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Underground Cinema from the GDR

Essay by Claus Löser from the liner notes of the video Gegenbilder (GDR Underground Films)

The fact that there was a flourishing subculture in East Germany outside of the official film production studios in Babelsberg (DEFA) and Adlershof (GDR television) is widely unknown. Especially today with the increased interest in the culture of eastern Germany, these underground films, which veered from the norms supported by the state, are becoming increasingly important.

Despite popular opinion, the part of Germany located east of the Elbe was not just a culture characterized by joyous citizens and members of the communist party's Free German Youth. The very active subculture stubbornly threw sand in the machinery of bureaucracy and practiced aesthetic disobedience on an unusually high niveau. Ten years after the fall of the Wall, we have a collection of films, which for the most part were created under improvised conditions, but which present us with a unique message. These films have not lost any of their allure.

In 1976, after the surprising expulsion from the GDR of the famous songwriter and poet Wolf Biermann, the SED (Socialist Unity Party of East Germany) imposed strict censorship on the intellectual scene. Prominent pro-party authors and other artists made appeals to the government demanding that they lift these restrictions. However, all attempts at mediation failed. Resignation became a widespread phenomenon and was represented in the unusually large number of emigrants. But the so-called "Biermann Shock" was an overdue sobering moment. Only at this point was the emergence of a prolific subculture possible. During the first years of the 1980s a new generation of artists presented themselves to an audience, however limited - a generation that could free itself from the restraints of the postwar period. No one was going to be fooled by the illusion that the present society could be changed or by the pretense of the slogan "Socialism with a human face." Instead of changing one's surroundings, one created one's own reality. Not unrelated to this development, many self-help shops opened up, the silk-screening process produced many newspapers, and numerous punk bands thumbed their noses at the required "statute performance allowance." The tragedy of this scene was its constant fluctuation; the emigration of many of the leading pioneers to West Berlin and West Germany resulted in the dissolution of this movement. This one of the reasons why none of the other East-block states had a comparable art-based movement.

Within this subculture scene, many reels of 8mm and 16mm film were recorded for private use, for use in churches or for galleries and concert halls. In Rosenwinkel, Berlin, Dresden, Greifswald and Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) there were even improvisational festivals. The filmmakers were mainly painters, who at the end of the 1970s discovered Super 8mm film as a medium for artistic expression. Originally intended for home video, the Soviet-made "Quartz" camera was used to expand the spectrum of artistic possibilities and to break away from the dogma of classic filmmaking. Multimedia experiments by a.r. penck in Dresden or from Lutz Dammbeck in Leipzig broke the norms of "painterly" films. Later, as the nucleus of this subculture moved from Saxony to East Berlin, subsequent alterations in the language made the films more narrative and thus closer to literature. Particularly obvious during the end phases of this movement, was an elevated level of "synaesthesia." Filmmakers began to understand one another less as filmmakers and more as poets, painters or musicians.

One felt most at home amidst a lot of media. It almost appeared as thought the physical barriers led to a kind of "time traffic jam" which resulted in a multiplication and compression of artistic articulation.

Following Prussian tradition, the GDR had a law for every possible situation, including illegitimate filmmaking. But the actual law governing the "license of permission in film" was interpreted differently depending on the region of the GDR in which one lived. In Chemnitz and Greifswald for example, it could go as far as home searches, confiscation of film stock, or even arrest. In Berlin, a carnival license was often granted. Of course, all private film production was considered illegal, and everyone that participated was aware of the dangers. Those who decided to enter into this subculture openly demonstrated a refusal to comply with the control and welfare agencies of the state. At that moment, one said goodbye to the career that one had in the "system."

It is almost contradictory to imagine today that these films, once considered extremely political, were actually neutral and quite apolitical. The actual political statements that could have been made, for instance about environmental damage or militarization, were rarely brought up. It appears as though a simple rejection of the banalities of the GDR was predominant. That with which one was confronted on a daily basis was not allowed to infiltrate the realms of the artistic world. Nevertheless, these films also serve today as valuable time capsules with high documentary value -- perhaps even unwittingly. These films present us with perspectives on the world and the state of humanity that were not desired or allowed by the official media of the GDR.

Resources available at the DEFA Film Library:

Fritzsche, Karin, and Claus Löser. Gegenbilder: Filmische Subversion in der DDR 1976-1989. Texte, Bilder, Daten. Berlin: Janus, 1996.

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