Appellate Judge James A. Stewart goes East once again.
"There's no place for us."
Made in 1991, The Mistake (or Verfehlung in the original German) is a love story set in the waning days of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. East German director Heiner Carow was reunited with actress Angelica Domröse, who starred in The Legend of Paul and Paula, one of his most popular films, before emigrating to the West. With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall having just passed, it's one of a batch of East German films making its way from film festivals to DVD in the DEFA Collection.
Westerner Jacob (Gottfried John, GoldenEye), on a visit to a bleak East German town, keeps running into Elisabeth, the mayor's cleaning lady/assistant. After Jacob complains to a pub operator because he can't get Russian vodka in the Soviet bloc, he and Elisabeth get to know each other on a romantic walk past piles of garbage and a pit that looks like a strip mine. He's a widower and she's a widow, so both are lonely. The mayor declares his love for Elisabeth during a biological weapons drill, but his romantic timing is off in multiple ways; by then, Elisabeth and Jacob are exchanging letters and planning a meeting in Berlin. Jacob breaks the law to come back to the village with Elisabeth, but there's going to be a mistake, as the title suggests.
I'd advise against reading the blurb on the DVD cover before watching the movie, because it says enough to make the ample foreshadowing practically scream at you. Even if you don't, director Heiner Carow's heavy handed telegraphing tips his hand on the ending early on. Still, he does a good job of creating sympathetic characters and showing the (hopefully exaggerated) backdrop against which they live. The town Elisabeth lives in has chickens roaming the streets and street lights that abruptly, totally shut down as Elisabeth makes her lonely walk home. Carow takes a lot of jabs at the constant ideological droning of East German socialism, apparently a pent-up urge. The novella by Werner Heiduczek, on which the movie was based, was written in 1982, so it's obvious that Carow took liberties to reflect the changing times.
The pace of the film is decidedly slow, lingering over touches of the loneliness of Elisabeth's life before heading to the inevitable ending. Anyone looking for a whirlwind romance might be disappointed, but the emphasis is on creating a portrait of a society and a character living in that society.
Angelica Domröse plays Elisabeth with enough expression and feeling to make The Mistake more than a relic of the days after the fall of the Wall. As she waits for a potential visit from Jacob, viewers see she's eager, putting on her best dress and practically running to the door, but she's hesitant when she's actually with him, her shy, lonely self coming forward. Later, she becomes a person of action, providing plenty of hints about that action, even as those around her fail to notice the change.
The picture and transfer leave a lot to be desired. The fading and flecks here and there are probably from the original print, but there's some pixelation and an odd rippling effect in the film that probably are from the transfer. The sound includes a lot of ambient noise, and handles it decently.
The extras are all text, and most of them are for DVD-ROM. If you watched the movie, you'll want to read them, though. They include an interview with Carow, an introduction to the film, and a review from just after its release, which pays more attention to the Soviet fall as a theme than a contemporary review would.
Ultimately, The Mistake is a sad, ironic love story, with impact beyond the jabs at socialism. I wouldn't recommend watching it right before Valentine's Day, as I did, but it is worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: DEFA Film Library
• DVD-ROM Features
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