AMHERST, Mass. - After years of intense negotiations, the University of Massachusetts and the German government have reached a formal agreement to establish an East German film archive at UMass.
The archive and study center will be the only site of its kind outside of Germany. It will allow both scholars and the general public a chance to view everyday life behind the Iron Curtain as depicted in films created by the state-run East German film company Deutsche Film Aktien-Gesellschaft (DEFA) between 1946 and 1992. The archive will be known as the DEFA Film Library.
In all, nearly 3,000 features and documentaries are expected to be housed at the library, most of them unknown in the West until now. These films include 14 of the titles chosen by critics as "the 100 most important German films." In addition, the library will contain film scripts and other documents that shed light on the complicated nature of filmmaking in East Germany, especially regarding the interaction between artistic aspirations, state censorship, audience tastes, and dreams of a socialist utopia.
"These films were virtually inaccessible in the West until German unification due to the Cold War, East German self-isolation, and marketing obstacles," says Barton Byg, UMass German professor and DEFA Film Library director. Byg points out, however, that because of these circumstances the DEFA films offer not only pure cinematic value, but also a fascinating view of a little-known period of modern history.
"While the directors of the former East Germany were not allowed to address certain subjects, they still reflected much of the truth of their culture, overtly or in more subtly coded ways," says Byg. "Today,as modern Germany attempts to grapple with the wrenching difficulties of integrating a long-separated element of its society, these films give us an understanding of some of the divisions that still exist. A subject such as Nazism, for instance, was always much more consistently addressed in East rather than in West German film."
The DEFA Film Library will be officially launched with a conference and film series Oct. 2-5. Among those in attendance will be DEFA filmmakers such as Oscar-nominee Frank Beyer, and distinguished film scholars from as far away as Norway and Australia. Conference registration materials are available on request from the DEFA Film Library.