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Berlin, Divided Heaven: From the Ice Age to the Thaw
Rebels with a Cause: The Cinema of East Germany

Touring Film Series

1957, East Germany (DEFA), b/w, 81 min.
Dir.:  Gerhard Klein
Script: Wolfgang Kohlhaase
Camera: Wolf Göthe
Editing: Evelyn Carow
Music: Günter Klück
Cast: Ekkehard Schall, Ilse Pagé, Harry Engel, Ernst-Georg Schwill
35mm, English subtitles
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"…told in a neo-realistic style" 
             - The Oxford History of World Cinema


Rebels with a cause – One of the most important films of the 1950s, this film portrays young people in East Berlin in search of their purpose in life a few years before the construction of the Wall. They want to be free, dance to Rock 'n' Roll, trade forbidden Western goods and avoid the constraints of their parents and the State. This cult film is a perceptive social portrayal of a city in which political and economic division have affected the entire population.

Director Gerhard Klein and scriptwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase were influenced by foreign films in their choice of style and topic. Critical American youth films by Elia Kazan, Richard Brooks and Nicholas Ray, as well as Italian neo-realist works served as models for Berlin–Schönhauser Corner. Like the Italians, Klein gave leading parts to lay actors who were familiar with the way typical young people thought and felt.

Although the film became a box-office hit, it was greeted with suspicion by GDR cultural officials. Klein and Kohlhaase were reproached for emphasizing “negative problematic images of our [East German] life.” But one could argue that this film was loved by the public precisely for its truthful portrayal of everyday life.  Over 1.5 million viewers had seen the film within three months after its premiere in August 1957.  Ranked by film critics among Germany’s 100 most important films, this and other “Berlin films” by director Klein and screenwriter Kohlhaase made an important contribution to the international youth film genre. 

"Everyday details reflect the inner life of the characters. Klein and Kohlhaase put their fingers on the open sores of the everyday life of the time - without mincing matters or glorifying anything, without confusing a vain wish for reality."
                 - Fred Gehler in the Berlin Magazin 8/1987 

"Over many years this film has retained much of its Berlin feel, realism, accuracy of detail, honest portrayal of conflict, especially in comparison to more recent DEFA productions."
                        - Jutta Voigt in the Berlin Sonntag

"It remains a classic of German and European youth films."
                         - Prof. Barton Byg, University of Massachusetts 

"a courageous film, that marvelously portrays a problem of youth today"
                         - Junge Welt, Sept. 3, 1957 

"It would be desirable, that this film be shown to us, even though it is a communist accented film. In its heart, it is everything else. Hats off to the men that made it."
                         - Die Welt - Sept. 7, 1957

About the Director:

Gerhard Klein (1920–1970) was born on May 1, 1920 in Berlin. He joined the resistance against the Nazis and was arrested twice. Klein was self-educated and after the war worked as a cartoonist and documentary filmmaker. He began working for DEFA as a screenwriter for short and documentary films in 1946 and for feature films in 1952. All his films express the poetry of daily life and his fascination with his beloved Berlin. Along with screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Klein produced a series of what are called the “Berlin Films.” Berlin Around the Corner was banned by East German officials in 1966 and the style of his film, The Gleiwitz Case, was interpreted as converging too closely with a fascistic aesthetic.  Klein died in 1970 at the age of fifty in Berlin.

Major Films: 

Alarm im Zirkus (1953), Eine Berliner Romanze (1956), Der Fall Gleiwitz (1961), and Berlin um die Ecke (1965).

About the Scriptwriter:

Wolfgang Kohlhaase was born on May 13, 1931 in Berlin. He began writing while he was in school in Berlin, and in 1947 he was a volunteer as well as an editor for a youth newspaper. He also worked for the FDJ newspaper Junge Welt. He began his career at DEFA in 1950; by 1952 Kohlhaase was a freelance scriptwriter and author. Some of his major works include: Alarm im Zirkus, Der Fall Gleiwitz, Berlin um die Ecke, Ich war Neunzehn, Solo Sunny, Der Bruch, and Der Aufenthalt.

Berlin - Schönhauser Corner (Gerhard Klein, 1953)

Gerhard Klein was responsible for some of the most artistically significant works of the East German cinema—especially the group of films usually referred to as the “Berlin Films.”

