155. THE SINGING RINGING TREE (1957)

Das Singende, Klingende Bäumchen

“The following program will terrify anyone who remembers how BBC Children’s TV decided bizarre East German fairy tales were good for us. But everyone else needs to know why so many are still suffering the consequences.”–2002 BBC Radio broadcast reminiscing about The Singing Ringing Tree

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DIRECTED BY: Francesco Stefani

FEATURING: Christel Bodenstein, Eckart Dux, Richard Krüger, Charles Hans Vogt

PLOT: A handsome prince journeys to a foreign kingdom to seek the hand of an arrogant princess, but she refuses his gift and demands he bring her the legendary singing ringing tree instead. The prince discovers the tree in a magical kingdom ruled over by a mischievous dwarf, who tells him he can have the tree, but it will not sing until the princess loves him. Later, an unwise wish turns the prince into a bear, and he abducts the princess and takes her to live with him.

Still from The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)

BACKGROUND:

  • Film adaptations of old folktales were a popular genre in Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War, but the genre was seldom attempted in the West, excepting Disney-style animated films that smoothed out the rough edges of the stories. In East Germany these movies were collectively known as “Märchenfilme.”
  • The Singing Ringing Tree is clearly in the Brothers’ Grimm style but is not based on a single source. The title is similar to a Grimm tale translated as “The Singing, Springing Lark.”
  • The colorful, artificial storybook look crafted by art director Erich Zander is a huge part of the film’s success. Zander began his career working as a co-art director with in the early 1920s, before the Expressionist titan became a director and emigrated to Hollywood.
  • Das Singende, Klingende Bäumchen was the 11th highest grossing film ever made in East Germany.
  • The Singing Ringing Tree achieved international prominence when it was broadcast by the BBC in 1964 with English language voiceover narration as an installment in the series “Tales from Europe.” It became a staple of British children’s programming and was screened as late as the 1990s. The broadcasts were so memorably strange and scarring they were parodied four decades later by “The Fast Show” as “Ton Swingingen Ringingen Bingingen Plingingen Tingingen Plinkingen Plonkingen Boingingen Tree.”
  • A sound sculpture erected by architects Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu in Burnley, Lancashire, England in 2006 is named “The Singing Ringing Tree” in tribute to this movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Singing Ringing Tree offers brilliantly hued proto-psychedelic sets, a despondent prince trapped in a darling fuzzy bear suit, and an evil dwarf with arched eyebrows prancing through a magical Expressionist kingdom, but the unforgettable image has to be the giant mechanical goldfish. A half-functioning robot made out of wire and paper mâché, the goldfish looks like God’s rejected first draft of a sea monster. Eerily, only three parts of him move—his lips, his eyes, and his tail—yet, despite the fact that he was obviously birthed from a nightmare, the Princess finds him to be an adorable companion.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The authentically semi-coherent fairy tale plotting, combined with art direction that’s simultaneously lush and cheesy, create a world that’s defiantly different than the one we know. It’s a rose-colored, romanticized view of the Dark Ages glimpsed through a hole in the Iron Curtain. The Singing Ringing Tree is known in former East Germany (where it was a blockbuster hit in the 1950s) and Britain (where it became a cult item through TV screenings in the 1960s), but this spectacular curiosity still needs to be brought to the attention of the rest of the world.


Clip from The Singing Ringing Tree

COMMENTS: With its obscure Teutonic magic, its timeless kingdoms and mysterious faerie folk, its poetic transformations of princes into bears and princesses into hags, it’s hard to believe that The Singing Ringing Tree isn’t based on an actual Grimm fairy tale. With its vibrant colors, luxurious costumes, and aristocratic trinkets, it’s also hard to believe that this lushly escapist film came out of Cold War East Germany. Many points about The Singing Ringing Tree don’t add up, from plot elements (the prince turns into a bear?) to the historical context (Communists romanticizing monarchs?) to the intended audience (it’s terrifying to kids, yet it’s marketed as a children’s film?) It’s as if the movie is a series of repressed sentiments from medieval times bubbling up from the collective unconscious. The result is bizarre; what might have made some kind of storybook sense as folklore translates to the screen as pure surrealism.

