Friday, January 11, 2019

The Singing Ringing Tree (East Germany, 1957)


The East German children’s film The Singing Ringing Tree might have slipped under the internet’s radar had it not been serialized by the BBC for its Tales of Europe Television series, whereupon it gained a reputation as one of the most frightening children’s films ever made. No stranger to the idea that a children’s film can be terrifying—I’ve seen Santa Clause and the Ice Cream Bunny, after all--I tucked into it with an expectation of seeing just what had caused so many postwar British toddlers to wet their knickers back in the day—and came away with the conclusion that that particular generation of British toddlers had yet to have instilled in them the Churchil1ian stolidity that got their country through the Big One. You see, the film just isn’t scary—at least not in the realm of scary kiddie films, the ruler of which is unquestionably that master sadist Walt Disney, whose Snow White and Darby O’Gill traumatized my elder siblings to an extent that it was no wonder my parents had given up on his movies by the time I came around.

In place of scares, what The Singing Ringing Tree gives us is a carefully constructed alternate reality, achieved through the use of fanciful indoor sets, miniature exteriors, and surreal puppet creatures. This, combined with a recurring motif of pretty things being made, or revealed to be, ugly, might upset certain toddlers, given theirs was a personal reality so cozy and familiar that there was no relief in seeing it subverted. Personally, being a somewhat downcast, serious minded child, I was always willing to sign up for an escape from the everyday. So much so that my fantasy world of choice was that inhabited by the expressionless automatons of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet.


The film further departs from reality by making of its characters mere archetypes who are designated by their titles only: The Prince, The Princess, The King, etc. The Prince, played by Eckart Dux, is, of course, handsome, and starts the film by showing up at the King’s door and asking for the Princess’ hand in marriage. In a flip of the usual fairytale script, the King takes an immediate liking to the Prince. This is perhaps because he knows all too well that the Princess (played by the indeed bodacious Christel Bodenstein) is a ravening bitch. Presented by the prince with a jewel box brimming with pearls, she haughtily casts its contents onto the floor and demands that he bring her the Singing Ringing Tree (or “Das Singende Klingende Baumchen”, which sounds really funny when the cast members say it over and over again.) Everyone present laughs uneasily at this, because, in truth, no one knows where the Tree is, or whether it exists at all. Undeterred, the Prince marches off into the blinding matte painting that lies just beyond the throne room door.

After marching dutifully across the colorful sets (constructed in DEFA’s Brandenburg studios) that represent the world beyond the castle, the Prince comes upon Fairyland, which is ruled by a malevolent dwarf in a psychedelic onesie. The Prince tells the Dwarf that he is looking for the Tree and the Dwarf tells him that he has it—because, of course he does. The Dwarf gives him the tree with the caveat that, if it does not sing upon being presented to the Princess—because it will only sing if the Princess truly loves him—he must return it by midnight or become the Dwarf’s slave. In an odd fit of bravado, the Prince declares that he will return the tree on time or be “turned into a bear”, which must be the most nakedly prophetic line in film history.


Of course, the tree doesn’t sing, because, as I said, the Princess is a total bitch. So the Prince returns to the Dwarf, only to be transformed into that most fearsome of the forest’s predators by way of a patchy looking bear costume (it’s fun, but nothing on the bear that the Prince gets turned into in The Thrilling Sword.) The Prince makes for a particularly grouchy bear, grumbling his way through his daily tasks while befriending all the animals of the forest—including a giant goldfish that looks like a cross between a carousel animal and a parade float.

I’m going to skip over a couple more back-and-forth trips between the kingdom and Fairyland by saying that eventually the Princess is brought, kicking and screaming, to Fairyland, where the Prince/Bear takes her on as an unwilling pet. The first thing we learn is that all of the animals who are so dear to the Prince instinctively shy away from the Princess, because—did I mention she was a bitch? In fact, the Prince tells her, in not so few words, that, if she looked on the outside the way she was on the inside, she would look like total ass. The Dwarf, always willing to lend a helping hand, obligingly turns her into a green-haired (yet still somehow hot in a Nina Hagen kind of way) hag to illustrate this fact.


There follows a series of scenes in which the Prince teaches the Princess to be kind to the animals, over the course of which she gradually returns to her beautiful self—with the added bonus that she’s not so much of a bitch anymore. This transformation is completed when she rides to the Prince’s rescue on the back of the goldfish.

In the course of writing this review I learned that, when the BBC aired The Singing Ringing Tree, they broadcast it in black and white, which might explain how it might have had a somewhat more ominous tone. This, I believe, was part of a nefarious BBC plot to turn all of the former axis powers’ children’s films into blood curdling nightmares by means of changing their color palette. Still, I have to admit that, in it’s normal, colored form, I found The Singing Ringing Tree engaging, a little charming and, at times, even beautiful. See it at your own risk.

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