Honoring the Heroine: Aschenbrödel

Those who have read my blog in the last years might have guessed it: This is yet another Czech/German Fairy Tale movie, in fact the first of them all, made in 1973. But before I go into detail about the movie itself, it is time to talk about the source text. Or, in this case, texts.

The Cinderella Mythos is pretty much universal. You can find variations of it all over the world, in different cultures. The oldest written version of it might be in the Chinese book Youyang zazu  which was created in the 9th century. But there are already elements of the story in Greek and Roman mythology, too, and there were most likely a number of oral versions beforehand, too. It is pretty much impossible at this point to pinpoint a country of origin.

In Western media, the two version which are the most relevant are Perrault’s Cendrillon (1697) and the Brothers Grimm’s  Aschenputtel. (originally 1812, since 1819 in a slightly longer version). Most adaptations we get to see in western media are based on one of those stories, sometime even on both of them, though they differ quite a bit. In fact, the take of the Brothers Grimm is way more similar to Basile’s Cenerentola (1634), written in Italy.

The symbols attached to Cendrillon and Aschenputtel are the biggest distinction between the two versions. Cendrillon puts a lot of emphasis on the pumpkin, the mice, which are turned to horses by the fairy godmother, the glass slipper and the fact that she has to be back home at midnight. In Aschenputtel, a hazel twig and pigeons are the most important elements. She plants the hazel twig on her mother’s grave, from which a hazel tree grows. There is no fairy godmother, instead the tree provides her with the dress (the carriage just turns up), and most of the help she gets is provided by the pigeons, who do the work for her when her Stepmother’s tries to keep her busy by throwing lentils into the ashes, ordering her to sort them out. There is also no glass slipper (the shoes are silver and gold) and no emphasis on her having to be home at midnight. Also, her loosing a shoe the second time around is no accident, the prince, after trying to escort her home beforehand and her always escaping him, has ordered to smear pitch on the stairwell.

Most of those changes are just details one can easily explain with cultural differences. The pumpkin isn’t exactly common in Germany, so it does make sense that it wouldn’t turn up. German stories about fairies are also very different from French ones while the belief in angels is very strong, so connecting the source of Aschenputtel’s magical help to her death mother without making it outright religious is kind of the logical step. Even though different symbols also have different meanings, none of those aspects matter all that much for the overall story. But what really sticks out are the different endings.

Cendrillon ends on a very forgiving note, the stepsisters even get husbands of their own. Aschenputtel on the other hand – oh boy, they are not called the Brothers Grimm for nothing. First the stepsisters both follow the advice of the stepmother and hack off parts of their feet in order to fit into the shoe, but the ploy doesn’t work because the pigeons warn the prince that there is blood in the shoe. Later on they turn up at Aschenputtel’s wedding – the implication is that they want to cosy up to her – and the pigeons pick out their eyes as punishment.

That is the part of the tale most adaptations, even the ones based on the Grimm version, tend to leave out. Another aspect which is often skipped is that in both versions of the fairy tale the father is still alive. He is just, depending on how you read it, either blind to the suffering of his child or incredible neglectful and uncaring. In addition most adaptation stick to one ball, sometimes there is only one stepsister and often there is some effort made to flesh out the prince a little bit more.

The adaptation I intend to discuss today is named Tři oříšky pro Popelku in Czech, Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel or simply Drei Nüsse für Aschenbrödel in German and either Three Nuts for Cinderella, Three Gifts for Cinderella (UK) or Three Wishes for Cinderella in English. Confused? Well you have seen nothing yet. The movie is kind of based on the story of the same name by Božena Němcová, which in turn is loosely based on the Bechstein version of the fairy tale, but with elements from other fairy tales as well as religious motives thrown in. But the movie, despite its title, ignores most of the additions and therefore draws mostly from the Bechstein version. Which is practically identically with the Grimm version, except that the story is called Aschenbrödel instead of Aschenputtel. So…yeah, one could consider this simply a Czech take on Aschenputtel.


