The Focus on East German Film program curated and presented by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in November 2009 coincided with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This event is recognised internationally as the catalyst for the beginning of the end for Communism in Europe and the end of the Cold War. That said, the fall of the Communist regime in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) also spelt the end for the many state-supported industries. Amongst these was the East German film studios Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, better known as DEFA. Though rather than to dwell on the loss of the DEFA since the fall of Communism, the ACMI selected a series of films which both highlighted the high standard of films produced by the studios throughout its 40 year existence and gave further insight into a country which, for many people, remains foreign to this day.
The GDR was one of the most hardline regimes within the Communist bloc, so the DEFA studios were subject to a high level of professional and ideological scrutiny. However, in the early days of the studios the founding directors were happy to comply with the demand to provide ideological content in film. One of the most significant films included in the ACMI program was created on this basis – Die Mörder Unter uns (The Murderers are Among Us, Wolfgang Staudte, 1946). This was the first film to be produced in post-WWII Germany and the first to examine in depth Germany’s responsibility and guilt for the crimes committed during the Third Reich. The film follows a series of characters who address these issues, but the overarching theme was the need to seek justice for the victims and not to give in to the desire for revenge. Die Mörder Unter uns was the first of the DEFA Trümmerfilme (“rubble” films) to be produced, aptly named due to their use of the bombed-out Berlin cityscape as a backdrop and to represent post-war German society. These films emphasised the need to re-build the country both physically and emotionally, and most importantly to foster a move away from Fascism. The Trümmerfilme had only a limited lifespan, so from these origins the DEFA extended these films to create a very distinctive genre: Anti-Fascist Film. As might be expected, the Anti-Fascist films were high priority projects for the East German Communist regime. As a country built, literally, on the ruins of Nazism it recognised the need to create an anti-Fascist legacy to legitimise itself.
Two films created for this purpose were Ich war Neunzehn (I was Nineteen, 1969) and Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked amongst Wolves, 1963). Both films were based on true events that had taken place during WWII. Directed by Frank Beyer, Nackt unter Wölfen is the story of a group of political prisoners detained in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp who hide a Jewish boy from the SS guards, whereas Ich war Neunzehn is based on director Konrad Wolf’s own experiences as an Officer in the Red Army during the liberation of Germany in 1945. In adapting such stories for film it helped to create a palatable recent history for East Germany, by using true stories to demonstrate there were Germans who had resisted and fought against Nazism. This helped the regime in legitimising itself and its citizens in continuing this struggle on behalf of such figures. In turn, by the DEFA addressing the regime’s demands to fulfil its ideological obligations it did not have to compromise its artistic integrity. The selection of films chosen for the ACMI certainly reinforced these sentiments.
Naturally, any program of films from a Communist country would be incomplete without featuring banned films. Due to the GDR’s fear of West Germany’s influence on its own population it had one of the most hardline film censorship systems in the Communist bloc. In trying to maintain this level of scrutiny many films banned by the regime were only screened after 1989. One of the first banned films released in Germany was Ulrich Pletzdorf’s Karla (Carla, 1966), which depicted a young teacher’s struggle to reconcile her own teaching principles, that her students be encouraged to think and learn independently, in the face of her colleagues’ expectations to adhere to the state’s educational standards. This film was banned, along with most of the DEFA film productions for the 1965-66 period, under the ruling of the 11th Plenary Session of the Socialistische Einsheitpartei Deutscheland (SED – the East German Communist Party) on film, which decried the film as “nihilistic”, “revisionist” and potentially damaging to state security.
The other banned film to feature in the program was Konrad Wolf’s Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers, 1959). Sonnensucher was the DEFA studio’s most overt response to de-Stalinisation in East Germany. Portraying the story of workers living and working in the WISMUT Uranium mines in the southern part of East Germany in the early 1950s, it focused on a series of characters from various backgrounds (Communists, former Nazis, Germans ejected from Eastern Europe, Catholics, etc), all of whom were each trying to forge a path for themselves in a new Germany. Though the film was approved for production by the state and was ready for release in 1958, Sonnensucher was banned at the insistence of the Soviet regime. The main reason cited by the regime was the film’s depiction of uranium ore extraction to support the USSR in the nuclear arms race, as it would reveal the extraction techniques used in the mines. In addition to this, the film’s depiction of characters conscripted by the state as labour for the mines, the uneasy relations between the workers and Soviet administrators and dangerous working conditions gave further credence to the Soviet regime’s arguments against the film. The film gave more insight into the immediate post-war Stalinist period in East Germany than the Soviet regime was willing to endorse, and the film was banned in an effort to “save” the de-Stalinisation process taking place in the Communist bloc. Sonnensucher is one of the more rare banned films produced by the DEFA, so it was encouraging to see it being shown to a wider audience by ACMI.