In the realms of “high fantasy” as founded by J.R.R. Tolkien, magical artifacts and immortal elves are commonplaces, but the characters and their interactions are based in psychological realism. Not so in fairy tales, where magic operates not as an organic part of an alternate world, but as a moral or social symbol of this one. In classic folktales, these metaphors mutate via oral transmission over centuries until we no longer recognize what they originally meant. Rapunzel has impossibly long hair—why? The result is something beckoning and strange, images full of buried meanings whose significance we sense but whose intent often remains a mystery. The Singing Ringing Tree is full of such implausibilities, despite being built from scratch in imitation of Grimm. Characters are missing motivations, a fact which would be considered sloppy writing outside of the fairy tale genre. Consider the magical dwarf, who rules over a colorful kingdom that includes a magical tree that can “dispel all evil” (but leaves the dwarf’s malice untouched). He has no hobby or interest besides thwarting the burgeoning love between the Prince and Princess. He is pure mischief, pure antagonist, existing only to sow discord and oppose the protagonist. The dwarf sets the plot in motion by allowing the Prince to take the Singing Ringing Tree in the first place, for no good reason other than that he knows the Prince can’t win the love of the Princess. His only reward for the Prince’s failure is to imprison him in his kingdom for eternity, a punishment he was perfectly capable of inflicting without loaning the shrub to the sovereign in the first place. For his part, the Prince strikes some strange bargains, as well. His vow to turn into a bear if he fails to woo the Princess is an odd, out-of-nowhere oath to swear. (Why a bear, rather than a termite, or a rosebush?) Later, as a bear, he offers to give the Tree to the King in exchange for “the first person who met him on his return.” How does the fuzzy prince know it will be the Princess who meets the King first, rather than, say, a palace guard at the gate? Has growing fur given him precognitive abilities? Never mind; the odd deal suits the plot, and provides the story with a ritualistic, deliberately outside-of-reality architecture.

The dreamy, totemic plot machinations play out in an equally artificial cinema reality. The term “stagebound” is almost always used as an insult in film criticism, but here the theatricality of the sets is done beautifully and serves the material perfectly. The primary colors (rendered in the Eastern Block equivalent of Technicolor) pop off the screen, a refreshingly vibrant change from the restricted color palettes in vogue among today’s cinematographers. Night is a deep blue backdrop with painted stars behind some boulders and brown straw arranged in the foreground. The nobles dress in royal blues and regal reds, and you can almost hear the rustle of their silk cloaks. The psychedelia of the dwarf’s kingdom makes you wonder whether the Warsaw Pact discovered magic mushrooms a decade before they came into vogue in the West. Veins of rose run through the sandy shore of a lake fed by a waterfall, and glass flowers grow at the water’s edge; the flora grows on rock walls like coral, and is straight out of the Wonderland surplus catalog. The dwarf’s subjects are friendly doves, a horse with stag antlers, and the infamous uncanny giant goldfish. Special effects are basic—a stop-animated wall of thorns growing from a bush, a ring of fire superimposed on the scene while the dwarf flies above on hidden wires—but their very unreality fits the mood. The music is excellent, but largely atonal and unchildlike. Ringing noises anticipate the song of the title tree; spiderwebs chime when the Prince cuts them with his rapier, and berries tinkle as the Princess plucks them off the bush. In the BBC preparation, the English language narration contributes to the removal from reality. Although this technique, which requires fading out the native German speakers so the narrator can explain what they are saying, seems like it would be intrusive, it’s actually charming. The omniscient narrator has a soothing voice and a bedtime-story manner that highlights the alienness of the tale. It makes us feel like we’re sleepy youngsters wrapped up in warm bedsheets, trapped halfway between sleep and waking as we watch the story play out in our mind’s eye.

The Singing Ringing Tree, and Märchenfilme in general, had nothing to do with Socialist Realism, the official aesthetic of Communist countries. Tree deals, instead, with the romantic problems of the long-gone aristocracy, which is about as far from the struggle of the proletariat as you can get. The “Beauty and the Beast” meets “Taming of the Shrew” plot shows nostalgia for a patriarchal sexual order which Communism believed itself to be well past. The Princess is presented as haughty and arrogant because she refuses to marry a random stranger who tries to buy her love with a jewelry box full of pearls. She doesn’t need a man in her life; but when the Prince is transformed into a sexual beast (in a display of masculine potency, he hurls a phallic spear clear through a knot in a split tree), he seizes her and takes her to his cave (and presumably his bed) by force. Once captive, she is revealed as ugly because she is not suitable submissive. She is then trained to put others’ needs ahead of her own. Once she abases herself and becomes a servant to the Bear and the creatures of the forest, she regains her beauty and sexual desirability, and the Bear transforms from the rampaging beast she feared into a handsome companion. True, that patriarchy-reinforcing reading is a sour way of looking at the moral, which on its surface is a simply tale about learning to grow through love and self-sacrifice, but looking at it this way helps to illustrate how cluelessly but defiantly un-Marxist this reactionary fairy tale is. It’s not surprising that many socialist critics hated this film, considering it bourgeois.

