This 1957 East German children’s fantasy, adapted from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, is said to have freaked out many a youngster over the years. THE SINGING, RINGING TREE (DAS SINGENDE, KLINGENDE BAUMCHEN) plays like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST on steroids, with a beautiful woman, a love-struck beast and a lot of assorted magical business, as well as an Important Moral Lesson. One of several fairy tale adaptations from the East German DEFA film studio (others include THE STORY OF LITTLE MONK (1953), SNOW WHITE (1961) and LITTLE RED RIDING-HOOD (1962)), it’s obviously no longer as scary or enchanting as it once seemed, with its most notable feature being its quaintness.
A dashing Prince (Eckart Dux) enters a rival kingdom to win the hand of a beautiful but quite bitchy princess (Christel Bodenstein). He offers her a box-full of jewels but she demands he bring her the mythical Singing, Ringing tree.
The prince sets off in search of the tree. He enters a magical kingdom of impossibly bright colors ruled by a mischievous dwarf. The latter makes the desired tree appear out of thin air, but it doesn’t sing nor ring; apparently it will only do so in the presence of true love, which the prince has until sunset to provide.
Unfortunately the princess doesn’t accept the Prince’s love, forcing him to return to the magic kingdom empty-handed. Upon arriving he’s transformed into a bear, in which guise he meets the King, whose daughter still wants the singing ringing tree. The prince hands it over, but with a condition: the first person the king meets will become the property of the prince. That person, naturally, turns out to be the princess.
The king is unwilling to give up his daughter and so the bear-prince kidnaps her. He takes her back to the enchanted kingdom, where, due to the magic of the dwarf ruler, she undergoes her own transformation into a pug-nosed, green-haired wretch. In this guise she finds herself becoming more humble, and sympathetic to the bear-prince. But that pesky dwarf isn’t done working his spells, which it seems are aimed at making the Princess a better person. After every selfless deed she performs the princess regains a bit more of her former self–because, as the bear-prince states, “A Good deed is always stronger than an evil spell.”
Simplicity is the film’s primary virtue; it only runs 72 minutes, and is quite focused and uncluttered form a narrative standpoint (although the set-up, involving several periphery characters and a lot of dealing and counter-dealing, is somewhat needlessly complicated). Audacity is another of its selling points, with director Francesco Stefani presenting quite a few extremely elaborate special effects–the freezing of a waterfall, a bed and side table that float in midair, a row of thorn bushes that magically spring up from the ground–with notable ingenuity and vibrant, colorful visuals that recall those of Russia’s fairy tale cinema maestro Alexander Ptushko (of RUSLAN AND LUDMILLA and VIY).
The stage-bound scenery and painted backdrops seem hopelessly old-fashioned by modern standards, although that very quaintness is (as in THE WIZARD OF OZ) one of the film’s primary pleasures. Still, I doubt THRE SINGING, RINGING TREE will interest too many kids nowadays, while for most grown-ups it will most likely register as a pleasantly archaic curiosity.
THE SINGING, RINGING TREE (DAS SINGENDE, KLINGENDE BAUMCHEN)
DEFA-Studio fur Spielfilme
Director: Francesco Stefani
Screenplay: Anne Geelhaar, Francesco Stefani
(Based on a fairy tale by Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm)
Cinematography: Karl Plintzner, Walter Robkopf
Editing: Christa Wernicke
Cast: Christel Bodenstein, Charles Hans Vogt, Eckart Dux, Richard Kruger, Dorothea Thiesing, Gunther Polensen, Fredy Barten, Egon Vogel, Paul Knopf, Paul Pfingst, Friedrich Teitge, Anna-Maria Besendahl