Director: Francesco Stefani.
Starring: Christel Bodenstein, Charles Hans Vogt, Eckart Dux, Richard Krüger. East Germany 1957. 71 mins. English narrated version.
The Eastern Europeans have always done fairy tales well. In Germany, screen adaptations were so prolific and popular that ‘Märchenfilme’ became a major genre, with The Singing Ringing Tree one of the very best examples. Though perhaps less widely known to modern audiences than some other titles in our season, it’s no less extraordinary for that, and has inspired a devoted following from those it first entranced as children over fifty years ago.
Although credited as inspired by the Brothers Grimm, it’s not drawn from any story in particular. Instead, the filmmakers have sprinkled their own brand of fairy dust on a recombination of many classic characters, events and themes. What the movie certainly has in common with Grimm is a strong moral ethic whereby goodness will always be rewarded – an axiom not always true in folk and fairy tales, as a couple of the darker titles in our season illustrate.
The story centres on a haughty princess, whose unreasonable demands cause her latest suitor to fall under a spell. Transformed into a bear (or as close as an adorably fluffy onesie can deliver), he steals her away to an enchanted garden where she undergoes a series of trials, through which she learns that kindness, humility and good teamwork are rewarded by friendship, loyalty, love and happiness.
Filmed in East Germany in 1957 and released there at Christmas, the film became a cultural phenomenon, selling almost six million tickets in its home country. But in the Cold War era, films from the Soviet bloc seldom made speedy transfer to western cinema screens. And so, British audiences first experienced The Singing Ringing Tree in 1964 on the BBC, when it was split into three black-and-white weekly episodes as part of the Tales From Europe series for children, with the original German dialogue faded down and overlaid with plummy English-language narration.
The original colour feature didn’t make its way to British cinema screens for another quarter-century when, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was recovered by a devoted fan of the BBC screenings and theatrically released in a new restoration. Those adults who have only seen the film in its broadcast form will discover a whole new world of wonder in its vibrant colour palette, with each frame shining like a coffer of precious jewels.
To me, The Singing Ringing Tree remains the epitome of fairytale delight. From a modern perspective, the production values are undoubtedly wobbly but in this lies much of its charm. Its magic world is unique, astonishingly inventive and utterly alluring. Though the effects are naïve (on occasion you can literally see the strings), the film’s anti-realist aesthetic enhances, rather than diminishes, its spellbinding exoticism.
Initially released in UK cinemas in a subtitled version, the original BBC narration has since been recovered and, in the spirit of nostalgia, is the version we’ll be showing. Arguably the most magical of our fairy tale selections, this sixtieth-anniversary screening is a fitting finale to our Vintage Sundays season.
The Singing Ringing Tree screens as part of The Enchanted Screen: A Season of Folk and Fairytale Films and Vintage Sundays on Sunday 17 December.Find your cinema and book tickets.