The Tinderbox

The Tinderbox

Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Deutsche Film (DEFA)

Original release: April 18th, 1959
Certificate: U
Running time: 83 minutes

Country of origin: East Germany
Original language: German

Director: Siegfriend Hartmann
Writers: Hans Cristian Andersen, Siegfried Hartmann

Cast: Rolf Lugwig, Barbara Mehlan, Fritz Schlegel, Bella Waldritter

As a literary concept, I really like fairy tales. In them, everyone has their use, and their behaviour directly leads into consequences. If you are good, good things will happen. If you are bad, then bad things will happen. Their worlds are neat, and ordered, and they seem much easier to navigate. You know to avoid wolves and witches, you know to be kind to the elderly.

My feminist sensibilities are wildly upset in parts, of course, but these aren’t tales to take too seriously. They are very much products of their time, and I respond well to the clear-cut morals and the lessons to be learned, but if you look a little deeper, no one is quite able to get off scot-free.

The Tinderbox was written by Hans Cristian Andersen, and riffs on the same Scandinavian tale that inspired Aladdin. A soldier is walking down a dirt road, his uniform battered, his boots worn. He is poor but happy. The music is thrilling and cheery, the ebb and flow echoing that of his life.

The Tinderbox

He happens upon an old woman standing by an old, hollowed tree. Will he help her? Of course he will! She has lost her tinderbox inside of the tree, and needs some sprightly help to get it back. Inside the tree, he finds underground rooms with different chests guarded by giant dogs, brimming with bronze, silver and gold coins from which he amply rewards himself.

Above ground, the old woman reveals herself to be a witch, transforms into a snake, and the soldier cuts off her head. Feeling flush, he walks to the nearest town, checks into the fanciest lodgings, buys new clothes and boots, and treats his new friends to fine food and carriage rides.

He also buys gingerbread and toys for poor children in the town, he pays for a boy to take an apprenticeship, and helps an old woman pay for her groceries. He treats himself as well as others, acting selflessly as well as selfishly; both good and bad in a fairy tale world. But what will he do when the money runs out?

From the beginning of the tale, we know which road he will take and how the story will unfold. It’s familiarity is endearing, it’s apparent innocuousness was charming. But if we were to strip away the sugary coating, dampen the music and muddy up the colour palette, would we not just have a man who bought his way into the town and made a series of well-placed bribes?

The Tinderbox

Ludwig held such an innocence in his performance though, and I was only cynical after I stopped to think about the film. He was cheerfully parting with his money as though it’s infinite, having his naivety taken advantage of, or longing for a princess that he has never met, and I was completely won over.

The tropes of the traditional fairy tale are all present. We have a hero, we have villains, we have benefactors, companions, challengers, and the prize to be won – the princess. Vladimir Propp wrote at length the structural theory of the Russian fairy tale, and The Tinderbox gives us a grand crusade in miniature.

It appeals to the old-fashioned sentimentalist in me, I do love a happy ending. And who wouldn’t want to live in a world where there are dogs as big as houses? But most of all, I’d still like to believe in a world where good actions bring rewards, and bad actions bring punishment.

Though it was made in the 50s, The Tinderbox is the kind of story that’s timeless.Whether you call it karma, or fate, I’d still like to look at the world and hope that it balances out to be fair in the end; I want everything to be OK in the end.

The Tinderbox

About Frances Taylor

Frances Taylor

Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).

When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.

She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.