While most hardcore film buffs are well versed in the movies of Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, F.W. Murnau and their latter compatriots Werner Herzog, R.W. Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Volker Schlondorff, directors such as Kurt Maetzig, Joachim Kunert and Gerhard Klein are completely unknown or unfamiliar to Western audiences for an obvious reason. They worked for DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft), the nationalized film industry of East Germany, and as a result, very few of their movies were distributed outside of socialist countries during the Cold War Era when DEFA was in its prime. A rare exception was Kurt Maetzig’s Der Schweigende Stern aka The Silent Star, a science fiction adventure which was released in the U.S. in an edited, English dubbed version as First Spaceship on Venus in 1962. Much more complex and thematically intriguing is Maetzig’s Das Kaninchen Bin (English title: The Rabbit is Me, 1965) along with Joachim Kunert’s Das Zweite Gleis (English title: The Second Track, 1962) and Gerhard Klein’s Die Fall Gleiwitz (English title: The Gleiwitz Case, 1961).
The film industry is rife with tales about directors who struggled and failed to bring their dream projects to the screen and the subject would make a fascinating, behind-the-scenes non-fiction book about the precarious nature of moviemaking. Among the more famous examples are Orson Welles, who pitched a film version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to RKO executives, who instead chose Welles’ second idea, Citizen Kane, Josef von Sternberg’s ambitious 1937 production of I, Claudius, which was started but never completed due to disagreements between the director and Charles Laughton plus the injury of leading lady Merle Oberon in a car accident, and Robert Altman, who wanted to make a film version of the 1997 documentary Hands on a Hard Body and had even cast it but died before production could begin. Yet, for all the films-that-might-have-been, there are many examples of directors who finally succeeded in making their passion projects and one of them is Fritz Lang. His lifelong desire to make a film of the 1917 novel, The Indian Tomb, written by his former wife Thea Von Harbou, was finally realized in the late 1950s when he started production on a lavish movie adaptation that would be released in two parts as The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, both 1959.Continue reading
Rarely seen in the U.S. and not one of the better known films about a famous mountain-climbing expedition, The Challenge (1938) is an intriguing bridge between the German mountain films of Arnold Fanck (White Hell of Pitz Palu, 1929) and contemporary man-against-nature survival tales such as Philipp Stozl’s Northface (2008), where two Germans and two Austrians try to scale the Eiger in Switzerland, and Kevin Macdonald’s documentary reenactment Touching the Void (2003), the ill-fated trek by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates up the face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. Luis Trenker, one of the stars of The Challenge, was honored in person at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983 at age 90 and Turner Classic Movies aired the film in one of their Telluride programming tributes in 2010. The Challenge was also offered on The Criterion Channel. Continue reading