Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A fine comedy

Karbid und sauerampfer (Carbide and Sorrel) 1963 DEFA Filmstudios, East Germany (80 minutes) directed by Frank Beyer, screenplay by Hans Oliva.
A German Everyman uses his wits to accomplish a nearly impossible task in difficult circumstances in this comedy reminiscent of the classic British postwar Ealing Studios films.
Based on a true story and made less than a generation after the war’s end, this film looks back with parody and light nostalgia on the real hardships of a period that by the 1960s had been overcome but still was fresh in people’s memories.
In order to rebuild the Marcella Cigarette Factory in Dresden where he worked before Allied bombs destroyed it, Karl ‘Kalle’ Blücher (Erwin Geschonneck) must go to a factory in Wittenberge where his brother-in-law works to bring back carbide, an industrial carbon compound needed to weld the cigarette factory’s bomb-damaged drives so its machinery can run again.
Assuming that his relative will give him the carbide, this trip involves crossing several hundred kilometers of war-ravaged, mined and hungry Soviet-occupied Germany in the months after the war to transport a rationed industrial material.
A coworker demonstrates to Kalle how easy it will be. He opens a map and ‘walks’ the roughly 350 kilometers from Dresden to Wittenberge with his index and middle finger. Kalle can walk or hitchhike, and it is lovely countryside, another tells him. And because Kalle is a vegetarian who eats things like sorrel and watercress, he can live off the land as he makes his way there and back, another helpfully chimes in. 
Thus begins Kalle’s six-week adventure through the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany in that short post-Nazi, pre-Socialist moment after the end of the war.
            It is a trek reminiscent of the Good Soldier Švejk’s ‘Budějovice Anabasis’ as an Austro-Hungarian private during the First World War, described tongue-in-cheek by the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek:
‘Marching forward all the time is what is called an anabasis: penetrating into unknown regions: being cut off by enemies who are waiting for the first convenient opportunity to wring your neck. If anyone has a good head on his shoulders, like Xenophon…he can work real wonders on a march.’ (The Good Soldier Švejk, Pt. II, Chap. 2, English translation by Cecil Parrott; Švejk, below, in a Josef Lada illustration from the text.)
In this movie, Kalle has a good head on his shoulders and works real wonders.
He whistles his Everyman theme as he walks to Wittenberge, a catchy, brave little air that would not be out of place in an Ealing comedy. He passes civilian refugees and avoids Red Army columns that he watches wide-eyed from concealment each time they roll by with an energetic, stringy rendition of the Russian folk song Kalinka. A brassy Battle Hymn of the Republic announces Americans on the other side of the Elbe River.
Kalle’s brother-in-law gives him seven 50-kilogram barrels of carbide, but tells him that transporting them the 350-kilometers back to Dresden is his problem.
Kalle gets his first lift from Karla (Marita Böhme), passing by the factory in a horse drawn wagon. Karla lives within sight of the factory, but helps put him in the right frame of mind for what is to come. Kalle’s ‘anabasis’ involves, among other things: several trucks, a cart, a baby carriage; a horse-drawn hearse and two boats; German truck drivers and Soviet military authorities, an opera singer and an orphan from Berlin headed ‘to America,’ a fat American corporal in a motorboat, black marketeers and various rascals, German police, and a sexually ravenous widow—in roughly 30-kilometer stages.
Nearly everyone Kalle meets on the road is self-interested, either by nature or hard necessity. They suspect that this man hauling much more of a rationed industrial compound than he can use personally must be involved in an illegal activity.
However, as in the Ealing comedies, the protagonist embodies the best qualities of the national character, and applies those qualities to better society in spite of itself. Here, Kalle subordinates his self-interest to the greater common good of rebuilding postwar Germany, even if that means just getting a cigarette factory running again.
And like his spiritual brother-heroes in the Ealing comedies, the secret to Kalle’s success is that he remains wryly cheerful—and watchful—throughout.

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