Ein Kultfilm zum Gruseln: Zur Rezeption von Das singende, klingende Bäumchen in Großbritannien

Translated title of the contribution: A spooky cult film:: The reception of The Singing Ringing Tree in Great Britain

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This chapter reconstructs the reception of The Singing, Ringing Tree in Great Britain by investigating the institutional and cultural context in which the film was programmed and how it was promoted when it was first serialised on BBC children’s television in the 1960s and subsequently at the Junior London Film Festival in 1990. I will also try to identify what constituted the appeal of this particular DEFA fairy tale film and what led to its modest cult status in Britain.

In the former GDR, just like in other East European countries, children’s films were assigned greater importance than in the West. Between 1946 and 1990, DEFA produced 180 feature-length films for children, which equals roughly four films per year and one fifth of DEFA’s feature film production. DEFA’s fairy tale films, predominantly based on the tales of the Brothers Grimm, Wilhelm Hauff, Hans- Christian Andersen and other well-known literary sources, are the most critically acclaimed type of children’s films. They include internationally famous titles such as The Cold Heart (1950), The Story of Little Mook (1953) and The Singing Ringing Tree (1957), a DEFA production directed by Francesco Stefani, a director based in West Germany.

In the 1960s, the BBC put together a series of children’s films entitled ‘Tales from Europe’, predominantly films from East European countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russia as well as East Germany. The films were shown in the original language with English voice-over narration, which summarised the dialogue and commented on the narrative. The mixture of languages enhanced the films’ foreign appeal. ‘Tales from Europe’ included five DEFA fairy tales which were shown between 1964 and 1966 (in black and white) and repeated in subsequent years (in the 1970s in colour). These were The Tinderbox, The Singing, Ringing Tree, Snow White, The Golden Goose and Rumpelstilskin. The import of East German fairy tale films was attractive for two reasons: they were relatively cheap to acquire because of low exchange rates and they provided some kind of counter culture to what was perceived as an unwholesome dominance of American culture in Britain during the 1960s.

Ironically, the assessment of the films’ ideological position in the British context stands in stark contrast to the reception of many DEFA fairy tales, but in particular, The Singing, Ringing Tree, in the GDR. While the implicit message of fairy tales that everyone is capable of changing for the better felicitously coincides with one of socialism’s fundamental tenets, often the literary sources did not adequately reflect the pedagogical aims of socialist consciousness-formation in other respects. Thus, cinematic adaptations of classic fairy tales often involved considerable changes. Where such ideological adjustments were not put in place, as was the case with The Singing, Ringing Tree, criticism was the result. Stefani’s film was charged with promoting a bourgeois consciousness and for preventing children from developing a socialist understanding of moral values.

The film’s reception in Great Britain was, obviously, not concerned with such hair-splitting ideological controversies. Instead, the film assumed some kind of cult status amongst the generation that grew up with BBC children’s television in the 1960s. A TV Radio Times readers’ poll rated the film amongst the top twenty spookiest television programmes of all times. A Singing, Ringing Tree website documents the long lasting impact which this film has had on its fan base and, in 2003, BBC Radio Four broadcast a programme in which explores the significance of this DEFA cult film in Britain during the Cold War.
Translated title of the contributionA spooky cult film:: The reception of The Singing Ringing Tree in Great Britain
Original languageGerman
Title of host publicationDEFA International
Subtitle of host publicationGrenzüberschreitende Filmbeziehungen vor und nach dem Mauerbau
EditorsMichael Wedel, Andy Räder, Skyler Arndt-Briggs
Place of PublicationWiesbaden
PublisherSpringer VS
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9783531184937
Publication statusPublished - 25 Apr 2013


  • DEFA
  • fairy tale film
  • reception
  • cult film

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