Bourgeois or not, thanks to its sparkly spectacle and imagination Das Singende, Klingende Bäumchen was a box office hit in East Germany. We don’t have any reliable records about how German children reacted to the movie, but in Britain the film became a punchline for how the strange lessons of fairy tales traumatize children. Still, a good children’s film should be a little bit scary. Those are the ones we always recall as adults. With no child characters to identify with, and no protective slapstick to insulate kids from the harsh realities of fairy tale life, The Singing Ringing Tree isn’t a fun experience for youngsters, though it can be a mesmerizing one. It’s like watching “H.R. Pufnstuff” suffering through a bad trip. I think that British grownups have likely exaggerated the nightmarish effect Tree had on their little psyches, but it’s easy to see how a kid would be pulled into the story, attracted to its unfamiliar and magical mysteries like a dark cave to be explored. And inside that cave, in a hidden pool, lies a giant semi-mobile goldfish with randomly lolling goggle eyes that claims to be your friend. Let the shuddering begin.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal tale shot in stunning ORWOcolor…”–Patrick Samuel, Static Mass Emporium (DVD)

“What it has is an indefinable ‘otherness’… seen at a certain age, at a certain time in history, The Singing, Ringing Tree would give Freud nightmares.”–Camus, Cine Outsider (DVD)

“…for pure weirdness, you couldn’t beat The Singing Ringing Tree… resembled a Brothers Grimm story directed by David Lynch.”–Ian Smith, Blood and Porridge

IMDB LINK: The Singing Ringing Tree (1957)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Singing Ringing Tree – The “Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales”‘ entry on The Singing Ringing Tree

The Singing, Ringing Tree | East German Cinema Blog – A thorough synopsis and background information on the cast and crew from Jim Morton’s niche blog

Return of the Teatime Terror – “Telegraph” article on the BBC’s 1960s Eastern Europe fairy tale programming, with an emphasis on The Singing Ringing Tree

The Singing Ringing Tree: scariest kids’ TV show ever? – Mark Picakavance humorously exhumes the nightmare of a generation of British children, speculating that the film was some sort of Communist psychological warfare unleashed on the unsuspecting West

BBC – Radio 4 – The Singing Ringing Tree – An archived 2002 BBC radio program reflecting on how TV broadcasts of The Singing Ringing Tree terrified a generation of British children. Unfortunately, only the very beginning of the audio is playable, but the landing page contains some stills and text about the production.

The singing ringing tree on Tumblr – Stills from the film are a popular share on the social media site

DVD INFO: Appearing in the first years of the DVD format, First Run Features 2001 “Tales from Europe” release (buy) has a somewhat unfamiliar architecture. The opening screen presents you with four choices: “Das Singende, Klingende Bäumchen,” “The Singing Ringing Tree,” “Le Petit Arbre Qui Chante,” or “El Tintineante Arbolito Cantante.” These are not four separate features, but four separate soundtracks (the original German, the English narrated version, French, and Spanish, respectively). There are no subtitles for the German version, unfortunately, and the special features are all the same, so for English speakers there is no sense in clicking on any of the other options (you’ll have to sit through a minute of unskippable logos and copyright warnings if you do, then do it again to get to your native tongue). The video and audio are superb, given the age and obscurity of the feature. The special features are a combo trailer for three different DEFA fairy tale movies (The Golden Goose, The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs, and Little Mook). Click on the words “Shortfilm” and you’ll be treated to “Sonntag,” a surreal two-minute animated short whose only apparent connection to Tree is the fact that it concludes with a shot of a shrubbery.

Lucky Europeans have the option to purchase the film on Region B Blu-ray (without special features other than unspecified trailer[s], but with the option to watch the film subtitled).

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Pete.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “155. THE SINGING RINGING TREE (1957)”

  1. I’ve always thought fairytales have a lot of untapped potential for artistically-inclined filmmakers. All that symbology and otherworldiness could really make for some interesting artistic interpretation.

  2. I felt his pain when he was so conflicted about what he wanted to do – stay with Moira or return to the rain-forest.
    At closing time, he sees a guy stumble out of the bar, trip on the cheap northern exposure DVD,
    and fumble for his keys for five minutes. Heard tells People Magazine that she
    purposefully asked to throw in a few lines that made her character more
    bisexual (although she doesn’t have any lady-lip-locking scenes like
    Smith and Banks have).

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