The German Fairy Tale film that caused collective childhood trauma for a generation of viewers. Or so they claim…
Did you hide behind the sofa when the Daleks appeared on Doctor Who? Really? Really? No, no, you didn’t. Stop it. This collective memory of childhood terror is a media invention that eventually became a remembered reality of youth – the go-to description for finding the monsters – one specific monster, we might note – in a single TV series a bit scary. Our sofa was against the wall and hiding behind it would’ve been a bit of a kerfuffle, but nevertheless, I refuse for one moment to accept that armies of kids were so scared of the most popular monsters on TV that they didn’t just cover their eyes or bury their heads into mum’s shoulder or even turn the damn thing off, but actually hid behind the furniture – and not just any bit of furniture either. Always the sofa.
Now, I get that the whole ‘hiding behind the sofa’ bit started as a metaphor for childhood fear – that it wasn’t necessarily meant literally. But it is a phrase that has been repeated so often that endless numbers of grown adults will claim to have done exactly that, either because they don’t want to feel left out of a collective childhood experience or because they have somehow convinced themselves that it is true – in their minds, they really did get up and cower behind the sofa for some indeterminate amount of time (given how long Daleks were generally on-screen, it must’ve been the entire show) rather than sitting excitedly watching as their favourite villains made an all-too-rare appearance on the show.
Our willingness to suspend reality and desperation to be part of the collective is a depressing reminder that memory is, to say the least, unreliable. We can be tricked into thinking that things that never happened are true and have vivid memories of them happening. For years as a youth, I had a clear memory of a scene in Jaws – I remembered it exactly, knew precisely where it appeared in the film and even bemoaned its absence from what I assumed were censored re-releases. But the scene doesn’t exist. I somehow imagined it and slotted it directly into my memories of seeing the film for the first time. That’s a small thing, based on an individual moment of imagination, so consider the power that constantly reinforced created memories might have.
For all the furious claims that it is the invention of evil psychiatrists trying to cover up Satanic Ritual Abuse, False Memory Syndrome is clearly a very real thing. We know that memories can be created through persuasion, manipulation, peer pressure and the desire to be part of a greater collective, just as people can be convinced to change their views on issues of the day based on what their personal echo chamber is saying and how beloved public figures can be demonised and then returned to the status of National Treasure by cynical and relentless media campaigns that often feel only one step away from brainwashing.
What, you might be reasonably asking, has any of this to do with The Singing, Ringing Tree? Well, quite simply this is another example of a shared memory of something that is probably a media-created myth, or at least a wildly enhanced version of reality – one that has been shared in pretty much every article about the film and even formed the basis of a BBC Radio 4 documentary. Let’s dive into it, shall we?
The Singing, Ringing Tree – Das singende, klingende Bäumchen in its native East Germany – was a 1957 movie that was made as part of a series of Märchenfilme – that is, fairy tale movies adapted from Brothers Grimm stories – by production studio DEFA and the only one to have any sort of release in the UK, where it was bought by the BBC and presented as a three-part series, the 74-minute movie split into roughly equal-length episodes for presentation in the children’s TV slot. The vivid colours of the film were converted to black and white for broadcast – colour TV was still a few years away in Britain – and this gave the show a somewhat darker and more nightmarish edge than its theatrical original. This, the sinister content of the story and its unnervingly terrifying monsters, immediately traumatised viewers and left them forever scarred, with even the mention of the film now being enough to trigger repressed memories. More folk horror than fairytale, The Singing, Ringing Tree is a classic example of unintentionally terrifying children’s TV.
Well, that’s the story anyway. And here is what we know as a fact: The Singing, Ringing Tree was shown every few years by the BBC – 1969, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1980 – before being put to bed, which certainly gave it the opportunity to terrify generations of kids. Stripped of its fairytale vividness, I have no doubt that the show seemed a darker experience for young viewers.
But was it always the black and white version that was shown? Certainly, on black and white shows were still a part of the schedule in 1980, but not during ‘peak’ children’s viewing time – older shows and films like Flash Gordon and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe were generally either shown in the morning slot during school holidays (and even then, with decreasing frequency as the 1970s progressed) or shunted to BBC2. Yet The Singing, Ringing Tree remained a staple of the main after-school schedules throughout its years of broadcast and so I’ll go out on a limb and say that it was probably the colour version that was seen after the 1960s (here’s another interesting question: did the BBC really convert the film to black and white, tweaking the shadows as has been suggested, or – more likely we might think – simply broadcast the film, like many other colour productions, as a black and white signal for black and white TV sets?). Some people might remember seeing the monochrome version in 1976, but can we trust their memory on this? The BBC Genome Project is frustratingly vague on the matter so who knows?
