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"…fascinating…retro from the GDR."
            - The Village Voice

"… illustrating wealth and innovation of filmmaking in former East Germany."
                         - The Museum of Modern Art

"The Other Deutschland Films from 'anti-fascist’ East Germany offer a new perspective on Nazism and anti-Semitism."
            - The Jewish Week

"The most comprehensive retrospective of East German film ever screened in the U.S."
     - In the Loop


Rebels with a Cause
The Cinema of East Germany


BOSTON Harvard Film Archive, Goethe-Institut Boston    February 10 - 21, 2006

ROCHESTER George Eastman House    September 9 - 28, 2006

COLUMBUS Wexner Center for the Arts    October 4 - 25, 2006

MONTREAL Goethe-Institut Montreal October 19 - December 14, 2006

WASHINGTON American Film Institute, Goethe-Institut Washington, National Gallery of Art   November 6 - December 5, 2006

LENNOXVILLE Bishop’s University    October 2006

TORONTO University of Toronto, Goethe-Institut Toronto    October 2006

WATERLOO Wilfrid Laurier University    October 2006

IOWA CITY University of Iowa    January 18 - March 1, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO Museum of Modern Art    September 1 - October 27, 2007

HOUSTON Museum of Fine Arts    October 14 - 21, 2007

To book touring films, please contact the DEFA Film Library at, 
(413) 545-6681 or video@german.umass.edu 

To buy films from East Germany on video or DVD: http://www.umass.edu/defa 

Presented by 
The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Film and Media, and the Goethe-Institut New York, 
in collaboration with the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Screened at The Museum of Modern Art, October 7-23, 2005

Introduction by the Curator

Official MoMA Press Release

Short MoMA Press Release

Tour Locations

The Architects

Berlin - Schönhauser Corner

The Bicycle

Born in '45

Carbide and Sorrel

The Gleiwitz Case

Her Third

The Legend of Paul and Paula


The Rabbit Is Me

The Second Track

Your Unknown Brother



Short Films


Introduction by the Curator

The Museum of Modern Art and the Goethe-Institut New York, in collaboration with the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, present the most comprehensive retrospective of East German cinema ever screened in the U.S. It brings together scholars, directors and actors of the DEFA period (1946–92) to present the films and reflect on the political complexities of artistic production in the East German state-owned DEFA studios. DEFA produced over 7,500 films—many of them at the famous Babelsberg Studio outside of Berlin. More than a dozen have been voted among the 100 best German films ever made in recent surveys. Yet, these and other original and creative documentaries or fiction films from East Germany are largely unknown to film enthusiasts, both in Germany and around the world. 

Rebels with a Cause presents a selection of significant works, rich in theme, structure, and style, and deserving of (re)discovery. These films were crafted by inventive filmmakers who dared to test the limits of censorship, and whose films’ political engagement and depth add to their creative merit in the context of film history. In selecting films for this series we viewed over 200 titles in Berlin and New York, and were impressed by the depth and variety we found in this "other" German cinema. For this series of 21 films, we looked for a range of voices and styles from five decades of filmmaking, placing an emphasis on creative energy, artistic innovation, and challenges to authority – hence the title, Rebels with a Cause

We are extremely grateful to the Max Kade Foundation, Inc., and the other supporters and sponsors that have made it possible to screen these films in new 35mm prints with new English subtitles. I would also like to express my special thanks to my co-curator Juliane Wanckel (Program Manager, Goethe-Institut New York) and to Hiltrud Schulz (Sales and Outreach Manager, DEFA Film Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst), who have made this project an especially gratifying and joyful collaborative experience. 

I hope you will enjoy the screenings and seek out more of these groundbreaking films.

Jytte Jensen
Department of Film and Media
The Museum of Modern Art

Press Release - DEFA Film Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst

A retrospective of 21 East German films from the campus-based DEFA Film Library will be featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) next month before touring the United States and Germany.

Rebels with a Cause: The Cinema of East Germany, which opens Oct. 7 at MoMA, is the most comprehensive retrospective of East German films ever screened in the United States and includes several works that were banned by the Communist government. The series is a collaboration between MoMA’s department of film and media, the Goethe-Institut New York and the DEFA Film Library, housed within the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures since 1997.

Professor Barton Byg, director of the DEFA Film Library, says MoMA’s interest in developing the series began in 1999 when the archive supplied a restored copy of Frank Beyer’s 1974 film, “Jakob the Liar,” to the museum for a special screening.

“That piqued the interest of the curator, Jytte Jensen,” says Byg, “because MoMA had never shown many East German films before.”

Working with Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Film Library and Juliane Wankel of Goethe-Institut New York, Jensen organized the retrospective. DEFA, with support from UMass Amherst and a grant from the Max Kade Foundation, produced new 35mm prints of the selected films.

“The new prints have new or improved subtitles and will be part of the DEFA Library, for future tours and DVD release,” says Byg.

Following its run at MoMA from Oct. 7-23, Rebels with a Cause is scheduled to travel to Chicago, Ohio, Rochester, N.Y. and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibit will also tour to eight cities in Germany. 

According to Lee Edwards, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, the museum series and subsequent tour will raise the profile of the DEFA Film Library, which is the only archive and study center outside Europe devoted to the study of a broad spectrum of filmmaking by East German filmmakers or related to East Germany from 1946 to the present. 

“This MoMA retrospective recognizes the broad significance of the DEFA film archive as both a cultural phenomenon and an aesthetic artifact,” says Edwards. “I’m especially grateful to Barton Byg for the imagination, energy and initiative he displayed in acquiring the entire archive for our campus and securing its North American distribution rights.”

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The Architects (Die Architekten)

1990, 97 min., color 
Director: Peter Kahane
Cinematography: Andreas Köfer
Music: Tamás Kahane
Screenplay: Thomas Knauf, Peter Kahane 
Cast: Kurt Naumann, Rita Feldmeier, Uta Eisold, Jürgen Watzke, Ute Lubosch 

Filmed as the GDR crumbled, this somber and nuanced portrait of life in East Berlin depicts a young architect who feels his life and goals are being strangled by communist dogma, represented in part by the older generation. The film team had to rebuild part of the Wall to depict scenes from 1989, as it had been removed so fast.

“Telling, finely drawn, superbly acted!” 
The New York Times

Peter Kahane, born in Prague in 1949, studied at the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg. His debut film, Women’s Work, premiered in 1984. Prepared for Love and the prizewinning Ete and Ali: (a coming-of-age story featuring two friends who have just completed their mandatory military service), exemplify Peter Kahane’s superb depictions of everyday life. The Architects was his most critical and politically engaged film. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he took a short break from filmmaking before releasing Cosima’s Lexicon (1992) and To the Horizon and Beyond (1999). Since the mid-1990s, he has also been directing and writing screenplays for TV movies and crime series. Kahane is currently working on a feature film for release in 2006.

Other Press Comments:

"The decay of a society isn't always signified by a flashy Roman orgy. As The Architects suggests, it can be synonymous with a pervasive, soul-deadening dreariness."
                             -Stephen Holden, The New York Times, Oct. 29, 1993

"The story behind the making of this tragedy is integral to understanding the picture itself. Shooting started in September 1989 as multitudes took to the streets throughout East Germany. By the time the film was finished, East Germany no longer existed. Then and now, East German filmmakers are faced with unemployment. Many of the DEFA studio executives who initially approved this picture are no longer working. Kahane deftly shows the bureaucratic inner workings of the former East German centrally controlled economy. His protagonist (Kurt Naumann) assembles a team of irreverent architects who intentionally goad the powers that be. They want to see just how much they can get away with, and that turns out to be precious little."
                            -Variety, March 11, 1991

"The story about the building is fascinating, particularly the main character's dilemma as a young architect trying to make it."
                                -Jen Livingston, filmmaker, Paris is Burning

"It is incredible that this film was released at all, and just as incredible how effectively it both challenges the old East German government and touches on universal themes."
                             -Joel Pearce, DVD Verdict, 2005

The Architects - Socialist Family in Stress

The Architects concerns a collective of young East Germans that wins a competition to design a cultural and shopping center for one of the vast new housing blocks in East Berlin’s periphery. Typical of many such projects built throughout the German Democratic Republic, it suffers from uniformity, isolation and lack of identity. The Architects conveys the idealistic attempt of the collective to develop variety and human scale in housing. It is starkly contrasted with the technocracy that has settled into a deadening routine of pre-fabricated building and compartmentalized thinking.

The collective consists of former architecture students who, having abandoned their profession by choice or circumstance, are brought together by the film’s central figure, Daniel Brenner. Unlike the others, Daniel has remained in the profession but at the age of thirty-eight has not realized a project of any size or substance. Given the opportunity of the competition, Daniel assembles the group that becomes, in effect, his second “family”; one that is juxtaposed with his wife and daughter. Daniel’s fate is to negotiate not only between idealism and technocracy, between “the possible and the utopian” as his office superior tells him, but between these two families and their symbolic function.

The collective wins the competition and problems begin. Occupying a central position in the project is the sculpture “Family in Stress” depicting a father and mother straining in opposite directions with an isolated child between. It stands for Daniel’s daughter and for the “child” of the second family, the architectural project, as well as for Daniel as he struggles between two families and uncompromised failure and compromised success. These aspects give the film its universal appeal. They are complemented with a convincing portrayal of the complexity and tensions of the architectural design process as we learn, for example, that even within the otherwise united collective one member’s fantasy is another’s chaos. Thus The Architects stands above other films depicting architects as singular heroes (such as The Fountainhead) or in which “architect” is simply coded as “professional.”

In an overarching sense the child stands for the visionary socialist project that was, like Daniel, fatally caught between the possible and the utopian. Even as the film’s architectural project finds belated but unexpected support from the representatives of the State Security (Stasi) and the Free German Youth (FDJ), the various strands of the story end without socialist redemption. That the script was accepted without incurring the wrath of the state censors owes much to the fact that The Architects was filmed during the tumultuous fall of 1989 as the German Democratic Republic collapsed and, with it, its most nefarious building project, the divisive Berlin Wall.

Building is Political
Thus Peter Kahane’s The Architects belonged to history before it was even fully completed and perhaps more than anywhere the history of Berlin exemplifies the notion that building is political, a representation of power. In the film this sentiment is expressed by Daniel’s former professor as he looks out of his window onto East Berlin’s Stalinallee (renamed Karl-Marx-Allee) that was built during the early 1950s when socialist zeal was at its zenith and the GDR could afford to build impressive “workers’ palaces.” This view is followed by a short montage, a visual critique of the industrialized construction dominating the latter decades of the GDR’s short life, reminding us of the many competing architectural and social visions born in Berlin. These include Cold War competition between East and West Berlin as well as the antipathy of the early twentieth-century utopians towards Berlin’s vast tracts of tenements, the Taylorist-inspired reform movements of Weimar and early modernism, the radical restructuring of the city proposed by the National Socialists, as well as early postwar initiatives to erase Berlin’s center, devastated by Allied bombing, with the aim of creating a city landscape. In an environment such as Berlin’s, the terms “city,” “country,” “housing block” and Heimat (“home”) indicate not only place, but ideological inclination.

Sprinkled throughout the film are references to architectural history and political ideologies. They can be found in the opening sequence as Daniel busily draws images of crystals and shells (reminiscent of the utopian projects of Bruno Taut and Hermann Finsterlin), when Daniel equates the city with bad air and disease, and in brief depictions of Max’s Berlin apartment (replete with an elevated train and a site for extra-marital sex). They also occur as Daniel visits Max, who is restoring a noble villa, Schloss Lindstedt, located near the palace grounds of Sanssouci in Potsdam. In the film this villa is depicted as belonging to another world, one far removed and very privileged. Underscored by the exchange between Max and the workers about his ability to acquire alabaster plaster, the depiction of the privileging of patrimony and representative structures over social housing hovers between critique and envy. It is emphasized again at Max’s apartment as he tells Daniel that together they will build structures to make the GDR’s modern Palace of the Republic look “like a miserable shack.”

The Architects presents a running commentary on the interrelationship of the GDR’s social and architectural politics. When Franziska insists that the collective wishes to create a “new GDR architecture,” she is speaking less about stylistic innovation than social regeneration. That her hopeful assertion is answered only with the skepticism of a group of youths joking about the “collapse of new buildings” (einstürzende Neubauten is also the name of a rock group) clearly indicates that the time of youthful dreams is over. As Martin, the photographer, remarks elsewhere: “after thirty-nine years, it is finally time to grow up.”

