Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella, Three Gifts for Cinderella, Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, Tři oříšky pro Popelku: It’s my newly-discovered favourite “Cinderella” movie. Having grown up in Germany in the seventies, you’d think it would have been a childhood favourite of mine, but we didn’t have a TV, so I didn’t find out about this cult classic until I started my research for this paper.
The movie is a Czech/German production from 1973, and has been broadcast every year since at Christmas time. By “a Czech/German production”, I mean it was made in a collaboration of the DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, the movie production company of East Germany) with the Czech Filmové studio Barrandov – but also, that the film had an international cast, Czechs and Germans, who each spoke their lines in their own language and were dubbed into the other language for the final product. So in the German version I watched, most of the actors’ lines are dubbed, except for the King and Queen, but then in the Czech, it’s the other way around. Unfortunately, and somewhat incomprehensibly given the quality of this movie, it seems to never have been dubbed into English, or at least not in a version I can find anywhere. Youtube has a version produced and broadcast by the BBC which is an English narration over the Czech soundtrack (link is above).
Anyway, those Czech/German fairy tale films are fantastic, and Three Hazelnuts is, perhaps, one of the best. It has been unfailingly popular for forty years – in a “making of” documentary that was shown in December 2013 for the fortieth anniversary of the film, more than one of the interviewees said that it just wouldn’t be Christmas at their house without this movie. Now, why Christmas? It’s not because of the plot of the film, but the setting – for budgeting reasons, it was shot in winter, and bingo, it became a Christmas movie. But that lends it part of its charm, which it has by the bucketload.
The film’s story follows a “Cinderella” version written by Czech nationalist writer Božena Němcová, who was roughly contemporary with the Brothers Grimm. The story is closer to theirs than to Perrault (the version better known in America, courtesy of Disney), which might explain part of its appeal in German-speaking countries. In the film’s version, there is only one stepsister, and the magic that gets Cinderella to the Prince comes from three hazelnuts, which are given to her as a gift by one of the loyal household servants. As in Grimms, where the hazel branch is given to her by her father, the girl has asked for the first thing that knocks against the man’s hat, and it just so happens to be a branch with nuts. Three times she drops the nut to the ground, and each time it contains the magical outfit that gets her into the Prince’s company. But only once it’s to the ball – this Cinderella has a few other things up her soot-covered sleeve to catch a Prince’s attention.
In fact, having watched both Three Hazelnuts and the 1998 Ever After, I have a strong suspicion that the latter was materially influenced by the former – the parallels are too much to be coincidental. In both stories, Cinderella is put upon, of course. But in both cases, she doesn’t let herself be downtrodden. The first meeting with the Prince takes place out in the field or forest, where the Prince is on the run from his royal duties, and the first thing Cinderella does is throw something at him to foil his plans – in Ever After, she knocks him off his horse with an apple, in Three Hazelnuts, she chucks a snowball at him which makes him miss his shot at a deer. In both cases, he only sees her as a little peasant girl, but is intrigued nonetheless. The next meeting takes place in the forest. This time the Hazelnut-Cinderella has cracked her first wishing nut, and found a huntsman’s suit inside. On her trusty horse, the last legacy of her father, she goes for a gallop and falls in with the Prince’s hunting party, where she shoots a falcon out of the sky right in front of the Prince’s nose and wins the day’s price for best hunter (Prince, of course, doesn’t recognise her, and in fact thinks she’s a man. Well, what do you expect? She’s wearing pants, that’s a sure-fire disguise). The Every-After-Cinderella, by comparison, impresses the Prince with her manly wit and learning (quoting Machiavelli on statesmanship), which are her legacy from her father. Both of the girls beat the Prince at his own game long before the ball scene, which, no surprise, gets him to sit up and take notice. The two Princes are not unlike each other, as well – both try to escape their princely duties, but with Hazelnut-Prince being more boyishly mischievous rather than irresponsible like Ever-After-Prince, giving his Latin tutor the perpetual runaround down to the very last scene in the film.
However, back to Hazelnut-Cinderella. She does go to the ball, the old-fashioned way, togged out in a hazelnut-sourced gown, and knocks the Prince’s last remaining socks off. (That’s finally the point where the film dates itself – her hairdo for the ball is so very seventies, it’s almost funny. Up until that point, everything is more of a quasi-Renaissance style, quite timeless.) The story follows the well-known lines after this, with the last gift from the hazelnut being a wedding dress, clad in which Cinderella rides off with her Prince – not pillion behind him or cradled in his arms, but on her own horse, cantering side-by-side over a vast snowy field, holding hands.
As I said, this movie is a cult classic in its countries of origin. Libuše Šafránková and Pavel Trávníček, the lead actors, became stars through the film. Die-hard fans practically hyperventilate at the sight of the costumes, which are still being shown in exhibitions in the original filming location: “It’s the very one she wore to the ball!” (in the documentary, one devotee shares her excitement at seeing the sweat stains on Libuše Šafránková’s outfit…). The castle Moritzburg, outside Dresden, which was the setting for the Prince’s ball, has a brass shoe mounted on the swooping staircase where the fateful slipper was dropped in the film, for the pilgrims to admire.
I wonder if part of the reason the Czech and German fairy tale films are of so much higher calibre (not to mention number) than most of what is produced in Hollywood in that genre is the simple fact of all those beautiful castles around. No need to build elaborate sets: find the nearest castle, start shooting. But also, those are the countries in which these fairy tales originated in the first place. The European fairy tale films have an organic feel to them, they fit. There is something about the character of the landscape, the actors, the buildings, that makes these films have a sense of, oddly enough, reality, in spite of their unapologetic use of magic. Fairy tales are folktales, and perhaps that’s what comes through in these movies – they are filmed among the folk, the people, and in the landscape that is their home. Three Hazelnuts, for example, used as extras and stunt riders the staff of a large riding school in Dresden, whose horses were used for the film. Not actors, but real stable boys, if you will. That sense of “realness” permeates the movie – Cinderella is actually dirty; her horse’s stall is in a real stable (in the aforementioned riding school); the walls of the buildings are genuinely weathered; there is real muck on the ground in the courtyard. And because of all that realness, it takes no effort at all to believe in the reality of the Prince, the hazelnuts, the possibility of a royal ball and a magical happily ever after. Or, perhaps even better, as many of the German fairy tales would have it, not “happily ever after”, but “contented to the end of their days”. A reality which fosters belief, and gives hope.