Traumatic teutonic TV
A region 0 DVD review of THE SINGING, RINGING TREE / DAS SINGENDE, KLINGENDE BAUMCHEN by Camus
 
"It's not real, it's just shiny."
Jason Bourne (sorry), a brother Grimm played by Matt Damon
"Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood.
They will not protect you the way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers.
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good…"
Red Riding Hood in Stephen Sondheim's
sublime theatrical musical Into The Woods

 

I have in my hand (I really do, I'm typing this with one finger), still cellophane wrapped, a DVD of what I can only describe as the most powerfully, longest lasting, horrific viewing experience of my life. Not that I knew this at the time (duh!). Being subjected to it was like being blasted by a dose of radiation poisoning. It didn't feel scarring and unhealthy when it happened but the effects are currently lasting almost four decades on. The last time I was really frightened in a cinema (that marrow-deep dread that feels like nothing could be warm in your life ever again) was in 1979 at a California-based cinema trip rustled up by my Godmother's son. Needless to say, his particular entertainment was simply watching me watching Alien. But for true horror (the stuff that moulds you, bends you, breaks you, any way it wants to) you have to go back to when you were at your most susceptible. I do not know how old I was when I was subjected to the contents of this DVD. I must have been between five and seven. Uncanny. I just checked its broadcast dates and I was (you guessed it) six. We are talking indelible impression here. Yes, there were televisions in 'those days'. I was at my most vulnerable when my grandparents had delivered this odd box with pictures shining through its glass frontage.

In their finite wisdom, the BBC screened an innocent 'Tales From Europe' series made in an innocuous Bavarian TV studio. It was shot in colour but I saw it in black and white (yes, we had a TV, but colour ones were the 42" HD plasma screens of 1967) but even now I can still see all too clearly the images seared into my nascent memory. Three are outstanding: a mean redemption-seeking princess struggling to help a large stranded fish; a close up of a terminally sad man who'd been transformed into a bear; a bridge upon which shuffled (in that inimitable way 'persons of restricted growth' move) a dwarf. It's OK. The DVD calls him a dwarf. It's the face of this character – sometimes thwarted, sometimes successful in his evil deeds – which is my most powerful memory of the series. I cannot, to this day, stop his face popping up like traumatic toast whenever I see who's inside R2D2 or re-watch The Time Bandits. God bless the diminutive Kenny Baker and David Rappaport et al, but may The Singing, Ringing Tree's malevolent bastard, Richard Krüger get locked away by Pandora once more. It's that walk (and I know how prejudiced this may sound) but I was a child and the world of PC (and indeed PC World) was a long way off. Dwarfs scared me. Apologies but there it is. Not just dwarfs, clowns too. You can just tell how much fun I had at the circus. And I have just found out that the DVD has the original BBC narration (oh joy!). I mean if you are going to break open your own Pandora's Box, it's best if the contents are identical to what caused the damage in the first place. But not the circumstances. It's 70 minutes long and I can drink a few large vodkas in that time, something to soften the blow… At six years old, vodka was strictly verboten. I was a gin tot.

The justifiably noted 70s tome 'The Uses Of Enchantment' written by fairy tale guru Bruno Bettelheim states that fairy tales are good for children (helping them navigate through their stages of psychological development). Boy, you could have fooled me… The Singing, Ringing Tree was based on a Brothers Grimm story and having recently seen the new Terry Gilliam take on the storytellers I was curious to re-visit the haunted woods of my childhood to see if those Bavarian studio images really are that terrifying (or rather to see if I could believe something as crass and old fashioned as a studio based fantasy could scar me for life). I have yet to open the cellophane. How sad is that? Gilliam's film is a fun, post-modern romp with our two con-men brothers who have been fleecing the superstitious locals by warding off evil, evil in the form of their two accomplices dressed up like witches and ghouls. Suddenly along comes the real thing and they are, shall we say 'challenged' to believe, to make things right. Apart from one image, the film is not scary (not that this was a particular aim, it's far too light) but there is that image that stands out – a small child is swallowed by a horse (trust me, the CGI's not perfect but still, it's a real 'euw' of an image). I wondered after seeing that – and musing on The Singing, Ringing Tree

…just what is giving our children nightmares in today's pop cultural overload? Not wearing white soccer boots? Not being thin enough to shower and stay dirty? Not knowing who the only gay in the village is?