For the GDR film was as equally political as building. One of DEFA’s (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft) most fascinating legacies is the intertwining of these two representational systems. Here too The Architects develops topics addressed earlier in Heiner Carow’s The Legend of Paul and Paula (1972) and Hermann Zschoche’s Island of Swans (1983). But The Architects also serves as a bookend to the overall history of DEFA and the GDR. Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Among Us (1946) and Gerhard Lamprecht’s Somewhere in Berlin (1946), depicted Berlin as a city of ruins, symbolic for both the destruction of the Third Reich and the fertile ground upon which the dreams of a better, socialist future would take root.

If the beginnings of DEFA were marked by depictions of a ruined city full of dreams, then The Architects marks its end: depicting a new city, but one in which the dreams now stand in ruin. As such, The Architects is a poignant and essential chapter in understanding the GDR, its architecture, and its cinema.

Ralph Stern
Architectural Historian

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Berlin–Schönhauser Corner (Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser)

1957, 82 min., b/w
Director: Gerhard Klein

Cinematography: Wolf Göthe
Music: Günter Klück
Set Design: Oskar Pietsch
Screenplay: Wolfgang Kohlhaase
Cast: Ekkehard Schall, Ilse Pagé, Ernst-Georg Schwill, Helga Göring
"…told in a neo-realistic style" 
             - The Oxford History of World Cinema

Rebels with a cause. This classic 1950s teen cult film is a perceptive social portrayal of a city in which political and economic division have affected the entire population. Although the film became a box-office hit, it was greeted with suspicion by GDR cultural officials. Gerhard Klein and screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase were reproached for emphasizing “negative problematic images of our [East German] life.” Despite the negative reception from GDR officials, this film was loved by the public precisely for its truthful portrayal of everyday life. 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. 

Gerhard Klein (1920–1970) was born 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.

Other Press Comments:

"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

Berlin - Schönhauser Corner (Gerhard Klein, 1957)

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

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The Bicycle (Das Fahrrad)

1981, 89 min., color
Director: Evelyn Schmidt 

Cinematography: Roland Dressel
Set Design: Marlene Willmann
Screenplay: Ernst Wenig
Cast: Heidemarie Schneider, Roman Kaminski,
Anke Friedrich, Heidrun Bartholomäus 

"The Bicycle is a little story packed with tremendous hope
... it raises important and essential questions of personal
responsibility and what we can expect from life."
                                            - Norddeutsche Zeitung

“A sensitive portrait of a woman by DEFA director Evelyn Schmidt . . . . 
Remarkable are the sympathetic portrayal of a work-rejecting outsider and 
the realistic description of East German daily life.“
                                            - Lexikon des Internationalen Films

Susanne is a single mother living a somewhat carefree lifestyle. After quitting her job, she finds herself in deep financial trouble and attempts a minor fraud to make ends meet. Despite its rare view of everyday socialism from a woman's perspective, GDR officials were critical of this frank portrayal of a less-than-ideal socialist citizen and turned down all invitations for the film to be screened abroad. In West Germany, however, Evelyn Schmidt’s film received much praise for its critical view and feminist approach.

Evelyn Schmidt was born in Görlitz in 1949 and moved to Berlin in 1963. She spent a year as an apprentice with East German television and graduated with a degree in directing from the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg in 1973. Schmidt participated in Konrad Wolf's master class at the Academy of the Arts in Berlin and began directing in the 1970s. From 1977 to 1990 she worked as an assistant director and later as a director at the DEFA Studio for Feature Films, debuting with Infidelity (1979). Since 1990 she has directed documentaries for television and produced 13 plays at an experimental theater. Schmidt has also taught film and acting, and is currently working on a children’s movie.

Other Press Comments:

"What succeeds most, to my mind, is the way the film grasps and addresses the character´s social context - it is judgmentally unobtrusive and completely accurate (Camera: Roland Dressel)."
                                                    -Guenter Sobe in the Berliner Zeitung


The Bicycle (Evelyn Schmidt, 1981)

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, criticism of East German society, such as that tacitly implied in The Bicycle, was often voiced through young women on screen. As the ‘natural’ inhabitant of the domestic sphere, a permitted private space of intimacy beyond public control, female misfits were used to express more general feelings of disaffection with everyday life under socialism. The Bicycle is a prime example: on its release, it was indirectly censored by limiting its release to a few performances in minor cinemas only and without any prior advertisements whilst at the same time having it dismissed as a flop in scathing film reviews in the official papers. The career of Evelyn Schmidt – one of the few East German women directors who had set out as a privileged student in a master class by Konrad Wolf– was nipped in the bud.

The Bicycle transgressed the officially proclaimed norms and expectations of a ‘good’ socialist film on various levels. Most crucially, the portrayal of the female protagonist presented the ‘wrong’ kind of heroine according to the criteria of the ‘sozialistisches Menschenbild’ (socialist image of the new man). The so-called ‘positive model hero or heroine’ was intended to combine both the characteristics of a realistic and credible person with the potential for an ideal personality of the future. For instance, in several films produced up to the late 1970s, the filmmakers tended to portray model heroines, who were well educated, professionally qualified and politically conscious, who knew exactly what they wanted, and who were able to address and solve their problems.

In those earlier years, the preference for female protagonists by predominantly male film directors may have been due to the fact that strong screen heroines, who were portrayed as men’s equals in their new roles in the work place, could best be used to illustrate the emancipation of women under socialism which was essential to the East Germany’s self-perception as the ‘better’ Germany: as a society of true equals, morally superior to the west.

In East German cinema of the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, there emerged a new kind of female protagonist. These heroines tended to be loners and misfits struggling to survive on the margins of society, expressing views and attitudes which clearly deviated from those held to be worthy of a socialist hero. Susanne, the protagonist of The Bicycle, is a single mother and an unqualified menial labourer, who can get only monotonous and badly paid factory jobs. In a moment of crisis and to make ends meet, she reports her bicycle as stolen and claims the insurance money.

As the crime rate in East Germany was very low compared to the West, petty crimes, such as theft and fraud would be considered serious offences by most GDR citizens. However, in The Bicycle, the desperate situation experienced by one of the weaker members of society, her poverty and loneliness are depicted in such graphic detail that her descent into delinquency is justified by making it understandable.

This view challenges the concept of a socialist society where nobody is left to struggle on their own, where there is always the work collective standing by to help. Very subtly, and more often through visual imagery than through verbal discourse, this film implies that it is society which is failing someone like Susanne rather than the other way around. It is quite clear to the viewer observing the heroine’s body language and facial expressions, which show very strong feelings of fear, shame and guilt, that she is not a cold-blooded habitual delinquent. In fact, throughout the film the heroine is portrayed as someone who is not naturally devious, but rather is an individual forced into cautious reticence and withdrawal by a repressive and controlling environment.

This portrait of a screen heroine was found unacceptable and met with scathing comments by most East German critics, one of whom, at the time, characterized Susanne as ‘a screwed-up misfit, suspicious towards everybody except her obscure drinking mates in the disco-cellar’ and dismissed the film as a ‘lame expression of grumpy discomfort with society’ (Renate Holland-Moritz, 1982).
Curiously, however, in the course of the film, this apparent ‘loser’ is shown to be worthy of our sympathy and respect, being portrayed in a positive light and inevitably drawing sympathy and a sense of identification form the viewers. In an interview conducted after the demise of the GDR, the director Evelyn Schmidt summarized the comments made by viewers who had seen the film in local repertory cinemas: ‘Those discussions revealed how many people dreamt of holding on to an internal liberty the way Susanne does’ (Elke Schieber, 1994).

The central, yet ambivalent metaphor for Susanne’s development throughout the whole film is her bicycle: from characterizing her as a vulnerable young woman, exposed to the hostile elements while struggling to get past heavy traffic in the pouring rain, to being the hidden evidence of Susanne’s descent into crime, until finally becoming a metaphor of autonomy and empowerment. In the film’s closing sequence, one of the very few shot in bright sunlight, the bicycle has come to express the bond between mother and daughter; Susanne is finally succeeding in teaching her small child to ride the bicycle on her own, passing on her newly gained sense of independence and liberty.

Andrea Rinke
German and Film Studies 
Kingston University

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Born in '45 (Jahrgang 45)

1966/1990, 94 min., b/w
Director: Jürgen Böttcher 

Cinematography: Roland Gräf
Set Design: Harry Leupold
Costume Design: Günther Schmidt
Screenplay: Klaus Poche, Jürgen Böttcher
Cast: Monika Hildebrand, Rolf Römer, Paul Eichbaum, Holger Mahlich

"This film is like a kind of ballet, expressing what cannot be said with words.
There are the most beautiful arrangements. The naive nature of the performance and
the beauty of the camera movements and angles are stunning.…”
                                    - Rolf Richter, Filmspiegel 

Born in ’45 is the only narrative film by painter and documentary filmmaker Jürgen Böttcher. Inspired by Italian neo-realism, he developed a sensitive style characterized by detailed social observation and poetic verve. Newlyweds Alfred and Lisa decide to divorce. Alfred takes a few days off to clear his head, wandering through Berlin and meeting strangers. Though he ultimately returns to Lisa, the plot remains open-ended. This film can be considered East Germany's closest counterpart to early Godard. Officials banned the film in 1966, describing it as “indifferent and insignificant.” It wasn’t seen by audiences until 1990 and Böttcher never returned to narrative filmmaking. 

Jürgen Böttcher, also known as the painter “Strawalde,” was born in 1931 in Frankenberg. He studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts from 1949 to 1953, during which time he worked as an independent artist and taught night school, where he met the now famous painter A.R. Penck. From 1955 to 1960, Böttcher studied directing at the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg and worked as a director in the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films until 1991. Having made more than 30 artistically provocative films, he has attained cult status among cineastes. Jürgen Böttcher has been working as an independent artist since 1991 and currently lives in Berlin.

Other Press Comments:

"This film is like a kind of ballet, expressing what cannot be said with words. There are the most beautiful arrangements. The naive nature of the performance and the beauty of the camera movements and angles are stunning. Every-day life is shown as both powerful and trivial - as space for movement in which we can study and develop ourselves and in which we define ourselves by means of endless repetitions and attempts to break out. The director's tools are sensitive feelers. He does not flaunt his professionalism; rather, he displays an excellent sense of timing." 
                                                   -Rolf Richter in the Berlin Filmspiegel, 1/1991


Born in ’45 (Jürgen Böttcher, 1966/1990)

Born in ’45 seems to me like a clear-sighted daydream, like a memory of such accuracy that I would swear by it. Watching this film, I experience images as I would expect from a movie, but understand them immediately as part of my life. I take them for my own with such naturalness, just like you take the morning sky as your own sky, the streets as you own streets and keen, aromatic smell the pavement emits as exactly the smell you need to fully wake up. I sometimes get strange looks from people when I talk about his film so effusively, but I’m not exaggerating—it is my film!

At the beginning, a young man walks out onto his balcony and stares for a long time at other houses, at walls, at trees. This neighborhood is Prenzlauer Berg, where I have lived and where I still live, a gray place, but still also somehow green, like the trees that grow there despite the very limited space. And I know I’m not the only one; a whole generation has stood and stared down from the balconies in a rare, impatient kind of waiting: is something still to come, or is that it? Many have silently and defiantly yearned and protested with this waiting, and many, suddenly, just up and left, broke out. These young people (though in my time they were a little older) wanted to know what the future held for them, still not believing or accepting that it would end up being what finally came—uniformity, disappointment, loneliness, confusion. There were no words for this situation at the time, but through body language, movements, the situation could be sensed and expressed. 

Born in '45 is truly a kind of ballet through which the unspeakable is captured. There are gorgeous arrangements. Almost like a dance with a feather, it is an elegy about tenderness, including the wish to escape, to disappear and if nothing else works, to explode, just to do something completely different afterward. In his performance, actor Rolf Römer presents a stunning combination of understatement and magnificent, shameless exaggeration, in which the unspeakable elements of the future emerge. Director Jürgen Böttcher guides him into situations and spaces that, in a most elegant way, protest the caged-in feeling, the frustration and bitterness, granting the character his desperate desire for something different, something more like freedom. The naïveté of this performance, along with the certainty of the camera movements and the scenes they capture, is unbelievable.

