A chapter in film history ends with the death of the great German screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase.
Only two weeks ago, an era ended with the death of Jean-Luc Godard, and now another important chapter in post-war film history is closing.
As one of the most important screenwriters, Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who was the same age, shaped German cinema practically from the beginning of Defa. As early as the mid-1950s he made a name for himself as a renovator of studio cinema, when he coined East German neo-realism with director Gerhard Klein. Dubbed “Berlin Films” by critics, their works told contemporary stories about young people in the capital and are now considered classics. “A Berlin Romance” is a cross-border love story before the Wall was built: a young saleswoman falls in love with a car washer from the west who wants to help her finance a mannequin training there. The dream ends with him being unemployed, but there is still a happy ending – he simply follows her to the east.
Many of Kohlhaase’s screenplays portray the GDR in an ideal state that is rarely experienced, but their characters were too individualistic for propaganda. “Berlin around the corner” (1965), another collaboration with Klein, was banned in the rough cut and could only be completed after the fall of the Wall.
As a master of dialogue, Kohlhaase guaranteed his realistic material a human, always down-to-earth tone of voice, which provided Konrad Wolf in particular with templates for major films. The best known is “Solo Sunny”, a masterpiece celebrated at the 1980 Berlinale. Leading actress Renate Krößner won a Silver Bear for her portrayal of a singer who has to reconcile her artistic dreams with the reality of life when she performs in the provinces. No Defa retrospective would be complete without this classic.
If Kohlhaase’s career continued seamlessly after reunification, it was also because he mastered something that became scarce in West German cinema after the end of New German Cinema: a credible social positioning, combined with a natural combination of comedy and melancholy. It may still have had its roots in neorealism – and it turned out to be timeless. One of Kohlhaase’s most important works of the 1990s was his screenplay for “The Silence After the Shot”. Volker Schlöndorff directed the drama about an ex-terrorist who leads a hapless life as an exile in the GDR.
His tragic tone
Whoever met Kohlhaase at that time experienced him like his film heroes – modest and extremely hardworking. In director Andreas Dresen he found a soul mate who perhaps hit the tragicomic tone that he mastered so wonderfully better than anyone else. In 2005 their joint work “Summer in front of the balcony” was shown at the San Sebastian film festival, in 2007 they created a kind of male “Solo Sunny” replica with Henry Hübchen, “Whisky mit Vodka”. They presented their most beautiful joint film in 2015 at the Berlinale: “When we dreamed”, a story from the immediate time of reunification, with its sensitive depiction of youthful longings, Kohlhaase took him back to his beginnings.
Even in his eighties, this infallible typewriter remained creative. In 2017, Matti Geschonneck filmed “In Times of Fading Light” about an old communist who looks back on his life on his 90th birthday. It was not until 2020 that another Kohlhaase book was made into a film, the original idea of which once again betrayed the great writers: “Persian Lessons” tells the story of a Belgian Jew who escapes murder in a concentration camp because he claims to be Persian. Since he doesn’t know the language, he invents a new one.
Wolfgang Kohlhaase didn’t invent a new cinematic language, but he did give the people he masterfully observed a language. And precisely because his earlier films often convey a somewhat idealized image of the GDR, they are among their most valuable documents: they preserve dreams in the guise of realism.