It might also be the most popular fairy tale movie in Germany. I am not kidding, one can’t underestimate the impact this movie had. It is shown every single year over the Christmas holidays – multiple times. The Castle Moritzburg in Saxony, where a lot of the outdoor scenes in the movie were shot, nowadays has a exhibition with the film costumes (a copy of the ball gown was even stolen once, but returned later on). The stairwell where Aschenbrödel lost her shoe is a popular place for proposals and there are weddings in the style of the film. And yes, there is a dedicated fan community.

The availability for the English market and the quality of what is offered is mixed. For example Three Gifts for Cinderella keeps the dialogue in the original language, but then has a narrator talking over them, explaining what is said. There are also a number of scenes cut. I guess I would recommend to look for a subtitled version because while the narrator manages to transport some of the humour of the movie, he really ruins the overall mood of it. I read some claims that there is also a dubbed version, but I was unable to find even one scene of it, so I can’t say anything about the quality of that one – if it even exists.

But what is it which makes this particular version of the story so popular? Well, there is the outstanding score which has spawned by now a number of cover versions in different languages. There is the acting. There is the overall quality of the movie, which uses some very creative camera angles. There are the memorable costumes. There is the script, which is romantic but also very funny. But above all, there is Aschenbrödel herself. Because another aspect of the book this adaptation kept is her overall attitude.

One thing for sure, “demure” is not an adjective I would use to describe this version of the character. In one of her first scenes, she claims that she broke a bowl in order to protect the kitchen help from physical punishment. It is also fairly obvious that while she has arranged herself with the situation she found herself in after her father died, she is not ready to take it laying down. When the cook of the estate tries to cheer her up by pointing out that a stepmother just isn’t as caring as a true one, she counters that her father treated her and Dora (her stepsister) the same. When the demands of her Stepmother become too much, she sneaks out riding on her beloved horse. And when one of the farm hands asks her if he should bring her something from the village, she first sardonically jokes about the stuff she would like to have, but knows she is unable to get before settling on “whatever comes in front of your eyes” (which turns out to be the three magical nuts). Overall, Aschenbrödel is a very positive character. She is an optimist (pretty much like Disney’s Cinderella), but not to an unrealistic degree. She has her breaking point, she has her dreams, and even if life is unfair towards her, she just pushes forward

It is Aschenbrödel’s desire for freedom which leads to her first encounter with the prince. She sneaks out to take a ride on her beloved horse, while everyone else is expecting the visit of the royal family, which is stopping at the estate on their way home.  The prince, who had no interest in the participating in the visit, is out in the woods and about to shoot a deer when Aschenbrödel distracts him by throwing a snow ball at him. A chase starts, during which she demonstrates her riding abilities and cheekily talks back.

No, this is not the start of a big romance, at least not from the perspective of the prince. He isn’t particularly interested in what he believes to be a dirty little girl, considering that Aschenbrödel is built pretty small. She on the other hand is at least interested in seeing him again after this encounter. And not because he is the prince, but because she likes him.

Like most adaptations, this one also keeps it to one ball. But the number three is still prevalent in the story. Aschenbrödel is gifted three hazelnuts which turn out to be magical and which she uses three times. And counting the ball, she has overall three encounters with the prince, before he searches for her with her shoe.

In most adaptations the prince, if he has a big role at all, it pretty boring. He always wants the best for the kingdom, feels trapped in his responsibilities and wants to marry for love. This prince is pretty much a prat. It is not that he wants to marry for love, he has zero interest in marrying at all. Or studying. Or accepting any kind of responsibility. Honestly, I have kind of a hard time understanding what Aschenbrödel sees in him, which might be the one big weakness of the movie. But in a lot of ways this makes their interactions more engaging, because in every single one of them, Aschenbrödel takes him down a peg or two. After she tricks him the first time in the woods, she impresses him the second time – dressed as a hunter – with her shooting skills, thus asserting herself as his equal from the get go.


