A Cinema of Subversive Contradictions: Representations of Jews and
Antifascism in East German Film
By Professor Frank Stern,
Ben Gurion University
of the Negev
Cold War prejudices and stereotypes continue to affect us as we enter the
twenty-first century. One of these is that communist East Germany
(the GDR) never confronted the extermination policies of the Nazis.
With few exceptions, East German novels, novellas, short stories and biographies
on these topics never reached readers in Israel and elsewhere. Except
for the hit feature film Jacob the Liar (1974) by Frank Beyer and
Jurek Becker, the related cinematic accomplishments of the GDR were part
of a world which no one in the west knew or wanted to know. To many
culturally-minded people in the West and in Israel, it was unbelievable
that there were Jews among East German authors, actors and filmmakers.
For many, Europe ended at the Iron Curtain.
Today, over ten years after the rusty Iron Curtain fell to pieces, it is
possible and necessary to look anew at East German film culture and the
role of German Jewish experience in that culture. Three to five hundred
movies and documentary films produced in Germany since the Second
World War address or refer to various aspects of the German-Jewish experience,
including persecution. These films depict the situation of Jews under Nazi
rule, delve into German-Jewish history, establish a cinematic confrontation
with the Holocaust as a controversial field of aesthetic representation,
and deal with the past’s impact on the postwar German-Jewish context.
In fact, since the War there have been continuous
cinematic representations of the Holocaust and things Jewish.
The majority of these were either created in the GDR, or by artists who
received their basic aesthetic and professional training in the GDR.
A Cultural Discourse of Antagonistic Memories
In 1945 there was
no question of an intellectual vacuum in Germany. Instead, rage, despair
and hope, professionalism and opportunism motivated the artistic and literary
production of the period. The contradiction perceived between Auschwitz
and Stalingrad represented a cultural crisis hitherto unknown. When
all was said and done, what was now German: the crimes, the genocide, the
survival? What images and messages was it now important to bring to
German readers and audiences? In those first postwar years, a conscious
German-Jewish dualism was established which, in its way, still holds sway.
The experience of organized genocide and extermination policies on one hand,
and the experience of total war, the Russian front and nighttime bombing
raids on the other seemed mutually exclusive and in stark opposition to
one another. Memory and amnesia, remembering and forgetting, have
characterized the German discourse about the past since 1945—in both Germanys.
This culture of antagonistic memories has had an impact on millions of Germans.
At the same time,
despite great differences of opinion among Germans in the immediate postwar
period, there was a widespread consensus that it was important to confront
the contemporary crisis of meaning by offering answers that could help to
explain and overcome the moral, political and cultural pressure which had
been brought to bear by the Third Reich. This consensus permitted
the bridging of differences between those returning from exile or concentration
and death camps, and those claiming to have extricated themselves from the
brown swamp of Nazism by means of internal exile. Together they created
a new beginning, often ahistorically referred to as the zero hour of postwar
Germany, although the past continued to have a strong impact throughout
the postwar period. In all four Allied occupation zones there were
those who could not adjust, those who were guilty but didn't know it, those
who had resisted, and those returning from elsewhere — mostly America, England
and Palestine — where they had dreamed of a democratic Germany. This
imagined, post-Hitlerian, democratic Germany drew on the political culture
of the Weimar Republic and the cultural debates which took place during
Voices of Exile
From the point of
view of cultural and historical continuity, the voices of exiles show us
how the literary and cinematic traditions of the 1920s were brought forward
into the overriding dilemma of the postwar era. Anna Seghers' careful
wording at the end of The Seventh Cross (1942), written while still
in Mexican exile, captures the experience that needed to be addressed after
1945: "We all felt how deeply and horribly external forces could reach
inside a person, into his very core, but we also felt that there was something
in the innermost heart of humans that was unassailable and inviolable."
After Auschwitz, many asked, what could this unassailable and inviolable
part be? And how could it be represented artistically, ethically and
aesthetically? After Auschwitz, to revisit Theodor Adorno's often
misinterpreted phrase, one could, and indeed had to write biographies and
novels, short stories and poems, scenarios and screenplays.
