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The Durability of Filmmaking in a Temporary Country
|Winfried Glatzeder and Angelica Domröse in Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973), probably the most successful DEFA comedy in the GDR and abroad. Courtesy of Christian Links Publishers, Berlin.|
Talking about East Germany today, about the German Democratic Republic or GDR, is not too different from talking about someone who is deceased. Considered unique in many respects, the country no longer exists today. But in popular mythology – and, most definitely, in movie lore – the GDR endures as a revenant, 17 years after East and West Germany were united. The film history of the former Soviet occupation zone of Germany remains alive as well.
This book offers extracts from some 400 hours of interviews conducted with the most prominent personalities of the East German cinema world, and, in healthy contrast, also with those who did not reach East German movie prominence or lost this status because they fell into political disgrace. The book is therefore a perfect almanac for anyone who wants to look behind the scenes of the unique art and politics of filmmaking in the GDR.
Spur der Filme (Traces of Films) is exemplary in the manner in which it points out how closely linked the realms of culture and politics were, and continue to be, in this part of the world. This has nothing to do with any remnants of Nazi ideology, but can be traced back much further in history. In most European states, at first culture was part of the representation of the absolute monarch and later on of the state in general. So it is no wonder that during World War I it was the Chief of the Joint Staff of the German military, General Ludendorff, who was pivotal in uniting the various private larger companies of the German film industry of the time under the masthead of UFA (Universal Film Aktiengesellschaft) in 1917. In the early '20s, UFA gained a foothold in Babelsberg, a region which was still a rural park-like suburb between Berlin and Potsdam, and built their studios there. Quite soon UFA became synonymous with film production in Germany, and Babelsberg remained a centre of the industry, and of all the talents and professions involved, until 1945.
East German film history began three years before GDR statehood and outlasted the state by two years. The film history shows four distinct periods:
|The first headquarters of DEFA "Deutsche Film-A.G.," a damaged office building in postwar Berlin, 1946. Courtesy of Christian Links Publishers, Berlin.|
First period (1945-1949). In the destroyed and occupied Berlin of 1945/46 it was in Babelsberg that the young Wolfgang Staudte directed the first post-war German film, Die Mörder sind unter uns. The film premiered in the USA in 1948 under the title Murderers Among Us, to much critical acclaim. Its cast included the young actress Hildegard Knef, who later became the first post-war German movie star in the USA and was re-baptised Hildegarde Neff.
The German film artists and technicians who had remained in Berlin during the war or returned right after Germany's surrender included emigrants who came from Moscow. During the first years after the war, this group tried to reorganize the film industry as quickly as possible. With the support of some quite idealistic Russian culture officers in the Soviet Army, most of whom held degrees in German literature or related fields and were fluent in German, on May 17, 1946, they founded DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) in Berlin as a German (!) joint-stock company. Obviously, by choosing that name they meant to carry on the UFA tradition.
It was only somewhat later that the "unified" SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei; United Socialist Party), the result of the forced merger between the former Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany, began to tighten its grip on DEFA and signs of the impact of Stalin's harsh cultural politics, his "socialist realism," became evident. The DEFA film company was placed under the control of the Propaganda Division of the Central Committee of the Party. In its first years of production, however, before the Iron Curtain tore Germany and Europe apart, DEFA produced several anti-fascist films that were not mere communist propaganda. These early films generally tried to find answers to the questions: "Why could all of this have happened?" or "What will the future bring us?" In this part of the world, one of the centres of World War II destruction, that seemed to be a quite natural approach.
This first period, before East and West were divided by the Iron Curtain, was one of direct competition with the Western world. Certainly the films of that period contained propaganda, but they were much more than that; they involved competing thoughts and ways of thinking and claimed to have better answers than the simple attempt to compete economically at the box office.
| Günther Simon in Ernst Thälmann - Sohn seiner Klasse (1954). Courtesy of Christian Links Publishers, Berlin.
Second period (1949-1956). During the second period, the cultural and political impact of Stalinism on East German life came to its peak. The double-bind of those who wanted to be loyal to the principles of Communism became obvious at this point: The Fathers of Marxism believed in culture as a means of liberating Man, and enlightenment was one of the roots of Marxist doctrine. Practically speaking, Party leaders had to be careful of exerting power over the intelligentsia, including the film industry, lest they lose face. This rather benign attitude – and this period – lasted until the Party felt strong enough to exert harsher rule. The key events were the Korean War and the shift to strict adherence to Stalinism, even in matters cultural. As the immediate neighbor and "relative" of prospering West Germany, the GDR was particularly hard-pressed to find her own profile. One answer was the vehement rejection of the Western way of life, even though, in reality, this was pure lip service. "To learn from the Soviet Union means to learn how to win" read an omnipresent, telling slogan in the GDR.