My son is nine. He breezed through Jaws (and on a full surround sound, no interruptions presentation). He had some trouble with the werewolf in Prisoner of Azkaban but he's not able to recall the images that float through and poison his subconscious in the wee small hours. Fair enough. How many people worry about things they can't spell (in the case of diarrhoea, quite a few). He's culturally soaked up images and dramatic arcs that would have fed and shaped me until I was twenty-five. It's noting our differences that make the phrase 'generation gap' snap into focus. And so to the main feature… I am convinced that if I played The Singing, Ringing Tree to my son, he'd casually dismiss it out of hand. Boring. It was boring to me too, but in the sense of boring into my innermost soul. Not sure if it's gone yet. Let's find out.

The flash of a Swiss Army blade, the cellophane gives way and the glinting disc of horror slides almost sexually into my… Let's give the subtext a rest (he says while cueing up a 1957 East German TV series…). Here we go…

My God.

Colour! It's all blue and absurdly and abundantly colourful! It makes Dahl's chocolate factory look drab. It also looks like it was shot on 35mm (thank you IMDB, it was 35mm). Sure, there are a few artifacts (dust and scratches) but it's a solid colour film transfer. And the narration (intruding on the German sync) is exactly as I remembered it. Excellent. I mean that was 38 years ago… The set reminds me of the backdrop to Eric Idle's sensational run to get back to Gilliam's Baron Munchausen before the latter gets his head liberated from the rest of his body. It's a simple road upon which our prince rides his horse. There are so many 'tree in frame' wipes (clumsy now but from a six year old's viewpoint they probably worked really well) that I sort of hoped for a mini dissolve at least but alas. They are all straight cuts.

Straight cutting to the chase; The Singing, Ringing Tree is everything I remembered but stripped of its unusually mesmeric power because of my own age and experience. It's extraordinary judged by the control of its decades old shadow but in the end it's a remarkable studio bound fairy tale blessed with being timed exactly right to scar an entire nation full of children. Post 9/11, it may be just a few German actors in tights performing to fibreglass fish and dodgy bear make ups. But then it may be profoundly significant! Cripes, what choices! What it has is an indefinable 'otherness' and was probably my first exposure to a culture so different to my own (not just the fairy tale milieu but an 'otherness') I ever witnessed. The effects (for 1957) were actually pretty good and how a screamingly obvious and fake fish (the memory of which still makes me uneasy) packed so much power is beyond me, something I am pleased about. One more unsolved mystery regarding the power of a medium to affect and scar is fine with me.

As my opinion of this remarkable TV show is shared by a great deal of my contemporaries, I can only suggest that seen at a certain age, at a certain time in history, The Singing, Ringing Tree would give Freud nightmares.

sound and vision

The 4:3 35mm print looks good, not too dirty with vibrant colours and solid contrast levels. The mono sound (original German overdubbed by received pronunciation BBC man) is crisp and clear rendered in Dolby 1.0.

extra features

There is a curious animated short film called Sunday that comes with the DVD (including as it does a Spanish, a French, a German and the BBC English version of the main feature). It's a relatively static affair – the world, an adult holds a child's hand. A queue of people queue up to see a leaf fall from a sapling guarded by gas mask wearing guards. Oh, did I mention the free for all sampling from Pink Floyd's 'Welcome to the Machine?' No? I will now. Surreal? You betcha. Green as Tom Jones' mother's lawn? Tick. The US Theatrical Trailer is for the trilogy of DEFA fairy tales, all of which were new to me and full of late 50's wonder and special effects. A Golden Goose? Go for it.

The Singing, Ringing Tree
Das Singende, klingende Bäumchen

East Germany 1957
70 mins
director
Francesco Stefani
starring
Fredy Barten
Maria Besendahl
Christel Bodenstein
Eckart Dux
Paul Knopf
Richard Krüger

DVD details
region 0
video
4:3
sound
Dolby mono 1.0
languages
German
English (narration)
French (narration)
Spanish (narration)
subtitles
English
extras
Short film
Original US trailer
distributor
First Run Features
release date
Out now
review posted
17 December 2005