The majority of German
Jews who had left Germany in the 1930s had become American, British, Australian
or Israeli citizens, such that German Jewry as a cultural and social entity
had ceased to exist. German Jews who in the United States, England,
Sweden or Russia had taken part in the fierce debates of German-Jewish political
exile, of course, were in the minority. The intellectual world of
these individuals was formed by their experience of persecution, by their
relationships with non-Jewish Germans, and by the intellectual controversies
of exile. After the war, the intellectual and emotional urge to participate
in real history were tangible drives after long exile in which they had
only been able to participate in the reproduction
The decision to return
to Germany in 1945 was highly individual. Some returned in the uniforms
of the American, British, French or Soviet army. Many returning from Great
Britain had been active in the Communist Party or youth organizations, others
arrived from Mexico, Palestine, Sweden, Shanghai, some from the United States.[i]
Many of those who returned, in particular among younger generations — it
was often said— did not return as Jews, but as antifascists. Antifascist
attitudes ranged from the hope for the revival of the radical liberal and
humanist aspects of German culture, to the dream of a socialist Germany
that would make up for the mistakes of leftist movements of the Weimar Republic.
The most interesting
group in our context are those approximately 4,000 persons of Jewish origin
who returned to Germany in the postwar years to live in the Soviet zone
of occupation. It was their intention to participate in the economic,
cultural, academic and political reconstruction initiated by Soviet policy.
This was articulated as the creation of an antifascist-democratic order
in the tradition of that "other" (leftist) Germany, seemingly lost but envisioned
The overarching difference between those who chose to live in the West and
those who chose to live in East Germany was the primacy of antifascist principles.[iii]
Antifascism and Jewish Identity
The return to Germany
was highly ambivalent. While intellectuals were drawn by the values
of humanism and leftists by political goals, numerous other survivors and
returnees to East Germany mostly felt a common bond due to their experience
of the cultural and social displacement as Jews in Nazi Germany. Now, after
the Holocaust, "belonging" meant stressing what one held in common.
The common perspective that excluded Nazi Germans could only be defined
Among the Jewish survivors
and returnees, antifascism represented a
much more complicated fiber of beliefs, convictions, hopes, emotions, attitudes
and even contradictory visions of a present that, after so much suffering,
should become part of a new future. Many children were born in this period,
and it is sometimes extremely touching to read their
recollections of parents who were active party members, but talked
Hebrew at home when they did not want the children to understand. For these
families antifascism in the GDR to some extent covered their
Jewish identity and helped to replace the former loss of a German
identity. Until their return to Germany, the notion of “antifascism” helped
solve the problem of identity after a period when almost all identities
had been turned upside down.
The destructive task
of antifascism — defeating the Nazi regime, its army and party institutions
— was more or less accomplished, or so it
seemed at least in the summer of 1945. But what about the constructive
task of antifascism, to realize the memories and hopes carried through the
exile years in the hopes of rebuilding this
other, democratic Germany? The optimistic discussions of the exile period,
the visionary drafts and political ideals were simply taken to be the essence
of a historical period of transition from the old to the new. With May 1945
a cultural spring set in, at least in the minds of the returnees.
The actual dialectics
of return, however, oscillated between political integration and temporary
negation of Jewish traditions and identities, between political exposure
and the return to academic or cultural privacy, all of which, at one time
or another, could be highlighted by a common Jewish experience. Antifascism
as a political orientation, as a way of life, as a political redefinition
of Jewish identity in the immediate postwar period, operated in relation
to state definitions of antifascism ranging from official party positions
to opportunistic lip-service to the Soviet occupation forces. From
today’s perspective it is easy to ask: Didn’t they know about the crimes
of Stalinism, the ugly sides of the Ribbentrop-Molotow pact that divided
Poland, about the failures during the Spanish Civil War? Didn’t they see
that most Russian soldiers were not socialist idealists, but rather
backward peasants? Did they not realize that questions of guilt and
responsibility for past crimes would plague the new Germany for years to
Yes, and no.
In some ways, these things simply did not matter. Jews returning to Soviet-occupied
Germany were not debating Russian socialism or soul-searching questions
of collective or individual guilt. Instead they were discussing German
history, traditions and the legacy of German culture before exile, as well
as those ideas and experiences that derived from their years outside Germany.
The Germany they wanted to reconstruct on German soil was the intellectual
representation of the imaginative Germany they had taken with them and formed
in exile. The life they had led there, the experience of a collective group
in exile, had been a practical alternative to the racist Volksgemeinschaft
of Nazi society. Antifascism outside Germany, and to a certain extent also
within the concentration camps, had been not only
an ideology, but also a way of life. It had been a cultural
totality, whether in the huge waiting room outside German borders called
exile, or, in the words of the American-Jewish writer Meyer Levin, inside
the vicious heart, in the German lands.
