April 7, 2008

The Rabbit is Me: East Germany in the "Swinging" 60s


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½

Confession: What induced me to queue up The Rabbit Is Me was the idea of an East German film that was initially banned and then not seen in public for 25 years. We never got than many East German movies over here to begin with, and since the fall of the "wall," we won’t be getting any more. The movie, as it turns out, is worth much more than just the curiosity factor. It holds up well, even without its "banned in East Berlin" notoriety.

In telling the story of a brother and sister separated by an overzealous judge, director Kurt Maetzig and writer Manfred Bieler (from his novel) see to it that all the details ring true, from the 60s time frame to life under a dictatorial government that was always trying to convince itself and its citizens of its higher nature, only to drown in hypocrisy. The movie shocks precisely by showing us that life with no sugar-coating. For a film this real to have come from the West would be surprising enough; from the East at this time it seems a sort of miracle. One wonders at how those connected with The Rabbit Is Me could have imagined that they would not be prosecuted. Yet at the time filming took place, the German Democratic Republic (yeah, right) appeared to be loosening up, allowing more freedom of expression, particularly in the arts. By the time of the film's release, however, things had clamped shut again, and everyone connected with this movie--and many others of that year (1965)--were in big trouble. Rabbit, however, was perceived as the worst of the lot (which I suppose could now be read as "best"), and over time all the banned films came to be collectively referred to as the "Rabbit" movies.

Interestingly, there are no out-and-out villains in The Rabbit Is Me. The judge comes closest but even he has enough good qualities to keep us off balance, and the brother whom he sentences in some ways turns out to be his mirror image, although active-aggressive rather than passive, as is the judge. Caught between the two is our heroine, Maria, played by Angelika Waller with the kind of complete performance that elsewhere would have won awards and put her permanently on the international movie map. In this, her first film, Waller possessed a face and body of great beauty, and her acting is so natural, so full of feeling and juice, that she turns this into a feminist film without ever calling attention to the fact. So humane and understanding is the attitude of the director and writer toward Maria that her story effortlessly becomes that of many young East German women of the day.

The DVD extras includes a wealth of wonderful material. In addition to the Bios/Filmographies and Picture Gallery, there are interviews with the director Kurt Maetzig (who speaks intelligently and movingly, deacades later, about his film's being banned) and Hans Bentzien, Minister of Culture from 1961-65 (who gives us his take on the 11th General Assembly and many of the people involved in it, and in the arts, at that time). "Banned DEFA Film & the 11th General Assembly," an especially interesting look at clips from many of the banned films, and a short but fine critical essay by Betheny Moore Roberts of the University of Massachusetts, complete the collection.

Also see: East Side Story

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Posted by cphillips at April 7, 2008 6:51 PM
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