The point is that I first saw this as a kid, during one (or more) of those mid-Seventies slots and don’t recall it being the stuff of nightmares even then – one brief moment excepted, and we’ll come back to that. Nothing in this show comes even slightly close to the creeping unease and unsettling horrors of The Children of the Stones, The Changes, assorted Disney movies or, yes, Doctor Who. It’s significant that The Singing, Ringing Tree‘s reputation as the stuff of nightmares seems to have emerged out of nowhere decades after the show was broadcast. It’s found a place in the burgeoning nostalgia world of scary childhood memories that encompasses everything from TV shows to public information films and pulp fiction novels with lurid covers as evidence that the past was a much creepier place.
For all my eyebrow-raising in the above ramble, I don’t actually mind the fact that this film/TV series has been retconned into something that it probably never was, because these memories – true or false – have helped ensure that it remains an accessible cultural icon. The Singing, Ringing Tree has just been released on Blu-ray, and we can’t say that about any of the other Märchenfilme of the era.
Watching the film again now is a fascinating experience, if only because seeing it all in context – rather than the cherry-picked moments that back up the claims made about it – reveals it to be an utterly charming morality tale that is a variant on the Beauty and the Beast story, here teaching a lesson in humility, decency and kindness that still has relevance today. In this tale, we meet a wide-eyed Prince (a suitably bland Eckart Dux) who hopes to marry a Princess (so much for the Communist ideals of East Germany!) but finds his gift of a box of pearls spurned by the bratty girl who – in the BBC version of the film – is described as ‘capricious’. What a fantastic word to find popping up in the middle of a children’s show. Imagine that now, where everything is dumbed-down and bellowed by gurning idiots? You wouldn’t even hear someone being called ‘capricious’ in an adult drama today. And it is the perfect description – in the role of the Princess, Christel Bodenstein is so fantastically snotty that you can imagine a theatre full of kids booing her with relentless vigour at a panto.
She demands that he brings her the mythical ‘singing, ringing tree’, and off he goes, riding for many days and nights – we’ll come back to this in a moment – until he finally reaches a mysterious and brightly colourful grotto that is ruled over by a sinister dwarf, played with spectacular maliciousness and spite by Richard Krüger, who also appeared in another pair of fairytale films in the 1950s but is otherwise a man of mystery. I’ve seen critiques of this film that call the appearance of the dwarf ‘politically incorrect’ or suggest that it is negative typecasting, but are we really saying that dwarfs can never be villains, or that they were only ever cast in sinister, monstrous roles? This seems like a curious rewriting of history. As long as cinema has existed (and in fiction before then), little people have been portrayed as both villains and heroes, and to suggest that an evil dwarf is somehow typecasting perhaps reveals more about the complainant than they would care to admit. In any case, the film barely even references his size, let alone relates it to his wickedness, and it is Krüger’s gleefully petulant performance that makes his character so remarkable, not his size. It’s a pity that he didn’t make more movies, and his life story must have been fascinating – how did he escape the Nazi purge of the ‘genetically impure’, for instance?
The dwarf agrees to give the tree to the Prince, with one proviso: it will only sing if the Princess truly loves him, and if it doesn’t do so by midnight, he must return to live in the grotto. Perhaps forgetting her capriciousness, he agrees, even brashly saying that if he fails, may he turn into a bear. Well.
Time frames are all over the place in this film – while his journey to the grotto took days, he is indeed back at the castle within hours. Maybe there was a shortcut. There’s something charming about the way fairy tales play with time (this is hardly the first story to do so), a subtle shift in reality that allows events to play out as quickly or slowly as they need to and remove the narrative from the world we understand. I’m not sure that it is a deliberate thing rather than expediency, but I rather like it anyway.
The Princess is less than impressed by the tree, which – to be fair – is understandable, as it is little more than a scraggy branch. Heartbroken, the Prince leaves and accepts his fate, turning into a bear at sunset. Like much of the film, the bear is a panto creation – more Steiff than Grizzly – and is hardly terrifying, especially as every child watching probably had owned a cuddly teddy bear and knew that this character was still the Prince, albeit now with more personality and attitude. Certainly, he is grumpy – who wouldn’t be? – but he’s hardly fierce, and his moments of aggression, battling the King’s men, are distinctly comical and non-violent. These battles take place as the Princess, ever the brat, now decides that she wants the tree after all and sends her father out in search of the Prince. Now, it is the bear’s turn to make demands: he captures the King and lets him leave with the tree, on the condition that the first person to greet him when he returns home must go and live with the bear. You can probably see where this is heading. And so, after the King’s efforts to save his daughter from her fate fail, she is taken to live in the grotto and – to make things worse – made to look physically ‘ugly’ to match her personality.