A prevalent theme here is truly seeing another person. The Prince sees Aschenbrödel as a forward child the first time around. The second time he thinks she is a young man, someone who impressed him and might be a good friend. The third time he sees her as a princess, and when she makes no effort to actually chase him like all the other young women at the ball, he is immediately interested. One of my favourite parts of the movie is, when he just assumes that she will marry him, but she reminds him that she first has to agree. She gives him a riddle to solve, hinting all the encounters they had beforehand, but the Prince doesn’t remember them, so she leaves the ball. She only agrees to the marriage when at the very end, after going through the whole exercise with the shoe and a small ploy by the Stepmother, he realizes what she was trying to tell him. In recognizing her as the little girl, the hunter and the princess he is finally able to truly see Aschenbrödel – every aspect of her. And isn’t that what we want from the person we marry, that he or she truly understands who we are?

I mentioned beforehand that the Prince’s irresponsible ways might be the one tarnish on this movie. An ongoing theme is the King’s believe that marrying will force him to settle down. Most of this is played for comic relief, balancing out the romantic moments perfectly. What I really like, though, is that there actually isn’t much settling down shown in the end, thus subverting the cliché of the woman taming the irresponsible husband. Instead Aschenbrödel and her Prince are galloping on their horses towards the sun, leaving all worries and demands behind them.


Quote: “Die Wangen sind mit Asche beschmutzt aber der Schornsteinfeger ist es nicht…ein Hütchen mit Federn, die Armbrust über der Schulter, aber ein Jäger ist es nicht…ein silbergewirktes Kleid mit Schleppe zum Ball, aber eine Prinzessin ist es nicht, mein holder Herr. Wer ist das?”

(The cheeks are dirtied with sooth, but it is not a chimney sweep…a little hat with feather, the crossbow on the shoulder, but it is not a hunter…a silvery dress with train for the ball, but it is not a princess, my good gentleman.Who is that?)

If you are really into fairy tale movies, this is pretty much a must see, if for no other reason than to be aware of a little bit European culture. To emphasis again how much this movie means for the German (and the Czech) audience: It is shown around 20 times each year in December on the regular channels, and it was once elected as the best fairy tale movie of the 20th century. I also think that it is pretty much impossible to listen to the soundtrack and not ending up liking it. So if you get the chance, give it a watch.

7 thoughts on “Honoring the Heroine: Aschenbrödel

    • Yeah, I noticed that too. I was wondering how many of the American viewers even get why the stepsisters in Into the Woods are blinded considering that the Perrault version is the better known one in the US.

  1. I’ve seen this movie! You’ve talked about it before, so I decided to take a look. And I should really rewatch it – after all, it’s Christmastime! I really enjoyed it… the soundtrack is sooo beautiful! And I adore the dancing at the ball. The costumes are very creative too, and this has a wonderful take on Cinderella. Oh, and I watched it in Czech with english subtitles, btw. It’s on Youtube.

    I’ve noticed for some time now that there is one thing that the Disney adaptation borrows from ‘Achenputtel’: and that is the Stepmother’s ‘challenge’, per say. Sure, it’s a dress and not lentils, but the meaning is the same: it doesn’t matter whether Cinderella fulfills her task or not, the Stepmother is not going to accept it. About Cinderella’s father: I actually wonder if he and the stepmother aren’t supposed to be dead in Perrault’s version. Because after the protagonist’s plight is established, they are never mentioned again. Perhaps they have died and Cinderella is living with her stepsisters? Or maybe they’re just travelling? Guess we’ll never know.

    Oh, what do you think about ‘Into the Woods’? Both in terms of story and musically.

    • The music is a mixed bag for me and the story…I feel that it thinks itself to be more clever than it actually is. Above all, though, I don’t like the baker. He is like a giant man child, always needing someone to hold his hand. I also think that the movie overuses the narrator (not sure if it is the same with the musical). All in all I kind of like the concept to crossover a number of fairy tales, but not what they made with it.

      Glad that you have seen it.

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