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Shadows and Sojourners: Images of Jews and Antifascism in East German Film
Touring Film Series

Letter from the Director of the DEFA Film Library
Barton Byg

When the NBC “docudrama” Holocaust was broadcast on West German television in 1979, it was seen by over 20 million viewers. This unprecedented popular response to German guilt is responsible for even introducing the word “Holocaust” into the German language. Typical of Cold War competition over “mastering the past,” a call was raised by West German political figures that their East German rivals should also broadcast Holocaust to demonstrate their confrontation with the horrors of Nazism.

The East German response was led by Konrad Wolf, filmmaker and President of the GDR’s Academy of Arts. He argued that Holocaust was nothing new for GDR audiences, since DEFA films in that country had been producing compelling and popular films on such themes for decades – beginning with the very first feature film in Germany, Staudte’s The Murderers Are among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns).

The film series “Shadows and Sojourners: Images of Jews and Anti-Fascism in East German Film” treats both the strengths and weaknesses of this East German legacy. On the one hand, the antifascist classics of DEFA do indeed stand among the most powerful accomplishments of the German cinema. Beginning just months after World War II, taking up the challenge to explain how the unthinkable could actually happen, they present a confrontation with the issues of guilt for the crimes of Nazi Germany that remains and compelling to this day.

The German-German debate over Holocaust, however, revealed an uncomfortable reality about East German film culture: while pointing with pride to the existence of such films in the past, GDR officials were not eager to confront the uncomfortable questions they potentially raise in the contemporary setting.

Seen from this vantage point, the novel and film Jacob the Liar (Jakob der Lügner) is a breakthrough in many respects: The power of wit and fantasy to preserve human dignity is evoked not only for the residents of a ghetto in Poland, but also for the audiences of today. Particularly the novel’s rueful observation on the lack of resistance on the part of ordinary Jews is directed primarily at the non-Jewish audience of the postwar era – against the preference for conformity and security as apposed to taking risks.

Here Becker successfully balances a narrative of the Holocaust with its application to postwar concerns, a balance not always as successful in hands of others. Some of the films make it clear to what extent East German “antifascism” was primarily a non-Jewish concern, with socialists and communists depicted both as the primary victims of Nazism and more importantly, as the primary source of resistance. This dilemma is thematized in a number of the films, however, including Konrad Wolf’s Stars (Sterne) and Frank Beyer’s Naked among Wolves (Nackt unter Wölfen). And after Jacob the Liar, the films also document the increasing prominence of explicitly Jewish identities within the secular, antifascist society of East German socialism.

As scholars such as Frank Stern and others have observed, the films of DEFA provide a unique view of German-Jewish life and culture that is unique, despite the ideological agenda or narrative conventions that might blemish them. Their matter-of-fact depictions of Jews as Germans – before, during, and after World War II – refutes the historical oversimplification of many popular images of Germany after the Holocaust, as a “Germany without Jews.” From the vantage point the second decade of German reunification, it is important to examine how German and Jewish identities fit together – and to realize that this examination has been going on for a long time.

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Jessica Hale