Everyday life, with its power and triviality, appears as space for movement. Space in which we experience and develop ourselves, where we become who we are through endless repetition and attempts to escape. The film is both a candid snapshot and a deciphering. In its fascinating portrayal of a young person’s many attempts to not lose his footing, to defend himself, to form alliances and to get to know himself carefully, without hurry, time is used as an indication of this search for another rhythm. The director’s tools are sensitive antennae; he doesn’t exhibit professionalism, but rather presents his piece with the slogan: “It happens like this, but it doesn’t have to be this way.” That is his creative way of protesting. The film is then to be seen as a sign, an offer.

Böttcher was 34 when he made this film; he was a documentary filmmaker and a painter whose talents were known and respected. The film, however, was banned and never released. Finally reaching the screen in 1990, Born in '45 is one of the most informative depictions of the life of young people in the Sixties, a prophetic document that not only those who are interested in the art of the time period should watch, but everyone.

Rolf Richter
Filmspiegel: 1991, Heft I

Rolf Richter (1932-1992)
was a teacher, film critic and publisher who lived in East Germany. He published reviews and books about African, Latin American and Arabian cinematography and about the East German DEFA films.

In October 1989 he was appointed chairman of the commission that worked on the rehabilitation of the banned films of East Germany. His personal commitment helped make possible the restoration of at least a few of these forbidden films. In 1990 eight of these banned films were shown at the Academy of Art in East Berlin for the first time in 25 years. The presentation of these films at the Berlin Film Festival brought them enormous international attention.

Acting as chairman of an association for the preservation of the art house cinema Babylon, located in Berlin, he took action to insure the continued support of Babylon as a place for international film art, especially for European and East European productions. 

Rolf Richter was not only interested in film; he was also an accomplished graphic artist and poet.

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Carbide and Sorrel (Karbid und Sauerampfer)

1963, 80 min., b/w
Director: Frank Beyer 

Cinematography: Günter Marczinkowsky
Set Design: Alfred Hirschmeier
Screenplay: Hans Oliva
Cast: Erwin Geschonneck, Kurt Rackelmann, Rudolf Asmus, Marita Böhme, Margot Busse

”One of the best German film comedies.” 
- The Oxford History of World Cinema

At the end of World War II, workers in Dresden send their colleague Kalle hundreds of miles north to pick up welding supplies for their factory. Kalle’s attempts to move the supplies through the Soviet occupation zone become a hilarious odyssey full of high jinks and misadventures. The screenplay was a lucky find for the director, as was the leading actor Erwin Geschonneck, a man whose self-confidence and laconic wit had gotten him through many ups and downs. The film’s comic high point is a boat trip down the Elbe, when Kalle raises the suspicion of both Soviet and American patrols. Director Frank Beyer first took his film to Moscow, since GDR officials often questioned humor which flouted political authority. The hearty laughter of the Soviet functionaries there gave the green light for a German premiere.

Frank Beyer is known for having directed some of the most powerful and historically significant films at DEFA. Born in Nobitz in 1932 he studied theater in Berlin, and then directing at the renowned Prague Film School (FAMU). From 1958 to 1966 Beyer directed films such as Naked Among Wolves and Five Cartridges, as well as Carbide and Sorrel. In 1966 Trace of Stones was banned and Beyer was expelled from the studio. He then directed for the stage and began a prolific career in television, which continues today. In 1974 he re-emerged at DEFA with Jacob the Liar, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Since German unification, Beyer has primarily worked in television, creating feature films such as St. Nicholas Church (1995), an account of the collapse of the GDR. In 1990 Beyer became a member of the Academy of Arts and in 1991 he was awarded the State Film Prize in Gold for lifetime achievement. The Film Museum Potsdam has recently purchased the Frank Beyer collection, including materials that provide an in-depth view of his life and work.


Other Press Comments:

"Giving away details of the storyline and the gags would be spoiling the fun. Besides, many of the punch-lines are so cinematographic that retellling them would prove difficult."
                                           -Margot Schroeder in the Berlin Junge Welt, 03.01.1964 

"A film for Erwin Geschonneck. That long face, that thin mouth - altogether that matter-of-fact dryness. Take pity on those sides of yours - they will be splitting once the joke gets to the laughing muscles!" 
                                       -Hans-Dieter Schuett in the Berlin Junge Welt, 07.03.1984


Carbide und Sorrel (Frank Beyer, 1963)

Carbide and Sorrel (Karbid und Sauerampfer) was the sixth film of Frank Beyer, after Konrad Wolf arguably the most successful director of the DEFA. This film is a flashback to the immediate postwar period from a vantage point twenty years later and from inside a “protective” Wall which had been built two years before the film was made. Many East German filmmakers, Beyer among them, have viewed the erection of the Berlin Wall, bitter reality though it was, as potentially productive in one respect: They hoped it would produce a buffer enabling artists to address sociopolitical problems in the GDR candidly, a process which had theretofore been impeded by the potential instrumentalization of such critique by the ideological foe in the Cold War. Frank Beyer told actor Armin Mueller-Stahl, commenting on the building of the Wall: “Es war richtig, was sie gemacht haben: Mauer zu, dann haben wir endlich Ruhe!” (“What they did was correct: Wall us off—and now leave us alone!”). But that protected artistic space was short-lived; in 1965 the 11th Plenary Session of the SED (the East German Communist Party) lashed back, confiscating the majority of the DEFA films produced that year and hiding them in vaults of the Polibüro, where most of them remained for a quarter century. Carbide and Sorrel (not among the confiscated films, having been completed before the 1965 political chill) is one of the notable films from that brief period of increased candor between the building of the Wall and the 11th Plenary Session. It comments upon the political exigencies, the infrastructural devastation, and the motley pragmatics of human coping in the Soviet Zone of occupation in the immediate aftermath of WWII with candor and refreshing wit.

The film has a simple narrative structure: There is a problem to be solved, and its solution requires a journey. A group of workers has gathered in the rubble of what was once their place of work —a cigarette factory in Dresden— with the intent of rebuilding it. But they lack carbide, essential for the welding work that must be done. Kalle, the only non-smoker of the group, is charged with the task of procuring it through his brother-in-law in a distant town. The procurement proves simple enough and is narrated deftly, but then the real challenge begins: How to move seven barrels of a rationed raw material from Wittenberg to Dresden with no means of transportation and without being detected by Soviet authorities?

The story is narrated as a series of encounters with people who provide a variety of transport opportunities and a socio-psychological panorama of devastated Germany: an energetic and beautiful farm girl who shares with Kalle both her horse-driven cart and her bed; two truck-drivers who gobble up the mushrooms a famished Kalle had unwittingly braved a mine field to harvest; Russian officers who “tax” Kalle’s load by a few barrels after detaining him for some time; an undertaker, who gives Kalle a lift in exchange for his delivering the eulogy for a corpse neither of them knew; an opera singer and a young girl, eager to escape to the American bank of the Elbe, who leave Kalle stranded with what is left of his load on a rampart in the middle of the river; an American officer in a motorboat who collects him and the carbide from the rampart, only to be stranded in turn when Kalle absconds with his boat and his officer’s cap; two scammers who make off with the carbide at dawn on foot, rolling the barrels down the road (toward Dresden, a detail that increases Kalle’s tolerance of this temporary theft).

Kalle’s twofold struggle —against the stasis of barrels and against getting caught— is further complicated by trials and encounters which illustrate and comment upon the postwar condition: Hunger, trickery, human dislocation and loneliness, mined forests. But grim as these realities are, the film treats them lightly, with classic comic devices which validate their reality while providing the opportunity for ironic distance. The film looks back at hard times from the vantage point of substantially better ones and provides a gauge for measuring the relative accomplishments of the GDR, of a generation that had resolved staggering problems with some success.

It does so with tact and with more candor than censor might have allowed in a non-comic genre; the stranded American is not the only victim of Kalle’s cunning—he also outwits a blockheaded Soviet officer. The factory his coworkers want to rebuild is anything but essential to the building of socialism (a cigarette factory), and Kalle’s role in its rebuilding is anything but heroic. He is not eager to undertake the task and grumbles repeatedly along the way; he doesn’t even have a personal interest in its rebuilding— he doesn’t smoke. He withstands the wiles of a horny widow along the way, but only because he is too drunk to make love. And he no sooner makes it back to Dresden with what is left of the carbide than he abandons his co-workers to join the farm girl whose unborn child, as he learns from letters she has been sending to him at the factory, he has fathered.

The deceptively light humor this film maintains is carried largely by the expert performance of Erwin Geschonneck. Several roles contribute to this tone well, particularly non-working class figures, such as the widowed owner of a lumber mill with the wonderful name Clara Himmel (a pun which mean “clearer skies”), whose bourgeois airs are humanized by her desperate attempts to seduce whatever man happens by, and the lecherous opera singer whose self-estimation is as over-sized as his ample body.

Reference is made to some of the classic themes of the DEFA, but in passing and with a grain of salt: building socialism (smokers build a cigarette factory); victory of fascism (hungry Kalle finds shelter in a hay loft, sleeps with an empty stomach, only to discover after the Soviets have already done so, that he was sleeping on a vast store of luxurious foods stowed away by the SS). The second time he is arrested by the Soviets we learn, in one of the in-the-know exchanges between party members so recurrent DEFA films, that Kalle is a communist, but it seems here irrelevant except as a means for getting him out of a tight spot. Kalle is more Kumpel than comrade.

Carbide and Sorrel is an enjoyable period piece and an interesting document of its era. Its successful comic realism provides the casual viewer and specialist alike a rewarding viewing experience.

Karen Kramer
Stanford University

Karen Kramer, a native of California, has lived in Berlin for three decades. She directs the Stanford University Program in Berlin, where she teaches film, theater, and cultural studies. In addition to numerous scholarly texts, she has published poetry in English and German. 

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The Gleiwitz Case (Der Fall Gleiwitz)

1961, 69 min., b/w
Director: Gerhard Klein

Cinematography: Jan Čuřík 
Music: Kurt Schwaen
Costume Design: Gerhard Kaddatz
Screenplay: Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Günther Rücker
Cast: Hannjo Hasse, Herwart Grosse, Hilmar Thate,
Georg Leopold, Wolfgang Kalweit

“… a clever story … an eccentric reenactment of an event from history.
  The Gleiwitz Case suggests a more starched, controlled Dr. Strangelove
 crossed with the formal austerity of Triumph of the Will, and its tone falls just short of loco.” 
                                            – Felicia Feaster, Creative Loafing

The Gleiwitz Case is a detailed reconstruction of the 1939 surprise attack by a Nazi unit on the radio station in Gleiwitz, which was blamed on Polish forces and served as Hitler’s justification for marching into Poland—thus starting WWII. Cool and distanced, the film reflects on the possibilities and techniques of provocation, and how facts and opinions can be manipulated to make people accept lies, murder, and war.

Director Gerhard Klein and his Czech cameraman Jan Čuřík create an impressive visual language to describe fascism. This enlightening perspective on the underpinnings of totalitarian power and violence was met with resistance among GDR officials. The film was accused of aestheticizing fascism and, although it narrowly escaped censorship, it disappeared after only a few weeks in theaters. Today, the film is considered one of the most modern and experimental films in DEFA history. 

Gerhard Klein (1920–1970) was born 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 a converging too closely with a fascistic aesthetic.

