Arguably the most significant living German screenwriter, Wolfgang Kohlhaase’s tribute at this year’s Berlinale is especially fitting. Berlin is not only his hometown but formed the subject of many of his most acclaimed works: the neo-realist films directed by Gerhard Klein between 1954 and 1972 that chronicled the lives of young people growing up in the partitioned city, and which came to be known as “Berlin-Filme.”
After working as a journalist for a number of East German newspapers, Kohlhaase found work at DEFA, the communist-run film studio, where from 1952 he worked as a freelance scriptwriter. It was there he met Klein, and the two men soon formed a friendship and working partnership that yielded a number of remarkable films, utterly specific to their period and place, such as “A Berlin Romance” (1956), “Berlin — Schoenhauser Corner” (1957), “Sunday Drivers” (1963).
Combining Kohlhaase’s vivid screenplays with Klein’s fascination with re-creating the textures of daily life, first in the divided city and later in the Communist East (“He could show you how a courtyard smells,” Kohlhaase once declared), these films are today regarded as among the most definitive records of postwar Berlin.
Sean Allan, an associate professor of German Studies at the U of Warwick, said the Berlinale honor is entirely deserved.
“When you think of international screenwriters, Kohlhaase may not be the first person that comes to mind,” Allan said. “but in terms of German cinema, his role is fairly indispensible.
“Apart from anything else, his career spans the entire history of the East German film industry. And he’s the only one to have successfully negotiated the collapse of the GDR, to the extent that he’s still working to this day.”
Allan cites Kohlhaase and Klein’s 1962 drama “The Gliwice Affair” as a landmark film.
“Here, they’re taking the whole anti-fascist genre that was such a staple of communist filmmaking, and reconfiguring it in an extremely modernist way, in an attempt to align East German cinema with the other new waves that were happening in Europe at that time.”
Little wonder, then, that even before the Iron Curtain was raised, in August 1961, their work had begun to attract official interference.
Alexander Abusch, the then-deputy minister of culture, attacked “Schoenhauser Corner” at a Film Congress in 1958 for displaying what he termed the “negative influence” of Italian neo-realism; the result, he claimed, deformed the “progressive” Socialist Realism the authorities desired.
“Berlin Around the Corner” from 1965 was then banned by the East German authorities as “aesthetically inappropriate”; it was not completed and released until 1987.
In the meantime, the writer had forged another significant working relationship — with director Konrad Wolf, with whom he collaborated on four features, including “I Was Nineteen” (1968) and “Solo Sunny” (1980), before Wolf’s death in 1982.
Most of the 1990s was spent writing both novels and for German television. But Kohlhaase returned to international prominence in 2000 with a stunning screenplay for Volker Schloendorff’s drama “The Legends of Rita,” which followed the precarious existence of a female Red Army Faction terrorist (played, memorably, by Bibiana Beglau) hiding out east of the Wall.
The film generated intense controversy among German audiences, and Allan was unsurprised.
“Apart from anything else, the whole business of RAF terrorists operating in the GDR is something that no one ever really acknowledges, even today,” he said. “Whatever files there were, I think, have long been destroyed. Yet the film seems absolutely accurate and credible. I’d be really fascinated to know what Kohlhaase’s sources were.”
Still active at 78, the veteran screenwriter most recently teamed with a director almost four decades his junior, Andreas Dresen, for whom he scripted the 2005 breakout hit “Summer in Berlin” and last year’s “Whiskey With Vodka.”