But official postwar
definitions of antifascism soon took on practical dimensions as well.
Antifascism came to be instrumentalized for the purposes of creating a society
in east Germany molded according to the Soviet model. To be antifascist
in the official East German sense eventually brought very tangible rewards,
guaranteeing acceptance, security, higher pensions, admission to university
and promising careers for one’s children. The top antifascists in
this new social pecking order were leftists who had opposed Nazism, the
"antifascist resistance fighters." Classified as "victims of fascism,"
Jews received the next level of social recognition.
Germany was not safe from the Soviet anti-Semitic campaign of the early
1950s. These originated in Moscow and led in November 1952 to the
trial against Czech communists of Jewish origin, known as the Slansky trial,
which culminated in an anti-Jewish witch hunt. Many Jewish communists and
representatives of Jewish congregations In East Germany were imprisoned,
some for several years. By the time of Stalin’s death in March 1953, most
communists had withdrawn their membership in the Jewish communities. Most
of those who had returned from Palestine before, and from Israel after 1949
were accused of Zionism and left in 1953.[iv]
The short antifascist German-Jewish spring after Hitler was over.
More than half of its Jewish citizens had left the GDR, among them almost
all remaining members of Jewish communities.
remained the basic context of the lives, aspirations, activities of those
who decided to contribute to the development of a just and democratic society
in the East —and, despite the developments of the early 1950s, part of official
antifascism remained an official denial of anti-Semitism. In an ironic
historical twist, it was very often East Germans of Jewish origin who adhered
to antifascist notions long after its content and meaning had been eroded.
Jurek Becker, with his typical sense of humor, tells of his father, who
said about the GDR: “The anti-Semites there were so splendidly obliged to
deny their anti-Semitism that one could really get along with them quite
Early Postwar Films
After the war, German
movie theaters were largely intact and movies seemed the ideal medium to
begin addressing the themes that were on everyone's mind. Germans
had always loved the movies and its heroes and heroines, but one couldn't
simply pick up where the sentimentality of the old Nazi movies had left
off. Two sets of themes were in the forefront of discussions about
how and what to present on the silver screen: on one hand war and mass extermination,
on the other anti-democracy and anti-Semitism. Both themes increasingly
appeared in documentaries and the new weekly newsreels, Der Augenzeuge
("Eyewitness"). There was no overarching plan for the new cinema;
it developed its anti-Nazi, democratic strategies step by step. A
telling first step into a new German cinema, which took place not in the
late 1960s but in the late 1940s, is apparent in the first film produced
after the war, The Murderers are among Us (1946). Director
Wolfgang Staudte had begun writing the script for this film while the Nazis
were still in power. Following the war, Allied forces controlled the
German media, in part to ensure that Germans relinquish all ties to Nazism.
Staudte first presented the script to the Western Allied forces. It
was rejected in turn by the British, the Americans and the French; apparently
they felt it was not important for Germans to make movies. In contrast,
the Cultural Officer of the USSR supported the production of the film in
the Russian occupation zone.
The visual semiotics
of The Murderers are among Us presents a mosaic of moral issues facing
contemporary Germans. As a result the film moves back and forth, both
in narrative and visual effects, between the crimes perpetrated by the Wehrmacht
on the eastern front, and the center of the former Reich, Berlin.
While the film centers on the issue of individual guilt, it is vague about
the question "guilty of what?" The issue of war and mass extermination
are clearly represented in The Murderers are among Us; but at the
same time references to anti-Semitism are veiled and Christian imagery dominates.
Guilt, sin and free will are repeatedly associated with images of the cross,
the responsibility for mass murder repeatedly set in opposition to German-Christian
tradition, especially the Christmas celebration. Here, as in many
DEFA films, the individual's experience on the east front becomes the catalyst
for personal, ethical and religious questioning, permitting the film to
confront German-Christian tradition with ethically universal issues.
In this context one character – the old watchmaker Mondschein, whose son
emigrated to America in time – almost floats in German-Jewish ambivalence.