Other Press Comments:

“… a smartly constructed, almost cubist rendering of the hours leading up to the Nazi invasion of Poland, recounting in minute detail the Germans’ secret plan to fake a Polish incursion into German territory, thereby giving Hitler a pretext for the long-planned invasion. The film is meticulously detailed to great effect, and Klein gives it a hammer rhythm that is very powerful.”
                                                    - The Jewish Week

“…the most Brechtian of GDR movies is Klein and Kohlhaase's 1961 The Gleiwitz Case. A laconic 70 minutes of modernist music, Nazi newsreels, and alienating camera angles, Gleiwitz restages the fake attack that precipitated World War II. Nazi machine men issue robotic commands to the local pod people, orchestrating a fake Polish attack on an antiseptic sci-fi radio station broadcasting light Latin pop from a few miles inside the German border. Back in the day, Gleiwitz's deadpan satire of Riefenstahlian aestheticism was mistaken for Nazi nostalgia—now its icy experimentalism might inspire Ostalgie for a lost German avant-garde.”
                                                     - The Village Voice

The Gleiwitz Case (Gerhard Klein, 1961)

The Gleiwitz Case offers an almost documentary account of the events surrounding the Nazi’s staged attack on a radio transmitter near Gleiwitz on the German-Polish border August 31st, 1939. Most of the narrative reconstruction is based on statements by the commanding officer to British military personnel. This little-known “incident” gave the Third Reich a reason for invading Poland and, in so doing, starting World War II. Under the command of SS-officer Helmut Naujocks, six ethnic Germans living in Poland are selected and prepared for the secret operation. They take over the station and create the appearance of an assault, complete with radio message by the alleged Polish insurgents. One dead concentration camp inmate in Polish uniform is left behind as proof of the attack. The film ends with the voice of Hitler announcing, “As of today, 4:45 a.m., we are shooting back” and a tranquil image of the Gleiwitz transmitter station with “43,000,000 dead” projected in bold over it.

The film is noteworthy for a cinematic style that creates an almost documentary sense of detachment with formal devices reminiscent of Expressionism and New Objectivity, as well as film techniques modeled on both classical Soviet montage and New Wave styles.

Director Gerhard Klein (1920-70) made numerous documentaries and newsreels for the DEFA Studios and frequently collaborated with author Wolfgang Kohlhaase. His most famous films are critical studies of Berlin youth culture: Berlin-Schönhauser Corner (1957) and Berlin Around the Corner (1965-1990). These films stand out through their contemporary sensibility and realist style. The same attention to the material world characterizes The Gleiwitz Case, “a documentation with artistic means,” in the words of Klein. The film is also enhanced by its convincing utilization of classical avant-garde traditions in film and photography from the 1920s and early 1930s. From the thematic and structural concerns, it is associated with the New Wave cinemas of the 1960s. The stark black-and-white cinematography of Jan Curik recalls the work of Czech and Polish filmmakers, especially with the dramatic lighting and highly symbolic close-ups. Kurt Schwaen intersperses an original score in the dissonant, brassy style of Hanns Eisler with quotations from classical music, fold songs and popular songs from the Third Reich in order to create a deceptively peaceful, and therefore all the more foreboding, atmosphere. Book and screenplay not only reduce the dialogue scenes to a minimum, but also limit all exchanges to the passing of information and giving orders. In highly restrained performances, the actors, beginning with the brilliant Hannjo Hasse, rehearse the mechanisms of political oppression and shed light on the psychopathology of what Hannah Ahrendt once called “the banality of evil”.

The Gleiwitz Case accomplishes the simultaneous reconstruction and deconstruction of fascist imagery by presenting its constituent elements in highly self-reflexive fashion, including an acute awareness of the convergence of aesthetics and politics under fascism. The carefully composed shots of ordinary settings and locations, the hard lighting and low camera angles in the close-ups of faces and the preference for geometrical configurations in the exterior scenes must all be understood as deliberate references to the cult of racial community by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will. Likewise, the detached perspective of the camera makes a fetish of the inanimate object in a way that recalls the functionalist photographs of Albert Renger-Patsch, as well as the cultural films by Walter Ruttmann. However, the atmosphere of cold objectivity conjured by camerawork and mise-en-scene is time and again destabilized through the means of analytical montage. This is especially evident in the opposition between image and sound, and between successive images and sounds, and through the introduction of radically different visual styles (e.g., the surrealist train ride) and locations (e.g., the idyllic garden terrace). The chilly beauty of the images and the compulsive linearity of the narrative only draw attention to the paucity of the relationships among the protagonists and offer disturbing insights into their collective mentality, especially given the film’s resistance to psychological motivation. Even the flashback of Naujock’s youth, which contains the main elements of a typical petty-bourgeois biography, serves less to offer socio-psychological explanations than to ground the inhumanity of fascism in the culture of everyday life.

Because of its innovative cinematic style, The Gleiwitz Case became the target of much official criticism. Party functionaries accused the filmmakers of “objectivism” and “lacking partiality”. Audience responses to what many critics perceived as a very detached, almost clinical view of National Socialism were also very mixed, and some reviewers took offense at what might appear as a surrender to “fascinated fascism”. As a result, the film was not submitted as the official GDR entry at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1961, and it quickly disappeared from the theaters. 

Finally, the film’s bold aesthetic and political vision can now be appreciated as an important contribution to the film avant-garde of the 1960s and compared favorably to modernist classics like Resnia's Last Year in Marienbad (1961) and Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1964), as well as the kind of radical political cinema identified with the names of Straub, Kluge and Godard.

Prof. Sabine Hake
University of Texas, Austin

Sabine Hake is Chair of German Literature and Culture at the University of Texas. Her research interests include German cinema and Weimar culture. She has published the on films of Ernst Lubitsch, early German film theory, cinema in the Third Reich, as well as a complete German film history.

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Her Third (Der Dritte)

1971, 111 min., color
Director: Egon Günther 
Cinematography: Erich Gusko
Set Design: Harald Horn
Screenplay: Günther Rücker
Cast: Jutta Hoffmann, Barbara Dittus, Rolf Ludwig,
Armin Mueller-Stahl 

“Jutta Hoffmann [is] a small person with enormous charisma, who establishes such a direct connection with her viewers that they experience each emotion and laugh and cry with her.”
                            - Heinz Kersten, film critic 

Her Third recounts eighteen years in the life of Margit through a series of flashbacks. After two failed relationships, each of which produced a child, a newly liberated Margit discovers herself. Her amorous pursuit of a colleague provides not only an entertaining love story, but also a testament to the evolving self-confidence and independence of East German women. Jutta Hoffmann was named Best Actress at the 1972 Venice Film Festival for her performance in this film, playing opposite Oscar-nominated actor Armin Mueller-Stahl. 

Egon Günther was born in Schneeberg in 1927. In 1958 he began working as a dramaturg and screenwriter at the DEFA studios and by 1964 was directing his own screenplays. His works are about contemporary life but he also directed literary film adaptations. With Lotte in Weimar (1975) he started a series of films about Goethe – which continued with The Mask of Desire (1999). Critics describe Günther as an avant-gardist of East German cinema, known for his stylistically sophisticated and internationally competitive films. Günther was increasingly beset with political difficulties, leading to the censorship of several of his films. He finally decided to leave for West Germany in 1978 after his television film Ursula was snubbed by the regime. In West Germany he worked mainly in television and returned to DEFA at the end of 1989 to make his film Stein

Other Press Comments:

"The film's audience senses the fun Ms. Hoffmann - as well as all the other cast and crew members - had when making the film...Egon Guenther...really knows how to narrate his film and effectively reach his audience without becoming banal or insincere."
                 -Michael Hanisch in the Berlin Junge Welt 

"A film embracing a number of problems such as the ones facing women in the society...An important film...". 
                 -Klaus Eder in Christ und Welt 

A Woman and GDR Society: A Parallel History in Her Third

Her Third is a pivotal film in the history of East German narrative cinema. It proved that artistic power, critical consciousness, aplomb and cinematic originality could not be silenced. It came out in 1972 following a period of torpor caused by a politically motivated ban on an entire year of film production in December 1965. This movie appeared as the first light on the darkened horizon of GDR cinema and continues to affirm its own cinematic brilliance today.

Her Third is a story about women’s emancipation. Margit Fließer, the main character, is presented with a number of situations that test her strength and resolve. As a child when her mother died, she witnessed the neighbors ransacking the apartment, even ripping the sheets off the deathbed. She grew up as an orphan in a deaconess’ house and was subjected to isolation and a restrictive religious life imposed on her by the church. Yet Margit delivered herself from this by studying mathematics and later entering into a career as a computer scientist. She eventually becomes financially and mentally independent. But is she happy? There still remains the issue of her potential inner liberation and the difficulty of finding happiness.

After two long-term relationships that both fail, she ends up alone with two children. Based on her experiences she makes a firm resolve: the next man, her third, she will consciously choose only after thoughtful scrutiny. With courage and ardor she resists traditional expectations, but does so also out of fear of fulfilling the stereotype of women as passive and weak. She galvanizes herself, uncertain (as is the audience) as to whether or not her resolve makes her happier. The film leaves this question open, despite the wedding at the end.

Amidst this woman’s story, Her Third provides at the same time an apt and unconventional look at the historical development of East Germany from the end of the war to the seventies. It shows the poverty and moral dilapidation of the immediate postwar period, the enthusiasm at the new beginning the fifties promised, and the normalization that occurred in domestic relationships in the seventies which led to a certain resignation. At that time society’s lofty collective goals dissipated and the issue of individual happiness became more important.

The protagonist’s experience lends a unique insight to the GDR’s image of its own history. Jutta Hoffmann portrays a woman filled with vitality and obstinacy. Her character is both affectionate and self-confident, cuddly and recalcitrant. She is searching for the love of her life and goes her own way in spite of it. The character’s complexity is imparted through the actress’s entire composure and gestures, which one could describe as modern, timeless and utterly contemporary in the same breath. Her movements and manner of speaking have a hazy, ironic quality; she talks dismissively about things that are very important. At the same time, she is capable of powerful, tumultuous emotions, such as when she discovers her younger child may go blind. She is neither sentimental nor coolly scientific. Words fail to describe her screen presence, as it is ineffably cinematic and original. When the film came out, many women in the GDR felt that the figure of Margit Fließer mirrored their desires and fears, since she had the same problems with love and life that they had. The actress’s playfulness and that of the film in general -- both which lightened any dark, serious undertone -- gave women hope that they could overcome their problems too. 

Egon Günther’s very unique cinematic language always allows the fact that film is something which is “created” shine through and that it is never simply about representing reality. Everyday observances mesh together with stylized scenes; life’s trials and tribulations are frequently broken up with comic moments. He creates a need for a comfortable distance between the individual viewer and the dramatic scenes and then fulfills it. Within this stylistic concept, the entrancing Jutta Hoffmann unleashes all of her hypnotic power. Her most genuine female figure is brought to life right before our eyes in a film that preserves her character’s depth and provocative power to this day. 

Erika Richter
Film Publicist Berlin

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The Legend of Paul and Paula (Die Legende von Paul und Paula)

1972, 106 min., color
Director: Heiner Carow

Cinematography: Jürgen Brauer
Music: Peter Gotthardt
Set Design: Harry Leupold
Screenplay: Ulrich Plenzdorf, Heiner Carow
Cast: Angelica Domröse, Winfried Glatzeder,
Heidemarie Wenzel, Fred Delmare 

“[This film] shows that the 70s all over the
world, even in the GDR, were the 70s.”
        – Jennie Livingston, filmmaker, Paris Is Burning

“I knew that the film would be good. It was going to be explosive and
 maybe it wouldn’t make it through, but it was going to be good.” 
        – Ulrich Plenzdorf, screenwriter

Author Ulrich Plenzdorf and director Heiner Carow winningly portray this story of undefeatable, passionate love between a single mother and a married bureaucrat in East Berlin. Featuring the music of the East German cult rock band, the Puhdys, the film proved enormously popular, despite limited media coverage. The Legend of Paul and Paula remains a cult favorite today.


Heiner Carow (1929–1997) was born in Rostock. Directors Gerhard Klein and Slatan Dudow were his mentors in the DEFA studio class for young directors from 1950 to 1952. In 1956 Carow made his first feature, Sheriff Teddy, with many similarities to Klein’s “Berlin Films.” His film, The Russians Are Coming (1968), was banned and labeled as ”contaminated with modernism.” The Legend of Paul and Paula became an unparalleled success, however, and is said to have been the longest playing film in German cinemas. Carow’s penchant for creating films that candidly reflected everyday life in socialism often put him into conflict with officials, but his professionalism and artistic acuity gained him the position of Vice President of the Academy of Arts of the GDR (1982–1993). He was awarded many film prizes, including a Silver Bear at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival for Coming Out, the only East German feature film about homosexuality. 

