1957, 71 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Francesco Stefani
Starring Eckart Dux, Christel Bodenstein, Richard Krüger, Charles Hans Vogt
Network (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), First Run Features (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Icestorm (DVD) (Germany R0 PAL)
Though the Soviet Union may have had the market cornered on colorful, surreal fairy tales from the Eastern Bloc at the height of the Cold War, they certainly weren't the only ones in the game. Case in point: Das singende, klingende Bäumchen, or The Singing, Ringing Tree, a Brothers Grimm adaptation from East Germany that became a major kindertrauma classic in the U.K. when it became part of the BBC's regular airing schedule for years. The fact that it was overdubbed with English narration (and the original soundtrack bleeding through underneath to varying degrees) added to the strangeness, not to mention the fact that the 71-minute film was diced up into three pieces and broadcast in black and white. Featuring a bevy of creatures and one of the screen's wildest evil dwarfs, it's a fairy tale stripped down to its basic and weirdest elements with characters who don't even have proper names.
Awakening from a dream in the wilderness, a prince (Dux) is informed by some locals of the haughty princess (Bodenstein) who places outrageous demands for those seeking her hand in marriage. When he approaches her at court in front of her father, the king (Vogt), she turns down his offers and instead demands the seemingly impossible singing, ringing tree. The prince's quest takes him to the lair of a scheming dwarf (Krüger) who offers the tree only if, should the princess refuse, the prince returns and agrees to be transformed into a bear. Of course, there's a trick involved and the bear clause comes to pass, which leads to the princess learning some hard-won life lessons as the prince looks for a way to change back to his human form.
The extreme artificiality of this film works like a charm right out of the gate with a vibrant storybook quality that doesn't let up for the entire running time, which helps gloss over some of the more perplexing aspects of the story (like Bodenstein's transformation into a green-haired "hag" who looks... well, more like Billie Eilish). It's really Bodenstein and especially Krüger who steal the show here and get the best costumes to boot, but Dux is a good sport as well spending much of the running time loping around the set in a bear suit. Various escalating reports over the decades have built this into some kind of nightmare fuel for impressionable viewers, which may have been the case with those initial monochrome broadcasts in the '60s but seems like a bit of a stretch now. In any case, it's a vivid film that still stands out from standard family entertainment no matter how you slice it, and anyone with a love for Eastern European fairy tale movies can't afford to miss it.
Initially released in a very poor DVD from First Run featuring the awkward English-narrated version, The Singing, Ringing Tree later turned up on an okay German DVD and a UK one from Network in 2003 featuring the German and English versions plus "Interview with a Princess" (16m1s), in which Bodenstein recalls the film's complete absence of political intent, doing the film while still a student, the problems with wrangling live doves, the creation of the antlered horse, and plenty more. They also issued a digitally remastered DVD in 2007, and it was included as a 2011 DVD double feature with The Tinderbox as part of Network's Tales from Europedisc showcasing the European fairy tale movie series originally run on the BBC. In 2021, Network gave the film what appears to be its global Blu-ray premiere (no DVD option, interestingly) featuring a choice of full frame (1.33:1) or matted (1.78:1) viewing options. The compositions pretty much work either way, though the full frame one seems to more accurate to the period and allows you to enjoy a lot more of that crazy production design from top to bottom. The downside is either way it's from a 30 fps master probably prepared for HD broadcast rather than native film speed, but it's still way ahead of any other option out there. The advertised specs for this one in terms of audio were confusing, citing the widescreen one as featuring the German track and a music-only option while the full frame one had the English-narrated version. That's actually not the case; either way you can choose the German, English, French, or Spanish LPCM 2.0 mono tracks (unless you're very nostalgic, the German one's the best by far) with optional English subtitles. The music track is actually included as a lengthy 39m28s suite accompanied by various international posters and stills. The other big extra here is the "Interview with a Princess" featurette ported over here in its entirety.
Full Frame (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on November 13, 2021