Karbid und Sauerampfer

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To this day East German cinema is largely inaccessible in the United States, with the notable exception of First Run Features who have made available on DVD a number of that cinema’s greatest landmarks. Typically First Run Features issues a half dozen DEFA titles in a boxed set of thematically connected films. In total First Run Features has released between twenty and thirty films from East Germany on DVD. Of these films (which are by far the most accessible to own of their kind) a sizable chunk were directed by the great Frank Beyer.

Beyer is one of the most gifted social commentators in modern cinema, having worked adeptly in a variety of genres over the breadth of his career. Here in the U.S. he’s known primarily for having made Jacob The Liar (1975), which was subsequently remade with Robin Williams in 1999. Working in drama or comedy, Beyer’s priority as a filmmaker was to give a voice to the working class of a nation grappling with Soviet control and the legacy of the Nazi regime. Even with his western, Fünf Patronenhülsen (1960), Beyer works in subtle critiques of fascism and the romanticized opportunism that defines post-colonial imperialism. Karbid und Sauerampfer (1963) is far more direct in it’s political and social observations; it is a straight comedy, that looks at the potential absurdity of every day working class life in East Germany.

Beyer’s Karbid und Sauerampfer follows Karl (Erwin Geschonneck) on his odyssey to obtain several large drums of carbide and return with them to repair the roof of the factory where he and his friends once worked. Beyer’s road-movie allows the protagonist to interact with all manner of people, painting a portrait of East German culture and society through those interactions. Karl himself is the epitome of the German everyman, an Emil Jannings type, played as a big hearted buffoon; a German answer to France’s Monsieur Hulot.

Beyer litters the film with absurd images and poignant symbolism, such as when Karl takes a nap in an undertaker’s coffin. Hans-Dieter Schlegel’s American Soldier who gives Karl a lift in his boat lampoons the U.S. presence in East Germany by portraying this character as a cross between Hugh O’Brien and Jerry Lewis. Then Beyer takes his shot at the Soviet Red Army. Twice Karl is captured by the Red Army due to some misunderstanding or other since they appear as both wholly ineffective and totally depraved.

Americans don’t really think of comedy when they think of German cinema, but Karbid und Sauerampfer is hysterical. Frank Beyer’s miniature portraits of German country life and his nutsy sense of humor combined with his strong political views make this film one of the essential, and most criminally over looked, films of the sixties. Jiří Menzel’s excellent Ostře sledované vlaky (1966) owes more than a little to this Frank Beyer gem, and I’d recommend watching them as a double feature.