Other Press Comments:
"Heiner Carow directed this 'legend' - a word already suggesting a detached approach to East Berlin reality - in an imaginative and easy-going way, placing it between realtiy and imagination." 
-Volker Baer in the Berlin Tagesspiegel, 18.04.1973

"We have not been spoiled with moving love stories in the cinema. Therefore my unconditional praise for this treatment of the love theme. I am all for talking about love in the appropriate sensual terms rather than having the topic rhetorically exhausted." 
-Fred Gehler in the Berlin Sonntag, 22.04.1973

The Legend of Paul and Paula (Heiner Carow, 1972)

Heiner Carow’s The Legend of Paul and Paula was the most popular East German film ever made. Together with Konrad Wolf’s Solo Sunny (1980), it belongs to a select group of films which achieved cult status in the GDR. Based on a script by the well known writer, Ultrich Plenzdorf, Carow’s film was one of the first to profit from the more liberal climate that was ushered in with the change of political leadership in the GDR in 1971. After a difficult period for artists and writers – a period that culminated in the series of bans in the wake of the infamous Eleventh Plenum in 1965 – the replacement of Walter Ulbricht by Erich Honecker in 1971 seemed to hold out the promise of a new era of tolerance. In one of his earliest speeches, Honecker went as far as to declare that ‘Providing one starts from an established socialist standpoint, there cannot…be any taboo subjects for art and literature’. Indeed Ulrich Plenzdorf with his highly acclaimed novel, The New Sorrows of Young Werther (1972), was – at least to begin with – one of the principal beneficiaries of the new improved relations between writers and the State. But taboos or no taboos, the new climate of tolerance was short-lived, a fact highlighted by the expulsion of the singer-poet Wolf Biermann in 1976. And amongst those who, in the wake of the ‘Biermann affair’, decided to leave the GDR of their own accord in the late 1970s and early 1980s were a number of DEFA stars, including Manfred Krug, Jutta Hoffmann, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Katharina Thalbach and, of course Angelica Domröse, the star in The Legend of Paul and Paula.

The success of The Legend of Paul and Paula lies in the ability of Carow and Plenzdorf to present the life of ordinary GDR citizens in a wholly new and challenging format. Paula’s situation – that of a single parent trying to bring up two children whilst at the same time working as a check-out assistant in a GDR supermarket – was a reality with which many GDR citizen could identify. Indeed part of the originality of Carows’s film was that – in market contrast to such films as Horst Seemann’s A Declaration of Love to G.T. (1971) and Egon Guenther’s Her Third (1971) – it dealt not with a member of the intelligentsia, but with a uneducated (thought by no means unintelligent) woman employed to do a menial job. For whilst the drive to develop the GDR’s industrial economy at the beginning of the 1970s inevitably led to greater opportunities (and difficulties) for well-educated women in a predominantly male-dominated work-force, few film-makers had stopped to consider the plight of women at the other end of the scale – women like Paula – and it this respect, Carow’s film was well ahead of its time, anticipating the direction taken by such films as Erwin Stranka’s Sabine Wulff (1978) and Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle (1981).

We do the film a disservice, however, if we attempt to assimilate it to the canon of ‘women’s cinema’ in Germany as represented, for example, by Helke Sander’s The All-round Reduced Personality (1977) or the early films by Helma Sanders-Brahms. Given the extent to which The Legend of Paul and Paula is a celebration of the power of romantic love, those searching for a racial reappraisal of gender relations are bound to be disappointed. Not surprisingly, feminist’s critics have often fallen foul of the film, dismissing it as – to quote the title of an academic essay on the film – ‘a sexist schmaltz from the GDR’. Yet it is precisely in its relentless insistence that human beings must indulge the emotional, irrational side of their nature if they are realize their full potential that the revolutionary thrust of the film is both to be sought and found. Add to this the fact that of the two characters, it is Paul, a minor government official, who has the greatest difficulty in breaking free from the shackles of rationality and self-restraint, and it is not hard to see why the film occupies such a unique place in the minds and hearts of those who saw it.

But The Legend of Paul and Paula is much more than just an intense love story. It is, as its titles suggests, a ‘legend’. In order to underline the fairy-tale character of this love affair, Carow makes use of a provocative montage of fantasy and realism. At one moment we watch as the weary Paula all but collapses from the repeated effort of carrying coal from the cellar up the stairs in the block of flats where she lives; at the next, we are taken on a magical journey with Paula and Paula in a bed bedecked with flowers, a journey in which the logic of time and space has ceased to have any meaning. Given the deliberate use of such ‘Romantic’ elements – together with a corresponding refusal to adhere to adhere to the conventions of realism – it is tempting to see Carow’s film as making its own distinctive contribution to the renewed interest in German Romantic art and literature generally in the GDR at the beginning of the 1970s. And just as German Romanticism developed as a response to the often overly mechanistic approach to human nature endorsed by the writers and philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, so too the Romantic elements of Carow’s film serves as a reminder to us today that we ignore the irrational elements of human behavior at our peril.

Sean Allan
University of Warwick, UK

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Mother (Die Mutter)

1958, 147 min., b/w, screening in 16mm 
Director: Manfred Wekwerth

Cinematography: Harry Bremer
Screenplay: Käthe Rülicke-Weiler, Manfred Wekwerth,
Harry Bremer, Isot Kilian
Editor: Ella Ensink
Sound: Kurt Wolfram, Rolf Rolke
Cast: Helene Weigel, Fred Düren, Erich Franz, Fritz Hollenbeck,
Günter Naumann, Helga Raumer, Norbert Christian
Produced by the DEFA Studio for Newsreels and Documentary
Films, on behalf of the Berliner Ensemble.
Photo By Helmut Kiehl. Courtesy of the Akademie-der-Künste-Archiv.

Bertolt Brecht’s grand epic of political theater, written in 1931, is an adaptation of Maxim Gorki’s novel by the same title. It tells the moving story of an oppressed Russian woman who is transformed into a militant revolutionary. The original production, written for the Berliner Ensemble, was condemned by Stalinist critics as “formalist” and “politically harmful,” although it was hugely popular. Filmed by DEFA, this production – directed after Brecht’s death by Manfred Weckwerth – retains much of Brecht’s original cast, with a landmark performance by Helene Weigel in the title role. 

Manfred Wekwerth, acclaimed Brecht disciple and director of Brecht’s plays, was born in Köthen in 1929. He belonged to an amateur theater group, when Bertolt Brecht discovered him and offered him a position as an assistant director at the famous Berliner Ensemble in 1951. Only two years later he directed his first production there. After Brecht’s death, Wekwerth became the senior director of the Berliner Ensemble. He first began filming in order to document some of the Brecht productions at the Berliner Ensemble. Wekwerth left the Berliner Ensemble from 1969 to 1977 over disagreements with Brecht’s widow, Helene Weigel, but then returned to manage the theater until 1991. He was also the president of the East German Academy of Arts for almost a decade and the director of the Institute for Directing in Berlin. Since German unification he has continued to direct for various German theaters.

Mother (Wekwerth, 1958) 

On August 14th 1956, a quarter before midnight, the poet Bertolt Brecht died of a heart attack. In accordance with his last will and testament, he was buried in the Dorotheestädtischen cemetery in Berlin next to those graves of the great philosophers Hegel and Fichte. An act of state took place in Brecht’s own theater, the Berlin Ensemble on August 18th, in which East German Minister for Culture Johannes R. Becher and the acting Prime Minister Walter Ulbricht among others held commemorative addresses. The government and the artistic institutions of the country all agreed that the memory of the author had to be maintained and that his work be preserved for the future – including the productions of the Berlin Ensemble, whose artistic leadership was Brecht’s occupation.

Of course, nobody at that time had in mind the video technology with which one could have documented these famous presentations. And 35mm film conservation would have been too expensive and cumbersome. Nevertheless, the GDR Ministry of Culture assigned the national film studio DEFA to complete the task and made available the necessary funds for the project. The plan, which in all its documentation and relevant production was entrusted to the director and friend of Brecht Erich Engel, was indeed unfeasible on account of time and deadline reasons. So a few other close colleagues of Brecht, his assistant Käthe Rülicke-Weiler among them, endeavored to preserve his all-important production model as study material for posterity. Along with that, those particular pieces that would be “recorded” first would be the ones that would presumably not be among the Berlin Ensemble’s repertoire for much longer. The choice fell between Brecht’s Mother (Die Mutter) from 1951 and Erwin Strittmatters Katzgraben, which Brecht produced in 1953.

As principal filmmakers for the production, director and student of Brecht Manfred Wekwerth and the cinematographer Harry Bremer from the DEFA Studio for Newsreels and Documentary Films were brought on board. In the case of Mother, they decided not to make a film version of the play but rather for a strict documentary of the stage performance with the scenery on-stage serving considerably as the base setting. Tracking and panning shots were not allowed. As a specifically film-artistic medium, the team allowed only certain kinds of cuts as well as restrictions on the framing during film takes: the singling out of the stage background via the change of side limits remained exclusively reserved for the titular character Pelagea Vlassova played by Helene Weigel – that Russian “mother” and working man’s widow who is thrust among the revolutionaries and begins to fight for the power of the state.

At the same time, the team decided not to film in the studio, but rather – because of financial restraints but also for the “comfort of the actors” and the retention of the stage atmosphere – on the stage of the Berlin Ensemble. It turned out to be especially difficult to ensure the necessary silence for the film – especially with single shots that required about eight minutes of complete concentration. Käthe Rülicke-Weiler recalled: “The disturbances surpassed all expectations. Let’s take only the noises, for example: against door slamming, humming vacuum cleaners and hammers in the house, we had help from control sentries and strict regulations. Against the steam whistles of the motorboats, the water guards were backing us up, airplane engine noises we could plan for around midday with some certainty, insofar as some small, malicious private airplane did not make unscheduled circles over the city center. Carpet-beating housewives reacted to a good cajoling, but then our giving of tips to the hurdy-gurdyists outside proved to be ineffective, because they would then send for their colleagues. Storms and rain were delivered upon us without our consent, and strong winds would act like a storm when they hit our drawing room.”

For the final cut, it was envisioned that the film would be in color, “because we would very much like to see the beauty of the red flag.” (Rülicke-Weiler) Yet the technical quality of the high-contrast Agfa-Ultra-Rapid film stock that was used did not allow it. Thus even in the final version, it remained in black and white. Initially, Mother constituted a kind of completion of the endeavor to document Brechtian productions. Not until 1961 did the DEFA Studio for Feature Films propose a production of Mother Courage and her Children. Bearing in mind the experiences with Mother, both directors Manfred Weckwerth and Peter Palitzsch consequently realized this film in the studio and did not refrain from using film techniques. Also belonging to the documents of Brechtian directorial work are the TV adaptation of Senora Carrar's Rifles (Die Gewehre der Frau Carrar, 1953), as well as the silent, Super-8 camera-recorded film documents in 1952 by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg who, as one of Brecht’s top students, had taken lessons from him and was therefore allowed to film scenes from Urfaust, Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti (Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti) and Mother.

Ralf Schenk
Film Historian

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The Rabbit Is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich)

1965/1990, 109 min., b/w
Director: Kurt Maetzig 

Cinematography: Erich Gusko
Set Design: Alfred Thomalla
Screenplay: Manfred Bieler
Cast: Angelika Waller, Alfred Müller,
Ilse Voigt, Wolfgang Winkler

“[The Rabbit Is Me] merits attention not least of all
for its unvarnished search for truth.  As for form,
Maetzig treads new paths. No-one in [East Germany]
had ever dealt with stylistic extravagances such as
flashbacks and inner monologues with such ease.” 
                                            - Peter Claus, Junge Welt

The Rabbit Is Me was made in 1965 to encourage discussion of the democratization of East German society. Soon afterwards, the film was banned by officials as an anti-socialist, pessimistic and revisionist attack on the state. It henceforth lent its name to all the banned films of 1965, which became known as the "Rabbit Films." After 1989, The Rabbit Is Me earned critical praise as one of the most important and courageous works ever made at DEFA. The film portrays a young student who has an affair with a hypocritical judge, who once sentenced her brother for his political activities. She eventually confronts him with his opportunism and injustice.

Kurt Maetzig was born in Berlin-Charlottenburg in 1911. In 1932 he began a film internship, but in 1934 was denied work by the Nazis because his mother was Jewish. He made some of the first films in Germany after WWII. Among others, Marriage in the Shadows (1947), the first German film to address Nazi anti-Semitism shown in all four occupied German zones. Maetzig was one of the founders of DEFA. DEFA’s artistic director as of 1946, he later became the first president of the newly founded Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg, where he served as a professor of directing. Before retiring in 1975, Maetzig directed more than 20 feature films. While some described his work as propaganda, GDR officials banned other productions for being too critical. Maetzig’s career spans decades across the entire history of DEFA. 

