Director Frank Beyer (1974's Jacob the Liar) for including cuckoo calls as Kalle makes his way unwittingly through the minefield, a seeming nod to Laurel and Hardy, who were heralded with "The Cuckoo Song." The sound is adequate.
The critical essay by Karen Kramer notes that East Germans were lucky to see Karbid Und Sauerampfer, since one year, 1965, saw most of DEFA's films confiscated by the East German communists. This one, fortunately, got "completed before the 1965 political chill." A later Beyer film, The Trace of Stones, was censored.
The filmed interview with director Frank Beyer is too brief because it doesn't show us anything about other movies he did. The featurette is mainly concerned with his appointment as a "culture officer" and how it gave him a window into the world of theater. There are short but adequate text bios of Beyer, Geschonneck, and Bohme. The "original trailer" is actually quite a few trailers of DEFA films available through First Run Features.
The most interesting extra here is "News From the West," a comic short starring Geschonneck warning about the dangers of listening to West German radio. A card player fears food poisoning from a suspect jar of blood sausage after hearing a report.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The films presented here were made by East Germany's official DEFA film studio. That does mean that it could not go against the official point of view with the possibility of winding up in storage, as Beyer's The Trace of Stones did. That raises alternating possibilities—that Beyer slipped in some sly jokes about 1963 East Germany or that he pulled punches about the postwar era—that I would have liked to have seen addressed in supplementary material.
This glimpse into an alternative film history is interesting. Material focusing on the choices East German filmmakers made before the fall of the Berlin Wall would be an interesting addition to our cinematic knowledge, though.
Not guilty. Now if you'll see the supply officer to get the proper papers, you can continue on your journey.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• "Trace of Memories -- A Portrait of Frank Beyer"
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