Filmmakers found an effective way out of the conundrum by turning to literature, and especially to those examples of literature that already had won acclaim beyond dispute. Films based on "progressive" literary masterpieces like Der Untertan (The Loyal Subject), a novel by Heinrich Mann (brother of Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann) caricaturing the typical petty bourgeois of the Kaiser era, offered relatively few risks.
Some of the East German filmmakers, though, were more daring and challenged the status quo. In the GDR, the development of such a critical stance took longer than in other satellite states, almost to the time in 1956 when Khrushchev's disclosure of Stalin's atrocities changed the Party line.
Third period (1956-1965). Konrad Wolf, the son of the renowned German communist writer Friedrich Wolf, did not feel free to begin work on the film Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers) until 1958. The picture deals with the uranium mine in the Saxon Erzgebirge that produced most of the uranium ore for the Soviet Union's nuclear armament and describes the mine's shortcomings and dangerous working conditions. It was no surprise, however, that in spite of Konrad Wolf's prominence as a film director, writer, and president of the GDR Academy of Fine Arts, his film was shelved until 1972.
|Sonnensucher (1958/1972): Actor Norbert Christian (left) and director Konrad Wolf. Courtesy of Christian Links Publishers, Berlin.|
Fourth period (1966-1989). During the 1960s the more restless East German film directors and actors realized that they had to come to terms with the GDR. After all, the building of the Wall (1961) left them with no way out. They compromised in a distinctive though not too surprising way by using a tongue-in-cheek approach. The approach can be discerned in the substructure of many films. The scripts had to be approved by the government, of course. After several years, however, control of the DEFA film production was transferred from the Party Central Committee to the Ministry of Culture, mostly to save face abroad and at international festivals, because a ministry always looks less suspect than a party subcommittee. And many East German officials – whether party members or not – had two opinions about their country and how things should be handled.
|The carpenters' brigade (center: Manfred Krug) in Spur der Steine (1965): an iconic image in East German film. Courtesy of Christian Links Publishers, Berlin.|
One of the most fascinating DEFA films of that period is Spur der Steine (Traces of Stones) (1966) by Frank Beyer, starring the young Manfred Krug who later became a movie celebrity in both parts of Germany. The film focuses on the shortcomings of communist-ruled industries and may even be considered anarchic in some respects. Unfortunately, it became the most prominent victim of the abrupt turnaround in the East German economy in 1965. Erich Honecker, at the time Number Two in the party hierarchy, blamed the arts and artists for the economic disaster of the so-called New Economic Policy. Beyer's film disappeared into the DEFA vaults until 1990, after the demise of this republic.
There were two institutions in the GDR that produced audio-visual media, DEFA, the company for classical film production, and GDR TV. The latter was under direct party rule. In general, one could say that DEFA served as a safe haven for the more independent spirits, for the creative dissidents (using the word with due modesty), whereas the firm party believers filled the rank and file at GDR TV. A Western observer might find it strange that all of the film directors and artistic personnel were paid regular fixed salaries, even when they had fallen into disgrace. The government secured their co-operation by giving them work – or not. Some of them actually sat idle for several years in a row.
As a West German film buyer for Bavarian TV, I met with those colleagues from about 1985 on and visited Babelsberg and the East Berlin Export Office of DEFA quite often. My partners' double standards in speaking (to the great honor of those involved: very seldom in thinking) were obvious. In those days the economic deficiencies of the GDR were becoming more and more difficult to ignore. According to the state-approved plan the DEFA studios produced some 20 fiction films a year, plus a considerable number of documentaries (in 35mm) and newsreel footage, but in the '80s their main income, and the only one in hard currency (dollars or deutschmarks), stemmed from co-productions with the West, predominantly with the big West German TV networks ARD and ZDF.
During the 45 years of its existence DEFA produced 1250 feature films for cinematic exploitation and for TV, more than 700 documentaries, and countless newsreel and educational productions.
Traces of Films sheds light on some 100 of those films – most of them worth watching, some exemplary as deterrents – and listens to those who made them or, in various ranks of the administration, helped facilitate them. (Several of the interviews were recorded on video and broadcast by Radio Berlin-Brandenburg, the regional public TV broadcaster, during the 1990s.) There are also those who bear witness that their hopes and projects were hindered, even destroyed by party stubbornness or by simple human weakness and ill will so easily disguised in the higher interest of an ideology.
Traces of Films is oral history at its best. It is a must-read for everyone who is interested in the cinematic culture of a country at the fissure of East and West during the days of the Cold War – and for everyone who feels comfortable reading about film in German. The book not only collects facts, but also presents ideas, hopes, emotions. It shows, by the way, that within the larger framework of united Germany, the cultural identity of the former GDR is still alive and is still something distinctive and apart. Otherwise the book would not have appeared.
But that's another story.
Key DEFA Films
English titles are added when films were released in Western countries. The author considers the films in boldface to be particularly remarkable.First period (1946-1949)
Second period (1949-1956)
Third period (1956-1965)
Fourth period (1966-1989)
issue #4 (10.2008)