Along with Heiner Carow and Konrad Wolf, Frank Beyer is one of the German Democratic Republic’s most famous directors. In contrast to many others who worked at Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA) Studios, his films generated considerable interest and critical acclaim in the Federal Republic, even during the Cold War. The recipient of many national and international awards, he is the only GDR filmmaker in history to have been nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film.
Born in Nobitz in 1932, Beyer studied filmmaking in Prague from 1952-1957, after which he worked as a director at DEFA Studios, now known as Studio Babelsberg. Nationalised, centralised and vertically integrated, DEFA Studios saw the production of some 650 films and 800 telefilms during the period from 1946-1992. Beyer’s relations with the Socialist Party, which controlled all aspects of production at the Studios, were troublesome. Although Beyer subscribed to the objectives and aspirations of the communist state, his films did not escape political censorship, particularly in 1965/66 when the Party withheld almost a dozen films produced at DEFA Studios. Beyer’s Traces of Stone (Spur der Steine, 1966) was one of the productions to which Party officials took objection and as a result the film was “shelved” until the political infrastructure of the GDR collapsed.
The banning of Traces of Stone had grave implications for Beyer’s career. He was banished from the Studios and from working in Berlin and Potsdam. Unlike other directors who remained full-time on the DEFA payroll, Beyer never managed to secure regular, ongoing work at the Studios again, and this was the only complex in the GDR where one could make films. For eight years Beyer took refuge in Dresden, where he worked as a director for the State theatre.
Other projects Beyer had planned were also disrupted in the mid 1960s. Originally he planned to start shooting the Jakob der Lügner (Jakob the Liar) in autumn of 1966, but the production also faced political obstacles and was not completed until 1974. In the interim, Jakob the Liar‘s script writer, Jureck Becker, turned the script into a book, which became a best selling novel in both East and West Germany. Jakob the Liar was one of the first East German films to openly address anti-Semitism, a subject that was taboo for filmmakers in the Federal Republic in the immediate post-war years and through until the late 1970s.
Working on productions such as Jakob the Liar and Naked Among Wolves (Nackt unter Wölfen, 1963), Beyer contributed to the DEFA tradition of the “anti-fascist” films, the genre for which the Studios are renowned. Praised as one of the most powerful examples of the genre, Alone Among Wolves has been acclaimed for its “indelibly written characters,” and has invited “positive comparison to Schindler’s List in its ability to portray the triumph of human spirit.” (1)
Jakob the Liar and Traces of Stone are perhaps Beyer’s most well known films and have drawn broad international audiences, particularly in the USA. When Traces of Stone was released for public viewing again at the Berlin Film Festival after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was clear that Beyer’s film was a major landmark in German film history, despite having been “shelved” for some 25 years. Its release generated a genuine, even if short lived, interest in this underrated national cinema, as much as in East Germany’s DEFA Studios.
After the fall of the Wall, Beyer turned to reconstruct the tumultuous events that precipitated the implosion of the GDR. Nickolaikirche tells the remarkable history of the reform movement that gained momentum in Leipzig and other East German centres throughout 1989 – ultimately leading to the expulsion of the socialist government and the collapse of “socialist experiment” in the East. Beyer captures the intrigue, the menace and the euphoria of the time with remarkable acumen and authenticity. He succeeds in recollecting monumental and heroic events that have nevertheless become an historical footnote since Germany was unified.
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Several of the films mentioned in this essay and other Frank Beyer films were screened in SHORT AND SWEET: short films from Germany and a Frank Beyer Retrospective, presented by the Melbourne Cinémathèque.