||Here's a film that in its native land, if it is remembered at all, is recalled as a charming fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm, but in Britain has more menacing connotations, simply because it was one of the first fantasy works that little children would have experienced from another country. In East Germany in 1957, notably before the Berlin wall was constructed, there were collaborations with West Germany in its filmmaking, and crafting fables for the kids was one channel for their shared cinematic talent. The Singing Ringing Tree was one such production, mostly created for showing behind the Iron Curtain, but in the spirit of international co-operation some of these would be shown in the West.
In 1964, the BBC's Children's Department bought The Singing Ringing Tree and had it dubbed for broadcast in English - actually a narrator, Antony Bilbow, speaking over still-audible German dialogue. This was by no means a unique occurrence, as many Continental projects were bought cheaply in precisely this fashion, and many Brits of a certain age will have memories of the likes of White Horses or The Aeronauts long after their tapes had been wiped for reasons of economy and re-use. But this was something different, just as some were scared by the Russian The Snow Queen in its Anglicised version, there was a generation or two who were morbidly fascinated by the antics of the characters here.
Originally, it was shown in black and white, which robbed a very colourful production of much of its vibrancy, but come the seventies more colour television sets were in use and the kids of that decade, accustomed to being terrified by whatever they saw on the box on a regular basis, were able to steel themselves for The Singing Ringing Tree in the blaze of hues it was originally intended to be seen, albeit on a relatively small screen compared to the Jumbotrons preferred in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, these fanciful Germans wove their spell, but while there were some children genuinely afraid of what they were seeing, that did not really do the experience justice, as the film seemed more alien than anything.
Of course, you watch it now and if you were not there at the time, a pre-schooler or a little older who did not have the full panoply of aggressively marketed children's entertainment that arrived with the dawn of the eighties and its advertising not-so-cunningly disguised as fun cartoons, then watching this East German gem was akin to seeing a broadcast from another world, which in the Cold War it kind of was. Imagine if Vrillon of Ashtar Galactic Command wanted to put his feet up after a hard day's broadcast signal intrusion in the seventies, and this is what you imagine he would chill to, something that came across as if it had been made by people who knew what fairy tales were, very well, in fact, but had their own vivid, surreal take on them.
The plot was a variation on Beauty and the Beast, as the Grimms had collected a number of variations on a theme that were sufficiently different from one another to justify separate entries in their canon of folk legend. Just as The Wizard of Oz offers a dive into a fully realised world as envisaged as a fun time for the younglings, but in effect had them regularly alarmed at how eerily offbeat it all was to watch, the passage of time between its manufacture and actually watching it contributed to the aforementioned otherworldly nature of its intrigue. There were many of these imports on British TV for kids, but the likes of Three Wishes for Cinderella or Golden Hair have passed into the realms of the forgotten, while The Singing Ringing Tree endures hauntingly.
It remains a strange experience, though its storybook quality and years of far weirder children's entertainment since mean that it is now more charming than scary, unless your nostalgia elicits strong memories of how you initially experienced it. The "Beast" here is the Prince (Eckart Dux) who makes the mistake of trying to woo an arrogant Princess (Christel Bodenstein) and is turned into a bear for the crime of trying to find the titular tree. This is because an evil dwarf (Richard Kruger) has cursed him, and there may never have been a tree in the first place, it seems it is merely invented by the little man to snare the Prince and victimise him, popping up across the impressive sets to keep up the torment unseen. When the bear kidnaps the Princess in a last ditch bid to shift the curse, the story becomes a moral lesson for treating others well.
And treating animals well, to boot, important in the Princess's personal growth - she is cursed too, with green hair and an upturned nose that supposedly makes her ugly (Bodenstein is too beautiful for that to register, however). Some may recall the large fish puppet that the Bear makes friends with and is trapped by the Dwarf in ice, others may remember the neverending hedge of thorns that the villain constructs to prevent the Princess from returning and lifting the curse, while for others it may be the uncanny sound effects that are most evocative, the chip of rocks created by the Dwarf's spying, or the tinkling of the admittedly modest tree (so characters can carry it around). Even more will bring to mind how disturbingly horrible the Princess is before her reform, draining the garden fountain to let the goldfish she is bored with die. Then there's the lush, lovely orchestral score that would go slightly out of tune on the well-worn soundtrack. You can't say there's nothing like The Singing Ringing Tree, because there was at the time it was made and for decades afterwards, but you can say it was a memory that was a perfect instance of innocently off-kilter weirdness.
[Network presents The Singing Ringing Tree on Blu-ray 18 October 2021.
Special features are:
Widescreen theatrical version with German audio or alternative music-only soundtrack
Fullscreen version with English narrated soundtrack or alternative French and Spanish soundtracks
Interview with a Princess: a 2003 interview with Christel Bodenstein
Limited edition booklet by cultural historian Tim Worthington.
Click here to buy from the Network website.]