- The Politics of Magic: DEFA Fairy-Tale Films by Qinna Shen
Fairy tales have been intertwined with film since its invention. From Georges Méliès’s 1899 Cinderella to Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s 2016 The Huntsman: Winter’s War, fairy tales have inspired films for well over a century. As early as the 1920s, fairy-tale filmmakers in Europe were beginning to reference “movie magic.” In The Politics of Magic Qinna Shen examines an often forgotten but fascinating chapter in the history of fairy-tale film, the Märchenfilme of DEFA, the state-owned film studio of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). A traditional Christmas treat, Märchenfilme, or fairy-tale films, were released nearly every year from 1950 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Many were popular at international film festivals and even played to audiences in West Germany and beyond. More than simple entertainment, however, these films communicated the ideology of the GDR. Shen quotes the deputy minister of culture, Alexander Abusch, who in 1958 explained that “the adaptation of fairy-tale material should not spread mysticism, but educate children in the spirit of social justice and to love the working people” (16–17). A tall order to ask of any story, let alone a genre full of royal protagonists, fantastical rewards of wealth, and happy endings that uphold a feudal societal structure. One would think that such a complex and rich collection of film would have been long explored at this point, but Shen’s text is the first monograph to exclusively examine the DEFA Märchenfilme.
Each chapter of the study demonstrates through careful case studies the fascinating tightrope filmmakers had to walk to produce fairy-tale films in a socialist state. Elements that seem essential to the genre, such as magic, the pursuit of wealth, and the depiction of royal protagonists, had to be reimagined to fit within the framework of socialism. Magic was deemphasized and “didactically replaced by protagonists’ self-confidence and self-agency” (249). Princesses were required to demonstrate a strong work ethic and an affinity with the working class. This was easier for characters like Snow White (Schneewittchen, 1961) and Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, 1974), but others, such as Rapunzel (Rapunzel oder der Zauber der Tränen, 1988), were sent to the kitchens to prove their worth and their love. Young peasants in the DEFA films refused marvelous monetary rewards and instead sought “love as the true wealth” (249).
Although magical and fantastical elements were often subverted or replaced, early filmmakers were criticized for modernizing beloved Grimm tales. For instance, reviews of Das tapfere Schneiderlein (The Brave Little Tailor, 1954) chastised the filmmakers for disrespecting German tradition with a new happy ending in which the tailor chooses to marry a royal maid rather than the traditional royal bride. This led to the adaptation of more obscure fairy [End Page 433] tales that represented socialist elements more organically, such as the Grimms’ “Das Bürle,” adapted into Das hölzerne Kälbchen (The Wooden Calf) in 1959. As the years went on, however, royal suitors were often swapped for clever and hardworking peasants, and by the 1970s and 1980s this had become common practice.
There were many changes over the many decades of DEFA film. Censorship, for instance, ebbed and flowed with changes in the political climate. Fairy-tale films sometimes managed to fly beneath the radar. This was the case with König Drosselbart (King Thrushbeard, 1965). Although the film featured a ballad that appeared to call out the economic destitution of the GDR, it was one of the only DEFA films of 1965 to survive the Kahlschlag, or shelving of films because of the Eleventh Plenum. Meanwhile, four years earlier, in 1961, Das Kleid (The Robe) had been banned for depicting a walled city, though the film had already been completed before the Berlin Wall was built. Shen quotes its screenwriter, Egon Günther, in 2000 about the wall: “I could not have known that. Neither can I claim that...