Danish writer Aske Hald Knudstrup attempts to get to the root of the GDR’s peculiar obsession with his country’s “Olsen Gang” comedies.
Growing up in Denmark around the turn of the millennium, I spent many a cosy Saturday evening with my family watching the Olsen-banden (Olsen Gang) films. There were 13 of them, made by director Erik Balling between 1968 and 1981 (we’ll overlook the 1998 reunion special), and the plot was always the same. Hapless criminals Egon Olsen, Benny Frandsen and Kjeld Jensen would fruitlessly attempt to fulfil Egon’s “foolproof” plans to steal millions from wealthy businessmen using LEGO trucks, dust bunnies or 100 green peas. My friends and I used to quote the characters’ catchphrases, like Kjeld’s “It won’t be dangerous, right?” or Benny’s “Skide godt” (“Bloody brilliant”). But I never actually thought about the films that much – they were just part of the cultural wallpaper.
So I was a little confused when, during an Exberliner fact-checking conversation with a fortysomething man from Saxony, I mentioned my origins and he immediately responded with “I love the Olsen Gang films!” Why would a German get so excited about something so Danish? But then I remembered hearing about how Die Olsenbande, as it was called here, had been a huge hit in former East Germany. Dubbed by the state-owned film studio DEFA, the 13 original films premiered in the GDR between 1970 and 1984, and had been broadcast 39 times on TV by 1989. Across the Wall, as dubbed by the ZDF network, the films flopped.
Today, the phrase “Mächtig gewaltig!” – DEFA’s translation of “Skide godt”; roughly, “Mightily mighty!” – still resonates around the former East. It’s the title of an Olsenbande play by theatre company Theater Dinner that has toured over 200 times across (mainly) eastern Germany since 2013, selling more than 20,000 tickets. There’s even a “Mächtig gewaltig” exhibition on the series that’s been showing in both Rostock and Schwerin; it hits Filmmuseum Potsdam later this year.
Helping out with those exhibitions is Steffen Paatz, a 47-year-old Leipzig geologist who reckons he’s seen the films over a thousand times, and still watches each of them at least twice a year. Among his many collectables, the most treasured item is an original copy of the script for 1977’s The Olsen Gang Outta Sight.
“I was a teenager when I saw the last film in the cinema, and I remember feeling so sad when Egon Olsen walked into the Vridsløselille state prison for the last time,” Paatz says.
For over 15 years, Paatz has co-led the German Olsenbande fan club alongside founder Paul Wenzel, posting news on the online forum and arranging yearly get-togethers for the club’s 3000-odd members, 65 percent of whom are from eastern Germany. I asked him what he thought the films’ draw was. Paatz told me that when he was younger, he, like myself, mainly loved the Olsenbande films for their accessible humour, but that he’s lately begun to identify with the characters’ plight as working-class everymen pitting themselves against the one percent. In one of the films, grumpy police commissioner Jensen reflects: “The big criminals, you let fly. The small ones, you hang.” According to Paatz, “The little people are still as much underdogs today as they were 40 years ago.”
Viewed that way, it’s not surprising the films were such a hit in the GDR. Cultural sociologist Uwe Breitenborn, a 51-year-old Pankow resident, grew up with the Olsen Gang films in Leipzig. The eye-opening moment for him came in 1992, at a symposium about the films he’d co-organised in Denmark. A speaker compared two clips from the show: one dubbed by West Germany’s ZDF; the other from DEFA. “The ZDF synchronisation turned the film into a very ordinary slapstick comedy; DEFA, on the other hand, emphasised the characters’ personality.”
You see the elite as arrogant, and the Olsenbande as this anti-authoritarian group… That rang true among many East Germans.
He believes East Germans identified with the Olsen gang’s modest goals – they dreamed of spending their stolen millions on all-inclusive trips to Mallorca – but also with the films’ unintentional parallels to GDR society: “You see the elite as arrogant and lacking self-awareness, and the Olsenbande as this anti-authoritarian group who knew that to reach their dreams, they could only rely on themselves. That rung true among many East Germans,” Breitenborn says.
Perhaps nobody’s more aware of East Germans’ Olsenbande appreciation than Jes Holtsø. In the original films, he played the long-haired Børge, Kjeld’s son. Now 61, the Copenhagener returned to the public sphere with his blues project Holtsø & Wittrock around 10 years ago. Steffen Paatz and Paul Wenzel of the Olsenbande fan club have helped him arrange multiple tours in the former East, with most of the shows selling out.
“The reception I get here, you’d think I’m a long-lost son,” Holtsø laughs. He’s used to being recognised as Børge in Denmark, too, but believes the East German excitement is different. “In Denmark, I sometimes feel that the fans should relax a bit and ‘get a life’. When I play in Germany, I talk to the fans about the way they used to live. They’ve endured a lot. To some, the fact that someone they recognise from beloved old films can come and visit is a symbol of the freedom they’ve now acquired,” Holtsø says.
The other day, I re-watched my favourite Olsenbande-film, The Olsen Gang Sees Red, with German synchronisation. Maybe I was just imagining it, but after speaking to Breitenborn and Paatz the film took on a gravity that I never would have seen back in Denmark. Those bumbling small-time crooks had become, in other words, mächtig gewaltig.