One can't rightly tell: It seems Mondschein could be Jewish, but then
why is there a cross on his coffin? The representation of the protagonist's
central traumatic experience contains another of veiled reference to Jewish
themes; as the firing squad shoots the inhabitants of an occupied
village on Christmas Eve, he drops a star that he has obtained for the top
of the tree into the snow. This falling yellow star also carried other
connotations for audiences in Germany in 1946, of course.
The film represents
three Christmas celebrations, three German alternatives, crosses and stars
of variable meaning. The film ends with the officer who ordered this
mass murder behind bars calling out to the audience, "I am not guilty!"
Staudte had originally planned that the protagonist would kill his nemesis.
The Soviet Military Administration required a change in this outcome, however,
in the interest of establishing a new democratic and antifascist legality;
vigilantism was not to be an option. Only nineteen years later did
DEFA represent someone taking postwar justice into her own hands, in
Chronicle of a Murder (1965)*, directed by Joachim Hasler.
While films were eventually
made in all four occupation zones, the greatest concentration of cinematic
experience, technology and artists remained at the DEFA studios in Babelsberg,
once the site of Nazi Ufa productions. The new democratic media drew
on German classics, humanistic culture and a vague constellation of values
understood as being western, pre-Nazi and against anti-Semitism. Concurrently,
postwar urban culture followed western, and especially American culture
and entertainment, a trend bolstered by elements of Weimar culture through
personal continuities. These tendencies were not very different in
the four occupation zones. The Americans brought Hollywood, Coca-Cola
and the Marshall Plan, the French the ideals of the 1789 revolution, and
the British "common sense." The Soviets brought the ideals of the 1917 revolution,
but also a link to the German humanistic tradition and the shaky brotherhood
between communists and socialists.
Looking back at almost
five decades of East German cinema, it seems that many of the most outstanding
German films representing Jews, the German-Jewish experience and the Holocaust
were produced by DEFA at the Babelsberg studios. Their cultural influence
and spiritual power was based on the ambivalent traditions and perceptions
of antifascism. Sometimes Germans of Jewish origin were behind the cameras,
and sometimes Jews were on the scene. More importantly, central aspects
of the German-Jewish experience and social situation were visually represented
in GDR cinema. In considering the cinematic representations of Jewish
themes by DEFA artists it is, of course, crucial to acknowledge the hegemonic
discourse of East Germany, whose goals were the delegitimation of the antidemocratic
past and legitimation of the antifascist present. At the same time,
it would be reductive to consider them simply an instrumentalization of
Jews and Jewish themes for political and ideological purposes. Especially
in the cultural context of the GDR, filmmaking — including film production
and aesthetics, the structure and contents of films — contained open and
subversive elements which cannot be conflated with the state's normative
postures towards Jews or antifascism.
In early postwar Berlin,
Jewish directors, scriptwriters and actors were involved in the making of
films and theater productions from the start. There was, of course,
no comparison with the legendary prewar German-Jewish film and theater scene.
But it would be wrong to overlook the immediate impact of surviving and
returning Jewish artists on postwar German cinema. In the late 1940s
and early 1950s, a series of films emerged from the newly-founded DEFA (Deutsche
Film Aktiengesellschaft) Studios in Potsdam which all dealt in one way or
another with questions of guilt, sin, ethics and German-Jewish relations.
Emphasizing historical narrative as a means to explain the crimes of the
recent German past, such films included Marriage in the Shadows (1947)
and Council of the Gods (1950) by Kurt Maetzig, The Blum Affair
(1948) by Erich Engel, and The Kaiser's Lackey (1951) by Wolfgang
Staudte. Of this series, the first represents the most direct confrontation
with German Jewish experience under the Nazi dictatorship.
As early as 1945,
members of the Berlin film community, among them artists of Jewish origin
who had lived through the war in Berlin, decided to produce a film that
would tell the truth about the German-Jewish experience after 1933. It would
show how non-Jewish Germans had failed to preserve their humanism, morality
and decency, and how German Jews had deceived themselves in dreaming of
German decency. The film, directed by Kurt Maetzig, was entitled Marriage
in the Shadows (1947), and depicted the fate of the Gottschalk couple,
both popular actors in the early 1930s. The film depicts in an almost semi-documentary
manner the deterioration of the status of the Jews in Berlin and the opportunism
of most Germans, who just looked the other way. The film also contains many
details of daily life which are not emphasized or explained. There was no
need for lengthy dialogue or explanation in 1947: the filmmakers could rightfully
assume that everyone in the audience would understand, because everybody
had been witness to similar scenes in everyday life. The film premiered
in all sectors of Berlin at the same time and within four years more than
twelve million Germans had seen it. This is enormous for the time and can
be explained by the public’s need to reflect upon the past, by its need
for serious entertainment, by the popularity of the Gottschalks —and by
the fact that a few thousand movie theaters had survived the war.
