Frank Beyer

Director of 'Jacob the Liar'
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Frank Beyer, film director: born Nobitz, Germany 26 May 1932; married 1965 Renate Blume (marriage dissolved 1974); died Berlin 1 October 2006.

'Perhaps I have had the greatest triumphs and the worst defeats of my generation of [East German] film directors," Frank Beyer wrote in his autobiography, Wenn der Wind sich dreht ("When the Wind Turns", 2001), of a career spanning four decades and ranging from disgrace and persecution to international success.

Beyer was a war child, born in 1932 in Nobitz in Thuringia. His father was killed on the Eastern Front, and the boy himself was put to work building defences against Russian tanks in 1945. Fascinated by the stage, the young school leaver began to work at the theatre in the provincial town of Altenburg before being set by the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) to study film at the Prague Film Conservatory in 1952.

Returned to Germany, he made his first film, Zwei Mütter ("Two Mothers", 1956), which was seen by two million cinema-goers. This success, however, also marked his first conflict with the party hierarchy, who reproached the director for his "lack of party spirit" and his "petit-bourgeois pacifism". In spite of all criticism, Beyer continued on his path, releasing two contrasting films in 1963: the concentration-camp epic Nackt unter den Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves) and the stinging post-war comedy Karbid und Sauerampfer (Carbide and Sorrel).

The decisive confrontation with the SED and its officially imposed view of history came in 1966 at the first showing of Beyer's Spur der Steine (The Trace of Stones), starring Manfred Krug. Based on a novel by Erik Neutsch, the film told the story of a group of construction workers whose foreman, Hannes Balla, is slowly transformed from a petty capitalist into an example of a socialist worker and a staunch comrade. The subject matter looked ideal for propaganda purposes, but the devil hid in the details of life in the GDR (German Democratic Republic, i.e. East Germany) shown not only on the page but also on the big screen. The portrayals of poverty, greedy and opportunistic party officials on weekend drinking binges and the everyday humiliations at the hand of apparatchiks were judged an attack on the socialist state.

The film also testified eloquently to Beyer's knowledge and admiration of US films: in a key scene, Manfred Krug and his co-workers are seen in a shot uncannily similar to Yul Brunner and his band in the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. The SED saw to it that the film's first screening was booed and even organised "spontaneous" street riots in protest against it. The film was locked away, and Beyer forbidden to work.

In 1974, Beyer came back from his years of state-imposed obscurity with Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar), based on a novel by Jurek Becker, a film about a Jew trying to inspire hope in his fellow inmates in the Warsaw ghetto by inventing optimistic news stories. Seen by many as an allegory for Beyer's own situation in the GDR, the film attracted international attention and was nominated for an Academy Award. "This is a story about hope, which slowly turns into illusion and then into self-deception," Beyer said, summing up his subversive intent.

A US remake of the film in 1999 starring Robin Williams became a hit at the box office; the story had been rewritten to fit American expectations by exaggerating the evil of individual German soldiers and having Jacob dying a martyr's death. Asked what he thought of the remake during a visit in New York, Beyer answered diplomatically: "My film is an old GDR film. This is a new Hollywood film."

Beyer was not about to rest on his newly won laurels. He was one of the first to protest against the expatriation of the political chansonnier Wolf Biermann and was himself excluded from the SED in 1977. The party, however, had lost much of its power over him, as his international fame had made it possible for him to make films in the West.

He continued to work after German unification, but could not repeat his successes during the 1960s and 1970s. He received the Federal Film Prize in 1991 and his television films Nikolaikirche ("St Nicolas' Church", 1995) and Abgehauen ("Got Away", 1998, again with Manfred Krug) were critical successes, but his sceptical literary sensibility found little resonance in 1990s Germany.

Philipp Blom