Other Press Comments:
"This film has been released at last. It merits attention not least because of
 its unvarnished search for truth. As for form, Maetzig treads new paths.
 No-one had ever dealt with stylistic extravaganzas such as flashbacks and
 inner monologues with equal ease in this country." 
-Peter Claus in the Berlin Junge Welt, 09.03.1990

"The extent of inhumanity and wretchedness that was possible - and normal -in the 
name of socialism outrages, even a quarter of a century on. By no means
 a dated film. Today, we still shudder at the reality made apparent in the love story
 of Maria Morzeck and judge Paul Deister." 
-Helmut Ullrich in the Berlin Neue Zeit, 09.03.1990

The Rabbit Is Me and the Banned Films of 1965/66

In December 1965, the 11th Plenary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s Central Committee of the German Democratic Republic convened in Berlin to instigate a political and cultural witch hunt that over the course of a year, systematically banned beat music, nearly all the films in production that year, numerous television programs, plays and works of literature.

The Cold War climate was becoming increasingly tense and East Germany was suffering economically. The ascent of political and cultural liberalization that was fostered after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 began to decline when Khrushchev died and was replaced by Brezhnev. The growing political and cultural thaw in neighboring Czechoslovakia made GDR rulers uneasy. And crime in East Germany was on the rise, especially ‘rowdiness among the youth.’ All these uncertainties prompted political hardliners to reverse trends of tolerance and seek a scapegoat, which they found in the artists, whose works they deemed dangerous to the political dignity and moral fabric of the country.

One film in particular was singled out for its ‘decadence and nihilism,’ The Rabbit Is Me, coining the term given to all of that year’s banned productions: “The Rabbit Films.”

The Rabbit Is Me is set in Berlin in 1961-2, the time shortly before and after the building of the Berlin Wall. It is the story of Maria Morzeck, a young independent Berliner, who has a love affair with Paul Deister, a married judge and the man responsible for sentencing her brother to three years in prison for political slander. Because Maria is suspicious of the severity of the sentence and doesn’t really understand why her brother’s behavior was criminal, she is denied admission to the university, preventing her from fulfilling her dream to become an interpreter or travel agent. She is therefore a waitress in a restaurant bar. As she and the relationship with Paul develop, she begins to see the injustice and arbitrariness in the legal system. She finally ends the relationship when she discovers it is Paul’s careerist opportunism that guides his legal decisions.

The film was based on a Manfred Bieler novel of the same name. Although it was written at a time when the East German government was easing restrictions and undergoing reforms, it was banned in 1963 and never published in the GDR. When the Central Film Administration was called to account for permitting a film adaptation of a banned book, the then DEFA Studio Director Jochen Mückenberger defended it, saying that it showed how the justice system was being reformed and becoming more democratic, and that Maria’s honesty was a hallmark characteristic of socialism. Yet it was in part because of her honesty – in voiceover she offers her saucy commentary laced with biting Berlin humor on the glaring hypocrisies around her – that led to the film’s banishment.

The Rabbit Films were vehemently criticized because they revealed that the younger generation was questioning the oppressive, suspicious socialism that offered them little for personal or professional growth – a socialism for which the older generation believed they fought and suffered the Nazis. The Rabbit Films were despised in general because they bore a distinct stylistic resemblance to a newly emerging European cinema at that time led by filmmakers such as Fellini, Truffaut and Wajda: The New Wave, which was seen as too pessimistic and highly infiltrated with individualism typical of the West.

Most of the Rabbit Films were unearthed and showcased for the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival, where many of them were seen for the first time, some in mere fragmentary form. While filmmakers, critics and the public hailed this collection as highly artistic, politically challenging and socially optimistic, much of the relevance was lost, as the time for an ambitious, revolutionary GDR cinema had come and gone. Nevertheless, the Rabbit Films are an important and almost neglected part of GDR political history, a testament to the will for reform and contribution to international film culture.

Betheny Moore Roberts
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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The Second Track (Das zweite Gleis)

1962, 80 min., b/w
Director: Joachim Kunert

Cinematography: Rolf Sohre
Screenplay: Günter Kunert / Joachim Kunert
Cast: Albert Hetterle, Annekathrin Bürger,
Horst Jonischkan, Walter Richter-Reinick 

“An idiosyncratic film … the cinematographic narrative
mode engenders an immense and ultimately unsettling impact.”
      – Erika Richter, Film und Fernsehen

Station Inspector Brock is witness to a robbery. When he fails to report one of the culprits, he experiences flashbacks of his earlier failure to take a stand against Nazi persecutions years ago. The Second Track is the only East German film which explores the theme of former Nazis leading normal lives in the GDR. This sensitive subject matter was one reason why the film was rarely shown in theaters. Remarkably expressive images and black and white photography intensify a story about guilt, repression and oblivion, making this film a true discovery.

Joachim Kunert was born in Berlin in 1929. He worked as a director of DEFA newsreels and documentaries from 1954–1955 and of feature films until 1970. Kunert moved to television then where he worked until his retirement in 1990. He belonged to the so-called “second generation” of DEFA filmmakers, characterized by a worldview primarily shaped by the East German experience. Kunert tried to address taboo topics in his films. He succeeded with the film The Adventures of Werner Holt (1964), which focused on WWII and the unspoken past of his father’s generation. The Second Track (1962), dealing with traces of the Nazi era in 1960s East Germany, gained no recognition until its recent critical rediscovery. This film was his second collaboration with the author Günter Kunert, president of the German P.E.N. 

Breaking with Conventions in The Second Track

Nighttime at a freight train depot. Two men are tampering with a sealed railway car. By chance, station inspector Brock, a seasoned and knowledgeable railroad employee, comes along and averts the robbery. But when he later recognizes one of the culprits at a police lineup, he chooses to remain silent. Then he suddenly and without apparent reason asks to be relocated to a different station. Why would he want to run away? What secret would he like to suppress… and forget?

The Second Track (1962) latched onto what was a highly unconventional topic for DEFA. Since the early 50s, GDR films conventionally portrayed National Socialism as a completed chapter of history. Hardly any DEFA film investigated the traces of the Hitler regime in the eastern part of Germany, where according to the official version, fascism was completely eliminated. The citizens of the GDR, who at the time were constructing socialism, were supposed to see themselves as “de-Nazified” across the board, unencumbered in their status as the “Victors of History.” Whenever questions arose about the lines of connection between the Third Reich and the present, the accusatory gaze was almost exclusively cast on the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The Second Track does not settle for this mindset, however. Rather, screenwriter Günter Kunert and director Joachim Kunert devised a tale that delved into the involvement of “present-day” GDR citizens with the crimes of the Third Reich.

With the figure of station inspector Brock, they succeeded at creating an intriguing character tormented by inner conflict. Indeed, Brock saddled himself with guilt at the end of the Nazi period: during his leave from the front he discovered that his wife had hidden a fugitive Jew. He revealed this secret under pressure of their fanatical building superintendent. After the war, Brock lived under a false name in a different city. But suddenly he came face-to-face with the former superintendent and Nazi as a thief.

The nuances of Brock’s bad conscience are differentiated in the film and interpreted with psychoanalytic overtones. His silence, his failure that he swept under the rug, gave birth to fresh guilt and despair. The old wounds, which had never been treated, fester even further under the poorly applied bandage; only fresh air can bring about a recovery. With this credo in mind, The Second Track is not merely an account of a single case, but is a parable for all of society – and not only relevant for the Nazi period, but in regard toward Stalinism as well. Yet evidently such a corresponding debate in the GDR failed to occur: the time was simply not ripe for The Second Track.

Beyond the significance of its content, Günter and Joachim Kunert also broke new ground with the formal aspect and the avant-garde direction of their work. The train station setting, with its tracks, switches and contact wires, was consistently used for its symbol-laden ambiance. Even the title could have been interpreted as a metaphor: Did the “second track” simply travel aside, or wasn’t much more required of Brock in order to leave the retracted “first track” in the first place? Director of photography, Rolf Sohre, shot the film in expressive black-and-white; Pavol Simai wrote a hazy, electronic sounding music for the film that only further underlines its experimental character. Together with Konrad Wolf’s Professor Mamlock, Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case (1961) and Frank Beyer’s Star-Crossed Lovers (1962), The Second Track can be counted among the most intellectually prominent, image-intensive films of those years. It was unjustly and almost completely forgotten for a long time.

Ralf Schenk
Film Historian 

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Your Unknown Brother (Dein unbekannter Bruder)

1981, 108 min., color
Director: Ulrich Weiß

Cinematography: Claus Neumann
Music: Peter Rabenalt
Set Design: Paul Lehmann
Costume Design: Lydia Fiege
Screenplay: Wolfgang Trampe 
Cast: Uwe Kockisch, Michael Gwisdek, Jenny Gröllmann, Bohumil Vavra, Arno Wyzniewski 

“For me, film is the discovery of the sensual world.” 
– Ulrich Weiß, director

“Ulrich Weiß was the greatest talent to emerge from the Babelsberg film school in the 1970s.”
The Oxford History of World Cinema

Returning from a Nazi camp for political prisoners in 1935, Arnold Clasen is ambivalent about re-establishing contact with his resistance group, afraid he is being watched. Isolation, fear, the need for friendship, and betrayal are the themes of this film. This rare psychological take on antifascism represents a milestone in East German filmmaking, as it both sustains and breaks with the antifascist tradition. Invited to compete at the Cannes Film Festival, Your Unknown Brother was withdrawn by East German officials, despite the filmmakers’ feverish preparations. Ulrich Weiß, a talented director for whom this film represented great strides in creative development, emerged embittered from this experience and, from this point on, all his artistic activities were undercut. It appears that those in power didn’t want to take any more risks with this independent, untamable and unpredictable talent.

Ulrich Weiß was born in Wernigerode in 1942. From 1965 to 1970, he studied cinematography and directing at the German Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg and did camera work for GDR television. He started directing at the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films in 1971 and moved to the DEFA Studio for Feature Films ten years later. After making the children’s film Tambari, he made his feature film debut, Dance in the Community House, a story about East Germany in the 1950s. Studio management rejected this script, however, as well as many others in the years that followed. Even the films Weiß was able to produce – such as Your Unknown Brother (1981) and Good Old Henry (1983), which received international praise – were met with indignation by East German officials. 

Other Press Comments:

"This film is narrated from a psychological point of view showing guts to experiment and great sense of style." 
-Katholisches Institut fuer Medienforschung, 2002

"It has been for quiet a time that I haven't been able to forget so many of the images in a DEFA-film, as I did in this one."
-Jutta Voigt, film journalist, Sonntag 22/1982

Your Unknown Brother (Weiß, 1981)

Your Unknown Brother is a milestone, a work that equally continues and breaks with the antifascist tradition of DEFA films. It tells the story of the young communist, Arnold Clasen, who is caught and arrested for displaying antifascist slogans at the Hamburg harbor. He is sent to a concentration camp, released again, and now tries to resume his acts of resistance despite his great fears. His new contact, an experienced Communist Party comrade, turns out to be a traitor, to whom Arnold again falls victim.

With the very first images the director leaves no doubt that he’s telling the story from the perspective of a person who did not himself experience fascism, rather shows us a cinematic impression of his thoughts and feelings about it. He describes the film as an attempt “to translate the inner plight of a person living during that time for those living today. It is an attempt at mediation. We pass on what we haven’t experienced ourselves.”

The film begins where we observe water in motion, then above the water on an iron railway bridge we see a figure, who quickly paints the inscription “Be united, be…” which remains unfinished because a soft whistle urges him to run. The person flees and while running, closely followed by the camera, the bridge’s iron struts move rapidly past us. This continues for some time and gives the impression of a net in which someone, as well as we the viewers, are trapped. The image of the struts grabbing into each other and the individual running becomes a metaphor for the psychological containment of a prisoner. With tormenting precision the film presents in full view the mental anguish of someone who not only has nothing to do with National Socialist society, which within the film’s narrative is still at the beginning, rather consciously fights it and as a result of the brutality he experienced, he’s terribly afraid. 
Arnold Clasen finds himself in a continual struggle with his fear but does not yield to it. His struggle is told with cinematic rigor: it is non-verbal. For example, he is repeatedly shown in his room nervously cowering behind closed draperies, through which a narrow strip of light falls onto the dismal, dark green wallpaper. Through the crack in the curtain he peers out at the street, which appears dead and deserted with only a swastika flag – which gets larger as the story progresses – hanging limp from a building, or faceless columns of SA-men march in formation bawling out their songs. The image of the lonely man in his gloomy abode increasingly captivates the fear for the viewer.