Until today, this film remains an outstanding collaborative work of collective
Meanwhile, a new cinematic
language was being sought that could both speak to movie-hungry Germans
from the screen, and counter the images and aesthetics of the Third Reich.
One way to accomplish this was to return to the socially critical film conventions
of Weimar Germany, now mixed with elements of Italian neo-realism, French
art film and Soviet-style pathos. DEFA filmmakers in the East were particularly
enthusiastic about breaking with Ufa techniques of the Nazi period because
they needed to do so for their political credibility.
Representations of Jews and Antifascism
The Blum Affair,
directed by Erich Engel, premiered in 1948. The film depicts a criminal
conspiracy in the Weimar Republic. A Jewish industrialist is accused of
murder, and the conservative local judiciary conspires against him because
he is a liberal and a Jew. The whole film is an impressive production aimed
at fighting anti-Semitism and has a clear educational message.
The cinematic representation of the German-Jewish context and of the Holocaust
had already been broached with Marriage in the Shadows. But while
the earlier film had drawn stylistically on the genre of melodrama, heavily
exploited by Nazi filmmakers, in The Blum Affair it is obvious that
the search for a new film language was underway. Pioneering the detective
story genre, this film was an outgrowth of the search for a new, untainted
film of the period of transition from the cultural spring of the late 1940s
to the 1950s is Rotation (1949), directed by Wolfgang Staudte. The
movie deals with ordinary, non-Jewish citizens in Nazi Germany. In an early
scene the protagonist shows his readiness to help his Jewish neighbors;
a few years later, however, he closes the curtain in his apartment when
his neighbors are deported. While these scenes take up less than four minutes
of the whole film, they are a cinematic representation of a phenomenon which
attracted notice in the 1950s: almost every German, when asked, recalled
good relations with Jewish neighbors . . . which, it seems, lasted until
the curtains got drawn. It was a collective friendship, so to speak, that
had one crucial blackout: deportation. The Jewish topic here is certainly
present, but it lacks individual features. More developed is the picture
of the ordinary German citizen who casts the fate of his Jewish neighbors
outside his own moral and social frame of reference.
Friedrich Wolf wrote
the script for the 1950 film, Council of the Gods, that depicted
the moral responsibility of the IG-Farben chemical company for the production
of the gas used in the industrial murder of concentration camp inmates.
Kurt Maetzig directed the film and the musical score was written by Hanns
Eisner, who had returned from exile in the U.S. The storyline of this
film does not end in 1945, but rather in postwar West Germany at the Nuremburg
Trials and blames economic and political interests beyond the borders of
East Germany for the atrocities of the extermination camps. Of all
the films mentioned thus far, Cold War politics are clearly apparent here,
especially in the depiction of the two American characters. In the
earlier films, antifascism is represented as the choice of individual Germans
in the face of Nazi policies and power. In Council of the Gods,
in contrast, the antifascist struggle is situated in an international context
in which the enemy is profit-hungry big business, which takes advantage
of and then survives Nazi rule.
With these films,
we also see a shift from particular to general imagery with respect to representation
of Jews. This took place in both East and West German cultural productions,
as images of the persecution of the Jews became increasingly symbolic and
abstract. The average German still had more personal experience of
the Third Reich and persecution of the Jews than his or her counterpart
decades later. But this knowledge was private knowledge, personal recollection
or a result of Allied denazification efforts. By the 1950s, mention
of the persecution of the Jews or deportations automatically connoted the
terror of the Nazi regime. While Jewish characters in the very first postwar
German films had names and individuality, in the 1950s they became cinematic
metaphors for a guilty conscience, and thus for the tension between guilt
and forgetting. At the same time, these films still tell stories to
enlighten and demand self-reflective effort from the audience.
Holocaust as Genre
The opening scene
of Konrad Wolf’s Stars (co-produced in 1959 with Bulgaria) shows
a deportation scene that establishes a new film language relating to the
Holocaust. This film reached the movie theaters in East Germany just as
the American film The Diary of Anne Frank opened in West Germany.
