Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Singing, Ringing Tree

An East German actress, Christel Bodenstein, delivers a great expressionistic performance in the 1957 DEFA film The Singing Ringing Tree (Francesco Stefani). The movie is worth searching out for a number of reasons, but Bodenstein's acting as the imperious princess in this adaptation of a Grimm Brothers' fairy tale is the most noteworthy thing in this picture.  When we first see the princess in her elderly father's quasi-oriental throne room, she looks like some kind of blonde, demented Queen Bee.  Under elaborate costuming, her breasts are pushed up about as high as can be and she wears a crown with pointy spires that look like an insect's antennae.  Her rather lackluster suitor, the prince has brought a jewel box full of pearls to her.  Disdainfully, she dismisses the pearls as inadequate and spills them all over the floor.  (It's hard not to see the spilled pearls as evidence of some kind of sexual dysfunction -- perhaps, premature ejaculation.)  In a high-pitched voice, she chastises the prince and says that he doesn't please her in the slightest.  Crestfallen, the poor fellow asks her what she wants and, after a significant pause, she responds that he must bring her a "singing, klinging tree."  It's obvious that this is just gibberish, that she is petulantly voicing a demand that she knows no one can meet, indeed, probably the first thing that comes to mind.  In fact, she seems slightly surprised herself at the bizarre request that she poses to her dim-witted knight errant.  Dutifully, the prince departs and, after encountering an evil dwarf, snatches from his garden a small, hapless-looking sapling, carrying it like a staff or walking stick, fragile roots and all, back to the princess.  She isn't interested in this pathetic, woody phallus and, so, in accord with the dwarf's curse, the unfortunate suitor is turned into a bear -- his horse has already become a peculiar-shaped rock formation.  The rest of the short film (about 70 minutes long in all) involves the bear's courtship of the princess, her gradual recognition that she loves the bear after an enchantment makes her ugly (she sports green hair), and, then, trials that the girl must endure to restore the prince to his human form.  These trials are like those proposed for the young lovers in Mozart's Magic Flute -- they are more fearsome in prospect than execution:  trial by water, by fire, and, in this case, by a thorny thicket.  The movie is unusual in according very substantial agency to the princess.  For half the movie, she acts in the role of the hero, boldly confronting the nasty dwarf in his stony mountain redoubt and courageously forging a way through thorns, fire, and water.  Since the actress is superbly charismatic, her role is central to the movie and, in fact, puts her pallid prince charming to shame. 

The old Deutsches Demokratisches Republik specialized in ornate adaptations of fairy tales.  (I presume that these films could be lavishly mounted because they coul not be accused of containing an social content subversive to the Communist regime.) These films are vibrantly colored, carefully designed, and replete with "Trick" photography that is crudely effective -- in fact, the special effects are better than those in most Hollywood films because they are very self-consciously presented as Melies-style prestidigitation, a sort of camera magic that is not supposed to persuade us realistically, but, rather, testifies to the ingenuity of the cameraman.  The Singing, Ringing Tree is a studio-bound as Caligari -- there is nothing in the movie that is natural or realistic.  The mountains are big piles of Styrofoam and papier mache, the skies are painted arches of blue with fairy-tale castles decorating the horizon.  Interiors of palaces are Moorish fantasias.  The characteristic camera motion in The Singing, Ringing  Tree is a long tracking shot, first following the hero on his elaborately caparisoned horse, then, skimming over clay hills and valleys studded with toy trees meant to simulate a landscape, then, passing behind boulders (that block the camera and allow for edits) to show the prince on his horse again.  Another boulder interposes itself between the moving camera and the hero and we, then, continue gliding to the right to where the prince meets a group of wayfarers, standing on greenish fabric simulating a meadow under some painted trees.  Fade-outs in the movie are a blurred pinkish flesh-color.  There are curious details that resemble some of the filigree-work in a film by Fritz Lang -- we see the princess dumping a bunch of bright orange gold fish out of a ceramic fountain in which she puts earth and plants the singing, ringing tree.  The imperious princess' ladies in waiting stuff the wriggling goldfish into their aprons to save them.  Later, the princess is blasted by a jet of water unleashed by the dwarf into a kind rock-girt sea.  A great goldfish comes along to rescue her and like Arion singing as he rides the back of the dolphin, the princess is borne across the waters. 

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