Proceeding from the protagonist the film develops a picture of society’s paralysis that extends beyond him. There are astonishing compositions. For example, the meeting between Arnold and his contact on a summery pleasure boat that chugs ahead. The passengers aboard sit motionlessly with closed eyes, their faces all turned in one direction toward the sun. Or the old tobacco shopkeeper, Deisen, who rides the streetcar thought the city on the way to “his” Nazi Party office, in the hope of getting some help out of a troublesome financial situation. On both sides he is pressed between riders next to him, all with stony, rigid faces, unperceptive, sitting with their backs to the houses on the city streets through which the streetcar travels as through a backdrop. Clasen’s fate is carried out in a society that lies in agony. Even those in opposition are marked by this inhuman situation. It’s a striking and precise image of cinematic intensity that had no precedent in DEFA film. Something else was also new. Halfway through the film the characters’ perspectives expanded so that Clasen’s story becomes closely tied with the story of his contact, the traitor, so that both fates at the end bear almost equal importance. The traitor, Walter, is in a different way just as fearful as Arnold. He too is caught in the net. The initial sequence is resumed in a wonderful final scene: Walter is surrounded by nets as he stands in the doorway of a fisherman’s hut, in which negotiations are being made about him. Filled with contempt his former comrades leave him without further discussion. The camera increasingly distances itself in several angled shots, so the man becomes smaller and more obscure, finally slipping into oblivion. The near equal importance of the story of the traitor, who is out of his element, parallel to that of the protagonist affords us a universally human image of the threat people faced at that time. The barbarity was complete. Perhaps this keen, merciless look into such a physically or psychically destructive society could only be achieved by someone who was not involved, who from the distance of childhood saw things clearly and callously and transformed them into images.

Old antifascists felt irritated by this film. It spoiled their legend. Hermann Axen, a member of the politburo who was incarcerated at the age of 18 and was in a concentration camp from ages 24 to 29, was understood as saying “we weren’t like that.” There is nothing wrong with that. What was disastrous – which affected cultural understanding in the GDR generally – was that high-ranking party officials felt justified to ban what was in their opinion a “dishonest” film, or at least prevent it from being shown.

At the time Your Unknown Brother was being seen and awarded at the Max Ophüls Festival in Saarbrücken and received an invitation from the Cannes Film Festival. However, after views such as Axen’s gradually became known, the film was withdrawn, despite feverish preparations. Thus the film did not appear at Cannes. The bad thing about it was that Ulrich Weiß, a talented person who made great strides in his creative development with this film, had his artistic self confidence damaged. From that point on every inch of artistic progress he made was suspiciously pursued. He made another movie right after Your Unknown Brother, but before the lovely film Good Old Henry could create any resonance, the GDR had ended. One could surmise that those responsible didn’t want to take any more risks with this independent, untamable and unpredictable genius. After the Berlin Wall fell Ulrich Weiß said, “That Your Unknown Brother was prevented from taking part at the Cannes competition didn’t throw me. Cannes was a nice, childhood dream. I was touched by French cinema because of its elegance, as well as the Russians and Italians, and my dream was to go to Cannes just once. It was a kind of inner pilgrimage. Later one of the bosses took me aside and said, ‘next year we’ll do something in France,’ but France was over for me. The time had passed for the one from the backwoods shack to go to Cannes, and jump into the water in a borrowed tuxedo.” 

Erika Richter
Film Publicist Berlin

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Shunters (Rangierer)

1984, 21 min., b/w
Director: Jürgen Böttcher 

Cinematography: Thomas Plenert
Screenplay: Jürgen Böttcher

Shunters is a symbolic film which manages without symbols.
 Watching the everyday routine in a shunting yard opens up a view of the entire world.” 
                                                  – Rolf Richter, Film und Fernsehen

(c) Photo: Progress Film-Verleih. All Rights Reserved.

A GDR version of cinéma verité, this film offers viewers a glimpse into the physically-demanding and dangerous precision work of experienced shunters. Day and night, in all kinds of weather, they hook and unhook railway cars in the largest goods-and-shunting station in the former GDR: Dresden-Friedrichstadt. Impressive images of the dignity of the working man. 

Jürgen Böttcher, also known as the painter “Strawalde,” was born in 1931 in Frankenberg. He studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts from 1949 to 1953, during which time he worked as an independent artist and taught night school, where he met the now famous painter A.R. Penck. From 1955 to 1960, Böttcher studied directing at the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg and worked as a director in the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films until 1991. Having made more than 30 artistically provocative films, he has attained cult status among cineastes. Jürgen Böttcher has been working as an independent artist since 1991 and currently lives in Berlin. [See also, Born in '45]

Who's Afraid of the Bogeyman (Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann)

1989, 50 min. b/w
Director: Helke Misselwitz 

Cinematography: Thomas Plenert
Screenplay: Helke Misselwitz

“Refreshing and new. . . . A beautiful, sometimes whimsical documentation
 of Berlin workers. A cinematic correction of what, in general, was valued in
 an East German documentary.”
                            - Elke Schieber, film historian

(c) Photo: Progress Film-Verleih. All Rights Reserved.

A close-up of Berlin coal carriers from Prenzlauer Berg. No portrayal of worker heroes or progress here. Instead, bright, deeply-felt sketches of rough men and their resolute woman boss. 

Helke Misselwitz was born in 1947 in Planitz and spent nine years working for GDR television in youth programming. She studied directing at the Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg from 1978 to 1982. Her request to enter the DEFA Studio for Feature Films was refused, so she took other jobs while making short essayistic films for the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films. When Heiner Carow accepted her as a master pupil at the GDR Academy of the Arts in 1985, she created a key documentary film about women in the final years of the GDR, Winter Adé (1988). Misselwitz was a director at the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films from 1988 to 1991. She directed her first feature film, Herzsprung, in 1992, followed by Little Angel in 1996. She is professor of directing at the Academy of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. 

Wittstock Girls (Mädchen in Wittstock)

1974, 20 min., b/w
Director: Volker Koepp

Cinematography: Michael Zausch
Screenplay: Volker Koepp, Richard Ritterbusch

“An exceptional record of passing time.” 
                    - Variety

”…Koepp understands how to make his figures – quite ordinary people – shine.” 
                    - freedom film festival (American Cinema Foundation)

(c) Photo: Progress Film-Verleih. All Rights Reserved.

This is the first of a masterly chronicle of seven documentaries, made over a 23-year period. It features snapshots of three funny and sensitive young women in a small town just north of Berlin, their personal dreams and wishes, and their troubled work at the knitting factory. The latest installment of the long-term project is Wittstock, Wittstock (1997).

Volker Koepp was born in Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) in 1944 and studied at the Technical University of Dresden from 1963 to 1965. In 1966, he entered the German Academy of Film in Potsdam-Babelsberg and obtained his diploma as a writer and director in 1969. He was a director at the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films from 1970–1991 and has been a freelance director since then. In 1974, Koepp began long-term filming in Wittstock, focusing on the women workers in a textile factory. By 1997, he had made a total of seven films about Wittstock. The Wide Field (1976) was Koepp’s first film in a decades-long series of portraits showing people in historical areas. This series also includes Cold Homeland (1995), Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckermann (1999), Uckermark (2002), and This Year in Czernowitz (2004). Koepp has directed over 50 documentaries and is one of Germany’s most internationally-celebrated documentary filmmakers. 

Yell Once a Week (Einmal in der Woche schrein)

1982/89, 15 min., color
Director: Günter Jordan
Cinematography: Michael Lösche
Screenplay: Günter Jordan

“The rock music in this film was very political, a slap in the face of the communist system.
 Young people went to both the disco and the barricades. For this reason, this honest,
 unvarnished and rough film was banned for six years.” 
                        - Ralf Schenk, film historian

(c) Photo: Progress Film-Verleih. All Rights Reserved.

The film's title is taken from a song, used here as a leitmotif, written by Günter Jordan and the East German rock group Pankow. This sensitive report about rebellious teenagers in Berlin's “wild East” was banned before its first screening. 

Günter Jordan was born in Leipzig in 1941. He studied Slavic literature, history and pedagogy at the University of Jena and then worked as a teacher. He studied at the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg from 1966 to 1969 and joined the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films as an assistant cinematographer. In 1974 he wrote and directed his first documentary, specializing in children’s documentaries from 1976 to 1986. Jordan has directed over 40 films, and is a film curator and published film historian. 

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Consequence (Konsequenz)

1987, 2 min., color
Director: Klaus Georgi

Cinematography: Werner Baensch
Screenplay: Klaus Georgi, Hedda Gehm
Animation: Peter Mißbach, Lutz Stützner, Ellen Herrmann, Stefan Kerda

The cars stop, smoking with exhaust. A driver coughs and then the driver behind him also coughs. The animal in the forest coughs. The earth coughs . . . end of film. The viewers applaud and rush outside – into their cars.

(c) Photo: Progress Film-Verleih. All Rights Reserved.

The Full Circle (Der Kreis)

1989, 4 min., color
Director: Klaus Georgi

Cinematography: Brigitte Schönberner, Steffen Nielitz
Screenplay: Klaus Georgi
Animation: Barbara Atanassow, Ralf Kukula

Black clouds of smoke billow unendingly out of a huge industrial plant. All the people outside are wearing gas masks. The giant factory works on and on without stopping. Inside are row upon row of machines, producing … gas masks! 

The Monument (Monument)

1990, 4 min., color 
Directors: Klaus Georgi, Lutz Stützner

Cinematography: Helmut Krahnert
Screenplay: Klaus Georgi, Lutz Stützner
Animation: Barbara Atanassow, Holger Havlicek

A statue, with outstretched arm pointing “forward,” is unveiled to thunderous applause. Then one day it turns around to point the other way. Thunderous applause.

(c) Photo: Progress Film-Verleih. All Rights Reserved.

Klaus Georgi was born in Halle/Saale in 1925. From 1946 to 1952, he studied at the Institute for Artistic Design at Burg Giebichenstein and became a freelance graphic designer. He belongs to the founding generation of the DEFA Studio for Animation Films in Dresden and was one of their major animators from 1954 until 1989. Georgi has primarily directed animated cartoons, except for an occasional foray into puppet animation. His oeuvre includes almost 70 films. 

Lutz Stützner was born in Königsbrück in 1957. From 1979 to 1982, he studied graphic art in Berlin and worked as an animator, designer and writer. His debut as a director was the cartoon Queen of Hearts (1987). In 1988 he joined the DEFA Studio for Animation Films, where he directed the series Mausi and Kilo and co-directed films with Klaus Georgi until 1990. Stützner currently works with the Studio 88 cartoon company in Dresden and is the co-director of the cinema version of the children’s cartoon series, The Little King Macius, based on stories by Janusz Korczak.

East German Cartoons

When the DEFA Studio for Animation Film was founded in Dresden on April 1, 1955, the chief investor – the East German state – expressed one wish: eighty percent of the films to be made there were to specifically target children. Because of this, the German fairy tale and oral traditions as well as new children’s books were seen as templates for primary source material. On top of that were the individually developed didactic stories from the everyday lives of children. Anthropomorphic animal characters were used to portray human characteristics and modes of behavior. In cartoons by Otto Sacher (Who Rests, Rusts, 1956) or Lothar Barke (Of the Hare Who Didn’t Want to Learn, 1956), for example, one can clearly recognize that specific Walt Disney model. Experimental forms were seldom employed: those at the Dresden-based animation studio did not want to expose themselves to formalism, that overemphasis of form over content which served as an antithesis to socialist realism.

