AFED #44: Das Feuerzeug [The Tinderbox] (East Germany, 1958); Dir. Siegfried Hartmann

Those of you of a certain age may recall The Singing Ringing Tree, a bizarre childrens' fairy tale that was serialised by the BBC and shown several times during the sixties and seventies and sometimes cited as one of the scariest things ever shown on television.

I was born a little to late to catch these screenings and only became aware of it several years ago, my interest piqued by the many vivid recollections people had. It's certainly a very strange production and probably best avoided if you've a penchant for hallucinogenics.

Before it had been split up into episodes for broadcast purposes, The Singing Ringing Tree had actually been a feature film produced in 1957 by the mighty East German state studio DEFA. Notwithstanding the folkloric traditions of central Europe, fairy tales were the ideal means for priming kids with wholesome communist values and DEFA churned them out at a fairly prodigious rate. The year after they followed The Singing Ringing Tree with an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's The Tinderbox.

Marking the directorial debut of DEFA stalwart Siegfried Hartmann, it's a faithful recreation of the source text. ..

An impoverished soldier is returning from an unnamed conflict - lamenting how the king he had been fighting for has tricked him out of his rightful recompense - is accosted by a witch who asks him to retrieve a tinderbox from a hollow tree.

After he's clambered inside the soldier discovers three rooms, in each of which a giant dog is guarding a chest of coins. However, despite the weird sparks coming from their eyes the dogs are obviously benign, and having helped himself to the most valuable coins the soldier retrieves the tinderbox and climbs out the tree. The witch promptly transforms herself into a rather unconvincing snake, the soldier chops her down with anticlimactic ease and carries on his merry way.

When he arrives in town our hero wastes no time in throwing around his new money and falls into the company of some bourgeois parasites who are only to happy to help him spend it. Meanwhile he learns that the king's daughter, a 'beautiful' princess, is prophesied to marry a humble soldier like himself but is kept locked away out of sight. He's desperate to meet her but finds himself with other problems when his money runs out and he's plunged back into poverty.

At this point the idiot, er... hero, remembers the tinderbox and upon striking it one of the giant dogs appears. When he asks the dog to bring him more money it disappointingly obliges as by this time I'd have sooner it savaged him. Back in credit the soldier does at least have the sense to cast off his fair weather sycophants and instead focuses his attention on the princess. After sending one of the ever faithful dogs to retrieve her, he's overwhelmed by her beauty (I wasn't) and kisses her. However an attempt to rescue her from her tyrant parents lands him in prison and awaiting execution.

All is not lost though. As he climbs the scaffold the soldier asks if he can have the tinderbox for one final smoke of his pipe. Back come the dogs to chase the king and his aristocratic acolytes out of town. The are liberated - because it doesn't need explaining the ruler was an absolute despot - and the soldier can now marry the princess. The End.

The appeal of this story to communist ideologues is self-evident and one imagines the makers were thanking Hans Christian Anderson for a yarn that was so accommodating to that agenda. Having said that contemporary accounts suggest their were some reservations about the appropriateness of depicting a revolution.

But rest assured the propaganda by no means diminishes the tale, which is playfully told and boldly shot in a colourful palette. Production standards aren't that far beneath Hollywood fantasies of the same period if you accept realism was never the intention. The giant dog special effects are fairly well executed and left me wondering how they'd been achieved; most likely it was a mixture of composite shots, miniature sets and rear projection. There have been criticisms the animal actors aren't ferocious or imposing enough; they seem more bemused than anything which just added unintentional irony.

All in all it's a more accomplished piece than The Singing Ringing Tree and for that reason couldn't aspire to be a such a cult classic. You've to love those dogs though.


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