The DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst was founded in the early 1990s by Barton Byg, professor of film and German Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Byg’s idea was to make films from the East German DEFA Studios more available and widely known in North America and to broaden popular and scholarly understanding of filmmaking in the GDR by critically exploring its aesthetic, political and ideological bases. The signing of a UMass memorandum on September 23, 1993 marks the DEFA Film Library’s official founding.

DEFA stands for Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft—or German film company. Founded in East Germany (the GDR) in 1946, the year after the end of WWII, DEFA grew to comprise a state-run group of coordinated film studios. The state owned the rights to all films made at DEFA—be it at the Feature Film Studio, the Documentary Film Studio, the Studio for Animation Films, etc. As a result, after the Wende—the German term for the period from 1989-90 in which the Wall opened and the GDR was absorbed into a united Germany—it was not clear what would happen to over 7,500 DEFA films made from 1946 to 1992. 

As the post-unification fate of East Germany’s film heritage was being decided across the Atlantic, at UMass Amherst the DEFA Film Library grew bit by bit. In 1997, an agreement with two German partners—Progress Film-Verleih, and the precursor to the DEFA Foundation—brought a collection of East German film journals and the largest collection of 16mm and 35mm prints of DEFA films outside of Germany to the University. The collection housed in the DEFA Film Library archive was supplemented by 16mm prints donated by the US-GDR Friendship Committee and the former GDR Embassy. In 1999, Icestorm International brought East German films to North America on video, collaborating with the DEFA Film Library on a selection of 61 films with English subtitles. In fall 2001, the DEFA Film Library took over the distribution of these titles from Icestorm and, since 2003, it has subtitled and produced DEFA films for the North American market on DVD, in collaboration with Icestorm, Progress Film-Verleih and the DEFA Foundation, as well as other licensors. Of the many film series the DEFA Film Library has organized, two garnered particular attention: Rebels with a Cause, which premiered at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2005; and WENDE FLICKS: Last Films from East Germany, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2009, at venues including LACMA and the Hammer and Wende Museums.

Meanwhile, in addition to ensuring the availability of GDR films in North America, the DEFA Film Library continued building its research profile, hosting international conferences in both 1997 and 1999 and inviting DEFA filmmakers to tour educational and cultural institutions with their films. Starting in 2001, its biennial Summer Film Institutes contributed to a significant expansion of English-language scholarship on DEFA cinema and the development of a vibrant international network of researchers and teachers. In 2011, the DEFA Film Library established a cooperative agreement with the doctoral program at the Academy for Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg, co-hosted a conference there on the topic of DEFA International; the German-language volume that emerged from this conference was nominated for the Willi Haas Prize in 2013. In collaboration with Berghahn Books, the DEFA Film Library is now working on a new book series on Film and the Global Cold War.

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