Up until 1990, the fundamental mission of the East German animators changed very little. Naturally among the approximately 750 animated films of all kinds, including animated cartoons, puppet films, shadow plays and stop-motion animation, there were also many works intended for adults. One of these was the paper-cutout animated film Greetings, Mr. H (1966) by Katja and Klaus Georgi which explored, with collage material consisting of photos, newspaper clippings and painted figurines, what would happen if Adolf Hitler reemerged in the Federal Republic of Germany after the statute of limitations for Nazi crimes had passed: a savage satire. The puppet film The Life and Times of the Famous Knight Schnapphahnski (1978), in which Günter Rätz sketched out the biography of a Prussian junker in his decline as well as his questionable triumphs, was well regarded internationally. Belonging to the few banned films from Dresden was the cartoon ...And Keep the End in Mind” (1981, Director: Lothar Friedrich), in which two impenetrable storms circle the Earth, engulf nature and destroy all life. That particular motif, which both world systems fancied and thus hinted at the coming apocalypse, was too imprecise for the East German Ministry of Culture officials in its ideological aims. Friedrich’s work was only released in theaters in 1990, after the director had already died.

The fact that people “from the outside” who did not belong to the studio’s core still had the opportunity to work on animated films was primarily attributed to the work of active chief dramaturge Marion Rasche, starting in the mid-70s. In this fashion, painter and graphic artist Lutz Dammbeck succeeded at creating a few exceptional cartoons. Especially his Einmart (1981) became an insider’s piece among East German intellectuals: here Dammbeck illustrated one of the craters of a scattered futuristic world where mutated humanoids are ruled by a giant black monster and are obstructed in their attempt to escape. Einmart with its gigantic ears implanted in the landscape and dangerous worm-like roots that snap out of the ground betrays the danger of a populace-monitoring authoritarian state, in which the individuals can only experience utopias in their dreams even in the best of times.

Naturally, such critical material was always threatened by the danger of never even being filmed. Chief dramaturge Rasche described her problems in a 1981 letter to Film Minister Horst Pehnert as such: “All of the in-any-way inflammatory ideas are simply not possible. Therefore we have to content ourselves with nice, small pleasantries. But then we have to hear from those people that are then to be taken seriously: say how the world is full of problems! And what are you doing with such harmless, banal productions? Explore for once the real questions of life! But then the most effective and substantial form in which life problems and real questions attain a filmic significance in an animated film is of course the satire, a grotesque over-exaggeration.” Yet these were always proscribed in East Germany because dogmatic culture officials caught wind of an attack against the State.

Not until the end of East Germany did they succeed with any regularity at getting to the heart of societal nuisances by filming cheeky, aggressive and witty animations. Counted among those are The Monument (1990) by Klaus Georgi and Lutz Stützner, in which the masses rejoice about a monument regardless of whether or not his arm points in one direction or the other. In Consequence (1987), Georgi took on smoking as a danger for individuals and the environment. And also in The Full Circle (1989), the director hinted at the lunacy and paradox of environmental pollution. In another later cartoon, The Break Down (1990, directed by Klaus Georgi and Lutz Stützner), a small Trabant-brand car pulls an entire state cordon complete with limousines, tanks and motorcycle echelons from a pothole in the street. But for all this remarkable work to save the State, it was naturally already too late for East Germany: on October 2, 1990, it was dismissed from world history.

Ralf Schenk
Film Historian

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Short Narrative Films

These two short films represent a series of almost 300 productions of the Stacheltiere series (literally, “porcupines”) made between 1953 and 1964 and are an example of the lively cabaret-style tradition of social and political satire that existed in East Germany.

“The series of Stacheltiere shows the modest glory and tragedy of domestic political satire in a public sphere under party control.” 
                                                    - Sylvia Klötzer, cultural historian

A Love Story (Eine Liebesgeschichte)

1953, 7 min., b/w
Director: Richard Groschopp

Cinematography: Erwin Anders
Screenplay: Günter Kunert
Cast: Rudolf Wessely, Herwart Grosse, Ulrich Thein

A writer tries to get a love story published. Two bureaucratic editors ask for more and more changes. But even his spiced-up version, with smoking chimneys and steel production, gets rejected.

(c) Photo: Progress Film-Verleih. All Rights Reserved.

Richard Groschopp (1906–1996) was born in Kölleda. He began to direct short films at the age of 25, joined the Amateur Filmmaker Association and later made documentaries and commercials for an advertising studio in Dresden. During WWII, he worked on educational films for the navy. Groschopp joined the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films in 1946, as a cinematographer and editor, and directed more than 100 documentaries, mainly newsreels. He started his feature film career in the early 1950s and was a member of the Stacheltiere team, directing the short satirical film series about daily life in East Germany. He later became well known for his crime stories, spy films, and Westerns. 

News from the West (Es geht um die Wurst)

1955, 8 min., s/w
Director: Harald Röbbeling

Cinematography: Walter Fehdmer
Screenplay: Harald Röbbeling
Cast: Erwin Geschonneck, Hannelore Wüst, Horst Kube, Marianne Wünscher

“Poisoned sausages in East Germany!” Karl gets scared when he hears this news on the West Berlin radio station RIAS (Radio in the American Sector). What a surprise to see his supposedly dead friends a few days later – sitting happily in the pub.

(c) Photo: Progress Film-Verleih. All Rights Reserved.

Harald Röbbeling (1905–1989) was the son of Hermann Röbbeling, the actor and later director of the Burgtheater Vienna. Harald Röbbeling took acting lessons and had his debut at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg at the age of 20. In the 1930s, he worked as a film editor, writer and assistant director. After WWII Röbbeling founded his own film company in Austria and directed his first film Potassium Cyanide (1948). Röbbeling’s film Asphalt (1951), in which he used neo-realist elements, was a financial fiasco and after two subsequent flops he returned to the theater. From 1954 to 1955 he worked at DEFA as a guest director, including on 17 short films for the satirical series Stacheltiere. A Heart Needs Love (1959), for which he also wrote the screenplay, was his last feature film. 

The DEFA series Stacheltiere

Before cabarets even existed in the GDR, the DEFA had put out its first “cabaret film.” The five-minute short film ran in the movie theater along with the newsreel before the main feature film and was the beginning of the Stacheltiere series (literally, “porcupines”). The cabaret film, the first GDR venture in the realm of satire, was commissioned in January 1953, in April the first pilot episodes came into being, and two of them were given test screenings at the beginning of May in East Berlin cinemas. In September, the Stacheltiere series was finally released.

The project of presenting satire in the filmic medium dates back to the crises of 1952 and 1953. The official state film committee promised to deliver not merely a series of short films that would be able to quickly increase the DEFA’s box office; above everything else, it was about attracting larger audiences to the cinemas. The Stacheltiere was to make the cinema program more attractive, in that they were adding a “more carefree and relaxed” component to the usual “heavy” main feature. This was principally and urgently necessary in East Berlin, where the viewers tended to stay away from the cinemas and/or visit the cinemas in the western sector of the city. On top of that, people were relocating there in ever increasing numbers. Yet it took until the crisis in June of 1953 and a “new course” of the SED (the East German communist party) for these satirical pre-films to be put in regular production. Under the influence of June 17th, 1953 (the day on which a nationwide popular uprising took place in the GDR) the content-plan for the Stacheltiere was revised. Contrary to an earlier conception of the series, in which its emphasis was on attacks against political opponents and the West, the films offered exclusively domestic political material in their first production year.

On September 4, 1953, the first episodes of Stacheltiere came out, announcing a new course for the politics of film and suggesting the connectedness of the SED with the people (“popularity via humor”), in that they offered lighter fare as something normal and bespoke a certain readiness for self-criticism. Per episode, 20 copies were initially produced and at the end of the year, nearly 50. The films played exclusively in the cinemas of the large cities; half of them in Berlin alone. And even there, they were preferably shown in the cinemas that lay close to the sector borders. Per year, the DEFA produced – initially in the Studio for Newsreels and Documentaries, but after 1955 in the DEFA Studio for Feature Films – close to 30 Stacheltiere episodes until the end of the series in 1964, a total of over 260 films.
The footage and films were repeatedly appraised and selected. And even at the conclusion of the series, about ten percent of the completed films had yet to receive permission to be shown by the film oversight committees in the Department of Film.

The first chief director of the series was Richard Groschopp (1906-1996), from whom also the very conception of the “cabaret film” came. Harald Röbbeling took over his function in 1955 for a short time, and then different directors worked alongside Groschopp for the later Stacheltier productions. The differing signatures ensured certain dynamism of the series for the young directors following Groschopp’s lead, as well as a modernization of its aesthetics. The numerous variations show similar themes, however, like how restricted the possibilities were for domestic political satire in the GDR. But for those mostly young artists – including later-significant DEFA directors such as Frank Beyer, Herrmann Zschoche and Horst Seemann as well as theater directors like Benno Besson and Heinar Kipphardt – the short and relatively cheap project of a Stacheltier offered the possibility of proving themselves in the film medium. Many of the (young) writers came from newspaper satires or, like Erich Brehm, from the first GDR cabaret Distel.

In the 12 year-old history of the Stacheltiere there are always attempts at domestic political satire and phases of harsh repudiation. It started in the spring of 1954 when quotas for domestic political satire were introduced and taboo spheres were established, as well as more satire against the West was requested. The greatest sensitivities were to be found in the official party film committees (particularly the “State Committee of Film Affairs” and the “Department of Film” in the Ministry of Culture) regarding materials that came close to the Party itself; domestic political satire had to dispense with specific, detailed critiques and all too often present a solution to the conflict. Under these circumstances, the Stacheltiere could only rarely offer actual satire. But at the same time, they cannot be brought under the label of “propaganda.” The series primarily consists of entertaining and lively films – along with a few irritated and crude episodes – as well as the more deep-digging films. Sometimes they even achieve a certain domestic political satire.

An example of this is A Love Story (Episode 5). This Stacheltier attacks socialist realism as an aesthetic approach and a doctrine that obstructs the creation of art. The decisive foundation for the film’s level of quality is delivered by Günter Kunert’s (born in 1929) script, which Richard Groschopp filmed. His satire can be read as an attack against the “true-to-life editors/censors,” as proclaimed by the tormented writer at the end of the film. Yet Kunert goes even further. With his main character, he records the dilemma in which an artist finds himself if he should wish to work for the new society: should he dabble in art, then nobody needs it, and should he accidentally produce something usable, then it is not art. Even the GDR satirists found themselves in a similar situation. Though satire was demanded, it was nevertheless supposed to show an optimistic trend. In turn with that, satire that was directly grounded in protest and said “no” was impossible and the subsequent conflict between satirist and culture functionary inescapable.

For its time, Kunert’s Stacheltier was almost unbelievable. That it was even filmed was explained, among other things, by the issue that in the center stands an ancillary arena, namely culture. Even that film restricted itself to one aspect and referred to the National Art Commission, which at that time was enduring public criticism. It is also significant at what point in time this episode was created. The script provided material when the SED urgently needed relief from political strain, even through risky satires, in June 1953. In 1955, the political conditions for such a satire were much worse. “The helpless satirists are now writing about hot sausages,” wrote Günter Kunert that year.  Although he might not have had much to do with Stacheltier (episode 51) that was filmed at that time, the film constituted exact evidence of this claim. News from the West under the direction of Harald Röbbeling presents one of the (many) varieties of the promoted issues by the Department of Film of the “damaging influence of Western ideology.” He shows how disadvantageous it is for GDR citizens to believe the information of a western broadcaster, rendering with that another entry in the Cold (Media) War. When, for example, RIAS canard (Radio in the American Sector) was broadcast on the radio waves, it meant at that time only lies about the GDR economy with the express purpose of hurting the GDR. The film saved the people in its situational comedy, consoling the public with the wit and charm of the well-known actor Erwin Geschonneck and a story that has the aftertaste of propaganda. 

Sylvia Klötzer
University of Potsdam, Germany

This retrospective is supported by the Max Kade Foundation, Inc.; The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Film and Media; The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art the DEFA Film Library and the University of Massachusetts Amherst; the Goethe-Institut New York; Kulturstiftung des Bundes, Germany; German Films Service + Marketing GmbH; the DEFA-Stiftung; PROGRESS Film-Verleih GmbH; ICESTORM Entertainment GmbH; Wilhelm-Fraenger-Institut gGmbH; and the Bundesarchiv Filmarchiv Berlin.

Rebels with a Cause was organized by Jytte Jensen, Curator, Department of Film and Media, The Museum of Modern Art; Juliane Wanckel, Program Manager, Goethe-Institut New York; and Hiltrud Schulz, Sales and Outreach Manager, DEFA Film Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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Jessica Hale