[This page by Astrid Köhler]

Ulrich Plenzdorf (1934–2007)

Ulrich Plenzdorf was one of the most versatile writers of his time, whose books and films became cult classics. He enjoyed enormous popularity across the whole spectrum of society and way beyond the boundaries of his native GDR. Both aesthetically and politically he was fighting a constant war of attrition with the East German censors and fuelling heated discussions among readers, filmgoers and critics alike. He was as famous for his trademark wit as for his unrelenting rebelliousness, which by no means fell into abeyance with the end of the GDR.

Plenzdorf was born into a working-class family in Berlin Kreuzberg in 1934. In 1954 he went to Leipzig University to read philosophy, but quickly thought the better of it. Instead he worked for several years as a set-builder for the East German state film company DEFA while pursuing his studies at the film academy in Babelsberg, near Potsdam. He then worked for a time as a script-writer and editor for DEFA, before becoming an independent author in East Berlin. In addition to his fiction and his films, he wrote or adapted works for the stage and for radio and television, was active as a translator from both Russian (e.g. Chinghiz Aitmatov) and English (e.g. Richard van Camp), and was known as a rock lyricist. He won a number of prestigious prizes, both within and beyond the GDR. In his later years illness drove him to withdraw increasingly from public life.

Plenzdorf established his international reputation in 1972 with Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.; The New Sorrows of Young W. which became one of the most popular of all ‘A’-level set texts in the UK. It was translated into 30 languages, over 4 million copies of the book were sold, and it saw 60 stage productions in German theatres alone.

Another Plenzdorf classic was his screenplay for the DEFA film Die Legende von Paul und Paula; The Legend of Paul & Paula of 1974, directed by Heiner Carow (who would later direct Coming Out (1989), the first and last gay feature film of the GDR). The extraordinary success of this potentially seditious film about the love of a conformist official for a tearaway shop assistant, which for all its tragic ending is for the most part liberatingly light-hearted, led the censor to ban Plenzdorf’s planned sequel. Accordingly, Plenzdorf recast the whole story as the novel Die Legende vom Glück ohne Ende; The Legend of Never-Ending Happiness of 1979.

In the meanwhile, Plenzdorf had won the coveted Austrian Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for his short story kein runter kein fern; no going out, no watching telly of 1978. Written as an interior monologue of an eleven-year-old abused child with learning difficulties, this text inimitably combines and distorts snatches of various authoritarian discourses, from State propaganda to the Bible. The explosively intense result was not published in East Germany until 1990. Both Die neuen Leiden des jungen W. and kein runter kein fern, were also reworked as radio plays.

In 1994, Plenzdorf again adopted a young boy’s perspective in his film Vater Mutter Mörderkind; Father Mother Murderer’s Child, again directed by Heiner Carow. This time he contrived to ruffle pan-German feathers by treating terrorism as a site for the changeability - and interchangeability - of socio-political values.

When in 1997 he took over writing the scripts for the popular TV series Liebling Kreuzberg; Darling Kreuzberg from Jurek Becker, Plenzdorf’s first act was to move the eponymous lawyer Liebling, from the West Berlin district of Kreuzberg, which with the end of the wall had lost something of its literal marginality, to the East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which with its prime real estate was the site of some very shady dealings indeed. And in one of his last books he brought together song lyrics from the whole of his career, including both those that had made the East German rock band Die Puhdys famous in the mid 1970’s and those that had made a unified audience laugh from the 1990s onwards.

In all his texts Plenzdorf retained such a sense of youthful insubordination, such a wicked delight in imitating the ideolects of the young and parodying the pomposity of official discourses, that it is hard to conceive of this author as ever having grown old.

Plenzdorf’s works include:

Karla (Film, 1964)

Die neuen Leiden des jungen W.; The New Sorrows of Young W. (1972)

Die Legende von Paul und Paula; The Legend of Paul and Paula (Film, 1974, dir. Heiner Carow)

kein runter kein fern; no going out, no telly (1978)

Die Legende vom Glück ohne Ende; The legend of Never-Ending Happiness (1979)

Vater Mutter Mörderkind; Father Mother Murderer’s Child, (Film, 1994, dir. Heiner Carow)

Liebling, Prenzlauer Berg; Darling Prenzlauer Berg (TV Series, 1997-98)

Ich sehn mich so nach Unterdrückung; I so long for Repression. Songs, Chansons, Moritaten (2004)

Further Reading in English

Barbara Currie, ‘Diverging Attitudes in Literary Criticism. The “Plenzdorf Debate” in the early 1970s in East and West Germany’, Neophilologus 79:2 (1995), 283-94

Gisela Shaw, ‘Ideal and Reality in the Works of Ulrich Plenzdorf, German Life and Letters 35 (1981-82), 85-97

Ian Wallace (ed.), ‘The Adolescent Hero’; GDR-Monitor, Special Series no. 3 (Dundee, 1984)

Further Reading in German

Astrid Köhler, ‘Die Jungs bei Plenzdorf. Erkundungen einer Schräglage’, Weimarer Beiträge 3 (2005), 391-405