For 1959, Wolf’s film uses an almost revolutionary film language. Camera
work and historical research, sound and image, text and acting were admirably
combined in his film. The film shows an episode in the deportation of Greek
Jews from Saloniki that fuels the awakening of the moral consciousness of
an ordinary German soldier. The opening sequence of the film uses images
of deportation trains that can be traced forward and found, for instance,
in Schindler’s List. The theme song by Mordechai Gebirtig is sung
in a way that even a German audience which does not understand Yiddish can
understand. Stars is an impressive cinematic representation
of the state of German historical consciousness at the time—a visual expression
of responsibly working through the recent past.
Konrad Wolf’s film
Professor Mamlock (1961), based on the 1933 play by his father, renowned
social critic Friedrich Wolf, depicts a prominent Jewish surgeon whose belief
in reason and humanity makes him blind to the increasing threat of Nazi
Films like Professor
Mamlock and Stars, with their many images of Jews and persecution,
established central Holocaust-related icons of collective memory. These
films structured the perception of German-Jewish relations. Thus, for many
viewers these representations of history sometimes became synonymous with
the history itself. Nevertheless, there remained a strong element
of ambivalence. The basic message of renewed national self-confidence in
a number of films—in both Germanys—was that millions had remained decent.
This was an understandable reaction to the prior dominance of the concept
of collective guilt, which had allowed for no nuanced interpretation of
German crimes and German anti-Semitism. Exactly who these innocent
millions were, though, differed across the Cold War divide.
The 1962 DEFA film
The Second Track* is comparable to the West German film Yesterday’s
Girl by Alexander Kluge. Like the West German film, this DEFA film grappled
with the past’s penetration of the present. But the East German film
created a social atmosphere of silence and rejection and questioned individual
responsibility. The Second Track, directed by Joachim Kunert and based
on a script by Günter Kunert, centers around a group of railroad workers
in the GDR. The film is loaded with atmosphere. Dialogue is sparse, but
the intensified presence of the past casts light on the passivity, actions
and motives of the characters. The narrative uncovers the guilt of a railroad
worker who had denounced his wife for hiding a Jewish concentration camp
refugee. The Jew was shot, the woman executed. The man has to confront the
former Gestapo officer and the painful questions of his own daughter. The
film language is expressive, influenced by the French New Wave. As in
Yesterday's Girl, it is the girl's quest for truth that defines the
film narrative—thus also hinting at a new role for younger women in the
GDR. The Second Track,* without any doubt, is one of the forgotten
masterpieces of DEFA filmmaking.
Similar in its ambition
to probe the shadows of the past, to show the truth about the past and indict
the failures of the present was the 1965 film Chronicle of a Murder,*
directed by Joachim Hasler, based on the novel by Leonhard Frank. It is
the story of a German-Jewish woman forced to work in a Wehrmacht bordello,
and of her eventual revenge after 1945. Some of the scenes in this film
are not easily forgotten. One has to remember that revenge is a rare
subject in any German film about the Holocaust, although a younger generation
of German filmmakers has taken up this subject in recent years. This
film should be grouped with those DEFA films on German-Jewish topics and
deserves to be widely rediscovered and screened.
In the 1950s and early
1960s, while West German films placed a somewhat disturbing emphasis on
developing the image of the decent German soldier, East German films turned
to heroizing the antifascist or communist resistance. While the presumed
innocent millions assume starkly different forms in the two cinemas, in
both cases fascinating subversive elements emerge whenever a film touches
on Jewish topics. While East German films allowed for heroism, in
the person of the communist resistance fighter, some West German films avoided
heroes, preferring to depict open-ended stories. Such films, however, did
not always appeal to a broader audience; in contrast, DEFA tried to produce
films for a mass audience which could impact public discourse.
The most important
DEFA film of the 1960s to deal with the Nazi past is the 1963 film Naked
Among Wolves, directed by Frank Beyer. Filmed at Buchenwald barely fifteen
years after its liberation, it was the first DEFA film to depict at length
life in a concentration camp, and established Beyer as a major German film
director. The film reached a huge audience and was based on a true story
recorded in a bestselling novel by the German Jewish refugee Bruno Apitz,
originally published in Israel. It told the story of a little Jewish
boy who was hidden in the Buchenwald concentration camp in the last few
weeks before liberation.[vi]
It is March 1945, and a death march from Auschwitz arrives in Buchenwald.