The reality of life in East Germany was something that could be constructed and manipulated but the 1980s saw the DEFA studios develop a number of ambitious, ultimately successful film projects. One of these projects was Solo Sunny (1980), another film by Konrad Wolf. The story concerns a small time nightclub singer from Prenzlauer Berg who aspires to a successful music career, and whose individual, unconventional lifestyle and aspirations were in direct contrast to the attitudes of those around her. In spite of the numerous setbacks she encounters throughout the film, such as the treatment she receives from the men in her life and her struggle to be accepted as a musician, she continues to remain true to herself. Here Wolf’s film could be construed as a message to the whole of East German society, whose citizens were becoming increasingly apathetic due to the presence of the state in all aspects of life in East Germany. For DEFA, Solo Sunny was a step outside of its comfort zone, but also a gamble that paid-off. The film was critically acclaimed in the West and was awarded the Silver Bear at the 1981 Berlinale, the only DEFA production to receive such an accolade.
The only documentary featured in the ACMI program was Winter Ade (After Winter Comes Spring, 1988), directed by Helke Misselwitz. The film examines the lives of women in the final year of the GDR regime, focusing on their life experiences and hopes for the future. This film is documentary in the truest sense of the term, as it documents the most non-descript of situations involving women, such as riding on a train, giving dancing lessons or having lunch in a factory canteen. In developing a documentary on this basis Misselwitz imparts a remarkable honesty, which until that time had been absent in most DEFA-produced documentaries. It was interesting to note the level of optimism many of the women included in the film had about the future. At the time the documentary was made Glasnost and Perestroika had been introduced in the Soviet Union, which had brought forth a series of economic and political reforms. Though the hardline GDR regime actively resisted introducing such reforms in East Germany, they were closely followed by many East Germans and contributed to a growth in confidence about the future.
Life in the GDR was not all doom and gloom, and not every film produced by the DEFA was a propaganda project. Even the regime was able to recognise the need for there to be some reprieve and DEFA was able to produce a series of entertainment films. The few western entertainment that which had been released in East Germany had been very successful, attracting huge audiences. So, ever conscious of the need to counter the influence of the west, the DEFA created films in the same spirit but to which ordinary East Germans could better relate to. As one former East German cinema-goer said about the DEFA entertainment films, “We went to see the western films. We enjoyed them, we had fun, but the DEFA films … they were our world!” These entertainment films were produced across a number of genres, so the ACMI program included some of the more popular titles. These were Chingachgook: die grosse Schlange (Chingachgook: The Great Snake, Richard Groschopp, 1967), Im Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of Stars, 1976), Der Schweigende Stern (The Silent Star, Gottfried Kolditz, 1960) and Heißer Sommer (Hot Summer, Joachim Hasler, 1968). Though the respective directors of these films were compelled to include socialist messages within their films, such as Chingachgook’s anti-imperialist struggle against British and French colonialists in pre-revolutionary America, or the anti-nuclear weapon message included in Der Schweigende Stern, these messages functioned as “insurance policies” and ensured that these films could be approved for production. Overall, the popularity of these films pushed the socialist messages into the background. It was their theatricality that attracted an audience – space ships, Indians, summer romances, psychedelic sets, pop music and teen idols. To this day these films continue to attract audiences, with films such as Im Staub der Sterne and Heißer Sommer still enjoying a cult following in Germany, so their popularity and value for many people outshines the more explicit Communist films produced by the DEFA.
In many respects East German film can be considered to be the “lost child” of the great German cinema tradition. Due to the nature of the GDR regime and its reluctance to engage with the West many areas in East German arts and culture, in particular film, were only accessible to those living behind the iron curtain. The fall of the Berlin Wall did little to alleviate this situation, as the focus after 1989 moved promptly towards German reunification and so many areas of East German arts still remain under-examined to this day. The films produced by DEFA are no exception to this tendency. Interest in DEFA films has grown in recent years, but not to the level of attention many of these films deserve. However, the development of film programs focusing on East Germany demonstrates that pigeonholing East German cinema into little more than propaganda tools for the state is a very narrow-minded way of examining this cinema tradition. ACMI’s Focus on East German Film showed that beyond the regime-endorsed stories and censorship is a distinctive, energetic film movement which both portrayed and scrutinised the rise and dissent of the GDR.
Focus on East German Cinema
Australian Centre for the Moving Image
22 October – 3 November 2009
Program website: http://www.acmi.net.au/fo_east_german.aspx