Within the DEFA Studio tradition the “Berlin Films” – and their connection to Italian neo-realism – reflect an attempt to resist the stifling strictures of “Stalinist Socialist Realism” and develop a “critical entertainment cinema” instead. A political “thaw” followed Khrushchev’s public denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956, in which East German filmmakers hoped to liberalize their production arrangements and, for a brief period in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, production groups at DEFA had somewhat more independence. 

The end of World War II had witnessed signs of continuity with the creativity of the Weimar Cinema. In the late 1940s, Slatan Dudow, Wolfgang Staudte, Helmut Käutner, Gerhard Lamprecht, Roberto Rosellini and Billy Wilder all made films that made use of the unique urban persona of Berlin. As Stalinist elements then crystallized in the East, such a populist aesthetic became suspect until it was revived by Kohlhaase, Klein and Carow. These filmmakers attended to small-scale issues with neo-realist aesthetics to make films that looked shockingly different from the grand, instructive, uplifting films of classic Socialist Realism. They used grainy, high-speed newsreel stock; they filmed on location with minimal supplementary lighting; they employed lay actors and children as protagonists. 

That Kohlhaase, Klein and Carow were linking up with the Soviet and Weimar avant-gardes of the 1920s was at first of little interest to young East Germans of the mid-1950s—if they were even aware of it. In any case, they would not have dared cite either the taboo films of the pre-Stalinist past or the immensely popular youth films from the West, such as Blackboard Jungle or The Wild One. But the fact that the latter films had caused a number of riots among teenagers in West German cities – as well as in Berlin, where East Germans could still cross into the Allied zone to join audiences – attests to both the demand for films that addressed real issues facing young people and the terror such works could instill in the generally conservative political leadership of both German states. 

Kohlhaase/Klein’s Berlin—Schönhauser Corner – the third of their “Berlin Films”, after Alarm in the Circus and A Berlin Romance – is the most influential in the series, both in artistic terms and in its tremendous and sustained popularity. In the film, the Cold War conflict between East and West Germany and its impact on the everyday frustration of young people are shown with a hard edge. The film depicts episodes of juvenile delinquency by ordinary young people, to whom the future of Socialism supposedly belongs.

A young Ekkehard Schall plays Dieter, a Marlon-Brando-like young man who is barely staying out of jail—mainly because he has a brother in the police force. Through their unintentional involvement in a forgery scheme, Dieter and his friend Kohle escape to West Berlin, where they are interned in what was a called a reception camp. One purpose of these camps was to be sure immigrants were not Communist spies and to find out about whatever useful information they might have about East Germany. In an attempt to get an early release from the camp for illness, Kohle drinks a mixture of water and ground-up cigar, which kills him. This trauma sends Dieter back to the socialist GDR where he belongs, but there is little grand optimism about how well he will fit in.

Despite its careful avoidance of explicit references to Western youth films, this film was attacked by East German Party functionaries as being too “nihilistic” in its depiction of an alienated and hopeless youth—something that was ideologically impossible in socialism. These attacks ignored the fact that one motive for such honest and innovative depictions was to help socialism deal with its problems, rather than drive young people out of the country. The original title of the film, Wo wir nicht sind… (literally, “Where we are not . . .”), had clearly made this motive explicit, and it is still voiced in the final version by the eternally-patient police officer who hears the story of yet another young person “lost” to the other side—“If we’re not there [for our young people], our enemies will be.” By banning any such topical and innovative films that addressed the alienation and frustration of young people in socialism in 1965-66, the East German government thwarted all attempts to interpret this phrase as a call for a youth culture that would attract people to socialism. Youth culture not in the eyes of GDR artists, but in the eyes of many of its leaders was a suspicious import from the West. And when they weren’t there for their youth, their enemies indeed were. 

Barton Byg 
University of Massachusetts

Related reading:

Claus, Horst. "Rebels with a Cause: The Development of the Berlin Filme by Gerhard Klein and Wolfgang Kohlhaase." DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. Seán Allan and John Sandford, eds. New York: Berghahn, 1999. 93-116.

Kohlhaase, Wolfgang. "DEFA: A Personal View." DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. Seán Allan and John Sandford, eds. New York: Berghahn, 1999. 117-130.

- - - . "Some Remarks about GDR Cinema." Selected Papers from the Twelfth New Hampshire Symposium on the German Democratic Republic 8. Margy Gerber, ed. Lanham, MD: UPs of America, 1987. 1-6.


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