Banquet for Achilles

(Bankett für Achilles)

GDR, 1975, 84 min, color
In German; no subtitles
Set Design
Costume Design
Music (Score)


Karl Achilles, who has worked for thirty years in the chemical collective in Bitterfeld, is looking forward to retirement and plans to do everything he always wanted to do, but never had the time for: go on holiday with his wife, spend time with his children, and cultivate his flower garden. But it is a difficult farewell for Achilles, who is still able to work but nevertheless understands that he must make room for new workers in the collective that he has helped build since 1945.


Although the East German government introduced ambiguous environmental laws as of its founding in 1949, its ideals could not be fulfilled in tandem with the country’s economic growth plans and budget restrictions. Over the next decades, environmental problems increased to such an extent that the government classified all kinds of environmental data as “confidential” in 1972 and “secret” in 1982. At the end of the 1970s, the first grassroots environmental groups were founded, and the growing ecological movement became critical in drawing public attention to increasingly disastrous environmental problems. The activities of these groups were closely watched, infiltrated or stopped by the Stasi. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the founding of the East Berlin Umweltbibliothek were turning points in the increasingly political environmental movement, which became a crucial player during the peaceful revolution of 1989. 


The DEFA Studios produced many environmental films that followed the official party line. However, the growing public environmental awareness was also reflected in some films. Several documentaries, animation and feature films touched on environmental issues and questioned the officially promoted environmental situation. These films, especially the animation films, are sharp and satirical discussion of taboo topics, including forest damage and air and water pollution. Other films deal critically with problems caused by brown coal mining, including the resettling of villages. But these film projects were a red flag for the studio officials, and scripts and rough cuts went through extensive and complicated approvals.


The first East German film that dealt with environmental issues critically was Roland Gräf’s Banquet for Achilles (1975). 


Karl Achilles (Erwin Geschonneck) has worked at the Bitterfeld Chemical Plant for over 30 years. He helped to rebuild the plant after WWII in 1945. Although he looks forward to his retirement, he is upset that he will be replaced by a young person with a better understanding of technical progress.


The script was written by Martin Stephan, who drew from his own experiences as system operator in Bitterfeld and was aware that the plant caused environmental problems, including health issues for workers and people living in the area. But this situation was ignored by officials because of economic strains.


The film’s script had to be revised several times and the rough cut was rejected because officials criticized the depiction of the worker as too negative. BANQUET FOR ACHILLES was filmed on location, in and around the Bitterfeld Electrochemical Plant, and shows the original smoking chimneys, contaminated grounds and destroyed nature. One can assume that officials were more concerned about showing bleak landscapes on a big screen. After almost a year of back and forth, the film was finally released.


Today, Gräf’s film is an important document of the state of the Bitterfeld industrial complex and its noxious effects on the destruction of the surrounding environment in the mid-1970s. It complements the groundbreaking film (Bad News from Bitterfeld) and written documents by the Grün-ökologische Netzwerk Arche (Ark Green Ecological Network) and Monika Maron’s debut novel Flight of Ashes, in the 1980s.



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