Among the new arrivals is a Polish Jew who has hidden a little boy in a
suitcase. The child is soon discovered by non-Jewish German inmates who,
as part of a resistance cell, hide him until the camp is liberated. The
father is deported, the child lives. In this film, the Jewish characters
thus serve as a vehicle for antifascist resistance. However, the film
also shows a broad knowledge of the camps of annihilation and represents
the choice and feasibility of resisting and saving persecuted Jews.
Frank Beyer’s renowned
Jacob the Liar (1974) would have been unthinkable without this earlier
film, as would his 1994 film The Wall – When the Germans Sleep*,
a story about children in the Lodz ghetto based on the autobiography of
author Jurek Becker. Jacob the Liar, one of the most outstanding
German films ever made about the Holocaust, won many awards, including an
Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Today, after almost thirty years,
the film has not lost its power. It is based on the novel by Jurek Becker,
who as a child survived the Lodz ghetto with his father and then grew up
in Berlin to become one of the most important German-Jewish writers of the
The film was a watershed; since its release, films about the Holocaust have
to be measured against this cinematic backdrop. Though full of humor and
irony, the film does not indulge in false happy-endings. In this respect
it is a thoughtful product of European cinematic culture. It does not yield
easy answers, but it does insist on humanity and hope. In the closing scene
of the film all of the protagonists are deported, and from inside the train
we see them remembering the distant past and imagining the unfulfilled future.
This is completely different from a recent Hollywood adaptation of the film,
a poor remake that insists on the entirely inappropriate Hollywood ending
– Holocaust with a happy-ending.
In 1980, a mixed East
German and Polish cast participated in an even more poetic and literary
film, Levin’s Mill, directed by Horst Seemann and based on a novel
by the East German writer Johannes Bobrowski. The film reinvents a German-Jewish
and visual tradition that seemed to have been lost in German postwar culture,
and it is a fine example of the cinematic representation of a novel.[viii]
The German-Jewish tradition of belonging and rejection is aptly told with
colorful images that capture German rural life in the late nineteenth-century
eastern borderlands in the 1870s. Here we find a mixed population of Germans,
Poles, Jews and Roma/Gypsies; the film depicts a wide variety of characters
from all of these groups. The mill of the young Jew Levin has been destroyed
by the local German owner of a big mill who had opened the floodgate of
the river, thereby washing Levin’s mill away. We see the menorah floating
down the river on some wooden planks; the reference to the baby Moses is
obvious. Levin and his Gypsy girlfriend succeed in
getting ashore. Levin sues but does not succeed in his legal battle,
although individuals of all stripes assist him. The simmering atmosphere
of chauvinism and hatred for the cultural "other" is only enforced by the
official bureaucracy. The lyric and musical intensity, the expressionist
depiction of foreboding dreams, and the colorful paintings of landscape
and inhabitants give this film the character of a ballad. Levin’s
Mill combines the sympathy of the Enlightenment for simple people with
the love of the Romantics for outsiders, vagrants, Gypsies and Jews.[ix]
At the end of the
1980s, several German-Jewish filmmakers and authors were working in West
Berlin, resulting in a unique Berliner cultural mix in which various elements
developed in East Germany combined with West German media culture.
The question of identity, of what it means to be Jewish and to love and
be loved in a time when this love was termed Rassenschande (racial
miscegenation), is aptly depicted in the 1988 film The Actress, directed
by Siegfried Kühn, based on a novel by Hedda Zinner.[x]
The Actress also revives the work of the the Kulturbund’s Jewish
theater, with its last surviving member, Martin Brandt, playing one of the
roles. In this film, a non-Jewish German actress adopts the role of
a Jew to be with her Jewish lover. Thus, acting itself becomes a transformation
of reality in the service of fighting reality.[xi]
This, of course, is an apt metaphor for the subversive elements of filmmaking
in the GDR. For German Jews, however, this adaptation to Nazi reality had
fatal consequences. In an aesthetically brilliant representation the whole
film, with its portrayal of a mixed Jewish/non-Jewish couple, echoes
Marriage in the Shadows. The death motif of the 1947 film, taken from
Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe, is in the 1988 film replaced by the
death motif from Schiller’s Jungfrau von Orleans.
