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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 exile.

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 of memory.

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 by many.[ii]  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 as antifascism.  

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 come? 

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.

Nevertheless, East 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. 

Official antifascism 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 well.”[v]

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 remembrance.

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 cinematic language.

Another remarkable 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 anti-Semitism.

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 postwar period.[vii]  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.

[i] See the recollections of Peter Kirchner in Wolfgang Herzberg, Überleben heißt Erinnern. Lebensgeschichten deutscher Juden (Berlin, Weimar: Aufbau Verlag, 1990), 406.

[ii] 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.

[iii] See Vincent von Wroblewsky (ed.), Zwischen Thora und Trabant. Juden in der DDR (Berlin: Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag, 1993), 11.

[iv] 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.

[v] Becker, My Father, 6.

[vi] Nackt unter Wölfen, GDR 1963, director Frank Beyer, based on the novel by Bruno Apitz.

[vii] Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar. A Novel (New York: 1975)

[viii] 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 music.

[ix] 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

[x] 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 Jewish.

[xi] See the motif in the German-Jewish topic of the Doppelgänger and in Kafka’s writing.


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