Judge Daryl Loomis thought he could beat his subversion rap, but was caught with thousands of mattress tags in his closet.
"In reality, it was the end of possibility of political reform in the GDR"—Hans Bentzien, GDR Minister of Culture
In the early 1960s, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was asked his feelings on current cinema. To him Soviet film, once a haven of artistic expression, had become stale through dogma and propaganda. He wanted to bring film into a more artistic, progressive age and, as a result, the DEFA (East Germany's film association) greenlit a whole slate of films to forge this new path. Khrushchev was soon ousted in favor of Leonid Brezhnev, however, and his hard-line stance ran in strict opposition to his predecessor. His position of regression resulted in the summary banning of a number of films, all left to rot in the vault. They made a particular example of The Rabbit Is Me. Director Kurt Maetzig (Silent Star) had long been a highly respected Socialist, and The Rabbit Is Me was a slap in the face to the government, adding bitter irony to its biting, honest criticism of East German justice.
Facts of the Case
Maria (Angelika Waller, Happiness Is a Warm Gun) is all set to go off to college when her brother gets arrested for ambiguous subversive activities. Now blackballed from attending school, she must continue her waitressing job but remains ever vigilant in trying to reduce her brother's sentence. After filing an appeal at the courthouse one afternoon, an older man asks her out. She's flattered until he introduces himself as Judge Paul Deister (Alfred Mueller), the man who sentenced her brother! She runs, but he finally convinces her to go out with him. Maria's young but not naïve. She knows that getting in bed with the judge is the key to her brother's freedom and uses all her wit and beauty to circumvent the labyrinthine justice system.
Adapted from a previously banned novel, the venomous criticism of the courts and modern attention to style make it hard to believe that The Rabbit Is Me got produced at all. Because of just those reasons, the film sat on the shelf for decades, but that brief loosening of standards was an unlikely accident that resulted in this great film. This is justice straight out of Franz Kafka's The Trial, justice that seems so absurd but was sadly so real. We are given no facts on the crime Maria's brother committed, but it is compared to another that happens during the film. This man is placed on trial for the perceived disrespect of the establishment and, if not for Maria's testimony at the trial, this man would have been railroaded into prison just like her brother. As Maria witnesses the insanity of the trial and the gross corruption of the courts, her anger and frustration burst from the screen in powerful fury.
The plot is straightforward, but very rich in its characterizations. Maria is a strong, independent-minded woman unconcerned with the state of Communism. Her conflicting desires for justice and affection drive her actions to the point where she works exclusively out of self-interest, an attitude that destroys theoretical Communism. On the other side, Judge Deister appears to have it all: a good government job, respect from his peers, a beautiful, powerful wife, and a beautiful, powerful mistress. In spite of all this, he is so afraid of being fingered for subversion as well that he's readily willing to corrupt himself and the judicial system to make him appear a hardliner. Working out of pure self-interest in this realm destroys bureaucratic Communism. In The Rabbit Is Me, under these circumstances, Communism cannot function in any way and Maetzig uses the film to smash the notions of his government against the wall.
The realistic style is reminiscent of the French New Wave, using internal monologues and flashbacks for a much more stylistically driven film than the usual Soviet propaganda. It never beats you over the head with its politics and instead draws an emotional connection to make the point that much more powerful. Wrong as it often seems, the romance between Maria and Judge Deister is very sweet. Maria really loves the judge and is even willing to accept that he's married just to be with him. Her love never sours, but she can't reconcile the corruption with her emotions. This is portrayed beautifully by Angelika Waller, who turns in a fantastic performance. Her monologues tell more about the society than anybody there could ever speak. Alfred Mueller's performance is fantastic, making the judge slimy and pathetic, yet surprisingly sympathetic. Much of their relationship is drawn using repeated scenes that lull viewers into a sense of security only to turn the tables and make everyday items like watches and air rifles into objects of menace. The Rabbit Is Me works on every level, touching on both its emotional and political points with ease and mixing in stylistic flourishes to great effect. I have no doubts why this film was banned; I'm just happy it's now available.
The release by First Run Features does justice to this powerful film. The film looks as good as I could possibly expect, with only a bit of dirt and decay still on the original print and no problems with the anamorphic transfer. This is especially surprising considering how little care was likely given a banned film. The mono sound is adequate. The German dialogue is clear and the music comes through well, though none of it is very dynamic. Generally, First Run does not include a lot of extras on their discs, but they've done well for The Rabbit Is Me. Featurettes, interviews, photo galleries, and documents shed important light on the history of these banned films. Oddly, there is a splash screen before the menu that asks your choice of the German version or the English version. As far as I can tell, there is no difference between the two except that, depending on your selection, the menu will either be in German or in English. I can't explain the reasoning for this, but First Run has done a great job all around with this forgotten gem.
The Rabbit Is Me is a must-see film, both from an artistic and a political standpoint. Its sweetness belies a powerful critique of the courts and, given its pointedly truthful attacks, I have a hard time believing such a movie could even come from a major studio today. A beautifully filmed move with dead-on performances and a strong political message: I can ask for nothing more.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Interview with Director Kurt Maetzig
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