After the Wall
Sometimes one hears
the argument that cinematic confrontation with the Holocaust in Germany
was a West German matter, or started only
with the 1978 American TV series Holocaust or the 1993 movie Schindler’s
List. However, since 1946 there have been continuous
cinematic representations of the Holocaust and things Jewish, many
of them created in the GDR or by artists who received their basic aesthetic
and professional training there.
Films based on the
work of East German novelists and produced in the 1990s, like Jurek Becker’s
Bronstein´s Children or Thomas Brasch’s The Passenger: Welcome
To Germany* have to be seen in this tradition. Bronstein's
Children (1990), directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz and featuring Armin
Müller-Stahl, is a brilliant depiction of the vicissitudes and ambivalences
in the life of the German-Jewish postwar generation that is still unmatched.
Hans and Elle, children of a Holocaust survivor, must face their father’s
past when he and other survivors capture a former concentration camp guard.
What is guilt, what is individual responsibility, who can judge and punish?
At the same time, a young generation of German Jews has to create their
own perspective for the future. Bronstein's Children can be
seen as a cornerstone of German-Jewish film culture in reunified Germany.
Jews live in Germany
now, as they did in the past. Now, as in the past, visual representations
of German history and culture can also transform Jews into a metaphor, the
longing for another, better Germany, or a catalyst for change. The reunification
of Germany, and with it the reunification of Jewish communities divided
for more than forty years, has created a situation which could feed a renewed
effort to represent the German-Jewish experience, past and present. DEFA
has contributed to this effort and to the German-Jewish legacy. But
the life stories of Konrad Wolf, Wolfgang Biermann and Stefan Heym, of Stephan
Hermlin and Peter Edel, or of Herbert Baum, Charlotte Holzer and all the
others of the Berlin Jewish underground still remain to be depicted.
There are other films
to be made about the German-Jewish experience in East Germany that are waiting
for their scriptwriters, directors, actors and producers. For the
story of Jews in the GDR was not parallel to the story of displaced persons
in West Germany after the war, a topic which has already been addressed
in German television productions of the 1990s. The culture and history
of German-Jewish in East Germany, an alternative history of reunified Germany,
is yet to be told.
* - Films not yet
available with English subtitles.
See the recollections of Peter Kirchner in Wolfgang Herzberg,
Überleben heißt Erinnern. Lebensgeschichten deutscher Juden
(Berlin, Weimar: Aufbau Verlag, 1990), 406.
Helmut Eschwege, Die jüdische Bevölkerung der Jahre nach der Kapitulation
Hitlerdeutschlands auf dem Gebiet der DDR bis zum Jahre 1953, in:
Siegfried Theodor Arndt, Helmut Eschwege, Peter Honigmann, Lothar
Mertens, Juden in der DDR. Geschichte, Probleme, Perspektiven
(Frankfurt: E.J. Brill, 1988), 65.
See Vincent von Wroblewsky (ed.), Zwischen Thora und Trabant.
Juden in der DDR (Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag, 1993),
Rosemarie Silbermann, Fragen an Deutschland (1972), in: Dieter Bednarz,
Michael Lüders (eds.), Blick zurück ohne Haß. Juden aus Israel
erinnern sich an Deutschland (Cologne: Bund Verlag, 1981), 26f.
Becker, My Father, 6.
Nackt unter Wölfen, GDR 1963, director Frank Beyer, based on the
novel by Bruno Apitz.
Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar. A Novel (New York: 1975)
Johannes Bobrowski, Levins Mühle, 1964 (published in the
GDR and West Berlin). The song about Moses being washed away was
composed by the director Horst Seemann and combines traditional
Jewish musical motives and the Kurt Weill tradition of contextual
Heinrich Küntzel, Der Faschismus: seine Theorie, seine Darstellung
in der Literatur, in: Hans-Jürgen Schmitt (ed.), Die Literatur der
DDR. Hansers Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur, Bd. 11, München:
dtv, 1983, 461
Hedda Zinner’s novel Arrangement mit dem Tod goes beyond
the plot of the film. In the novel the actress survives the concentration
camps and spends her life as a Jewish woman in East Germany which,
of course, could have many implications for being Jewish in postwar
East Germany or with reference to the life decision of becoming
See the motif in the German-Jewish topic of the Doppelgänger and
in Kafka’s writing.
Back to Shadows