In a world where narcissists line up to declare themselves ‘perfect’ on TV commercials, this transformation into a ‘hag’ might be the film’s most problematic moment for modern viewers. As it is, she swaps her big hair for (now fashionable) green locks, has pale skin and a turned-up nose. “She’d fit right in in Shoreditch” chortled Mrs Reprobate at this ‘hideous’ transformation, and indeed some viewers might well find her more attractive in this incarnation. Some may have done so even in the 1960s. There is purpose in the transformation though, as each moment that the Princess learns humility and kindness – helping build a shelter with the bear, saving a giant fish (another creature often talked of as though it was the ultimate horror but actually a cute and loveable Disneyesque character) who is trapped in ice – her appearance reverts slightly back to normal. Eventually, she looks as she had, but is now a reformed character. Re-enter the dwarf, who was previously manipulating events from the sidelines and has, up until now, been morally ambiguous – after all, he put the animals in magical peril simply in order for the princess to save them and so redeem herself. But he is bitter and resentful towards the bear for reasons that are never quite made clear (it was, after all, his decision to have the bear/Prince living in his grotto) and now tricks the Princess into returning home by telling her that her father is dying. Discovering his trick, she returns for a final showdown with the villainous little man, and here we get the film’s only genuinely creepy moment as he sets a magical fire around the tree and then flies around it laughing in a way that is just not right. If the childhood traumas were based solely on this moment, then fair enough. None of it makes any sense and that just makes it all the more unsettling. If people have just remembered this one moment as a source of terror and extrapolated it to the whole film, well… fair enough.
We live in an age of spoiler paranoia, so I won’t go into what happens next – but this is a fairytale, so you can probably guess that everyone who deserves to lives happily ever after – or else is simply written out of the story. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that the bear is returned to his human form and that while this might be necessary for the pair to marry, the Princess is probably going to find him a lot more boring in this version.
Directed by Francesco Stefani – who, despite what you might think from his name, was West German – The Singing, Ringing Tree is as pure a fairytale adaptation as you could hope for, devoid of any pretension. No one would make this now because TV producers all assume that kids are as cynical and ‘sophisticated’ (read: pompous) as they are. The film tells its story without padding, knowing what the audience wants and giving it to them, and it is a luridly dayglo experience – a studio-bound production with painted backdrops and blatantly artificial sets, the very crudeness of the production adds to the magic – nothing looks real and that’s perfect because this is, after all, a fairytale. Kids might struggle with this now, not because it is scary but simply because it is light and frothy and charming, and so impossible to relate to in the current media landscape. Erich Zander’s art direction creates a universe that is entirely artificial but feels authentic within the story, and we should be grateful for that. I somehow doubt that many of the gritty reboots of old children’s stories being made today will remain beloved in sixty years time.
While an East German production, much of the talent involved in this film was from the West, their ability to work on both sides of the divided country only being possible until the Berlin Wall finally imposed a physical separation between the two sides. I’m not sure that I can detect a style specific to either side, to be honest, though the folk legends and fairytales of the past seem to have long been attractive to filmmakers in Communist countries – you can make of that what you will, but there is no hidden agenda here – this isn’t an allegory for a repressed society. If there is meaning beyond the story, it is just that people leading miserable lives needed as much escapist entertainment as they could get.
That the film ended up a staple of British television is less unlikely than modern viewers might think. There was much more openness to foreign-language productions back in the 1960s and 1970s, and a great deal of adventurousness was shown in adapting them for English-speaking audiences. As well as being split into three episodes, The Singing, Ringing Tree was also narrated by Antony Bilbow for BBC broadcast – his voiceover not so much replacing the dialogue as talking over it, as well as describing the action on screen. This alternative to dubbing was not only more cost-effective – it was unlikely that the BBC would go to the expense of actually dubbing a film for children’s TV – but also fitted in with the fairytale nature of the story. A narrator telling the story was not unusual in BBC children’s shows at this time – rather than having the characters speaking, animated shows like The Clangers, Bagpuss, Magic Roundabout and others would usually have a single narrator who provided both the dialogue and what was essentially an audio description of events. It was very much a part of the BBC tradition for a long time. In this film, it is occasionally too much – we probably didn’t need to be told that the bear was hiding behind a rock when there he was, on the screen, hiding behind a rock – but in general it somehow adds to the otherworldly feel of the film when we watch it now, being so removed from anything that we would encounter on TV or in the cinema today. The German version of the film, of course, is the more authentic – and unlike the British edition, which has been edited to fit 4:3 TV screens, is the full widescreen version. Yet for many, this original version will seem an alien rendition of the movie. Both editions are on the disc, but Blu-ray distributor Network has probably missed a trick by not also including a black and white, analogue-quality three-part version as well, just to emphasise that sense of nostalgic authenticity.
The Singing, Ringing Tree is a lovely film that inevitably comes with the weight of expectation and a nostalgic memory that might well be fraudulent – and that is perhaps to the detriment of the film in many ways because the version that people think that they remember is perhaps not the film that they will see. Unfulfilled expectations often lead to disappointment and I wonder if this film will act as an inconvenient truth for some viewers who prefer the version of the story that exists in their heads. If so, that’s a pity as this deserves better. There is a beauty and charm to this movie that is increasingly rare these days and we should not allow the mythology that surrounds the film – a mythology every bit as unrealistic as anything in the story – to cloud our vision.
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