Tetzlaff, Kurt


Kurt Tetzlaff was born in Tempelburg, Germany (now Czaplinek, Poland) in 1933. In the last days of WWII, his hometown was occupied by the Soviet Army; his family had to leave and settled in Querfurt (in Saxony-Anhalt), where Tetzlaff graduated from high school with qualifications for university study in 1952.


Tetzlaff joined the DEFA Studio for Popular Science Films as an assistant dramaturg and scriptwriter, where he continued working while studying directing at the Deutsche Hochschule für Filmkunst (now Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf) in PotsdamBabelsberg from 1955 to 1960. Tetzlaff’s directorial debut at the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films was with Die erste Seite einer Chronik in 1961. This short documentary, about the challenges faced by coal miners in 1945, was his diploma film. Over the following three decades until the DEFA Studios were closed in 1992, Tetzlaff directed almost 40 short and full-length DEFA documentaries. Many of his films were insightful portraits of East German workers and young people caught up in the challenges of daily life as well as contemporary political and social events.


Throughout his career, Tetzlaff was a critical observer of the East German realities that he explored in his portraits. He faced censorship early in his career. In 1964, his portrait of a youth brigade at a petroleum production plant—Es genügt nicht 18 zu sein—was banned because it allegedly “disparaged the working class.” After he re-edited the film, a shorter version entitled Guten Tag, das sind wir was released in 1966. In the mid-1970s, his thematic interest took him to the Soviet Union. He visited the Drushba (Friendship) gas pipeline in the Ukraine—an official project of the GDR and its youth organization, the Freie Deutsche Jugend—and produced two documentary reports on the harsh working conditions and personal struggles of the East German workers there: Begegnung an der Trasse and Alltag eines Abenteurers.


Tetzlaff also created insightful film portraits of German artists, which make up a significant part of his remarkable oeuvre. These include films on graphic artist and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (Saatfrüchte sollen nicht vermahlen werden) and playwright Bertolt Brecht (Die Pflaumenbäume sind wohl abgehauen and …und sie bewegt sich doch). His powerful film on the American actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, I’m a Negro, I’m an American – Paul Robeson, is one of the few existing full-length documentaries on the artist. Co-produced with the West German Chronos production company, the film was originally meant to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Robeson’s birth in 1988. Although the film sparked great interest when it premiered at the Leipzig International Festival for Documentary Film in 1989, its success was overshadowed by the events of the Wende.


Three of Tetzlaff’s major full-length documentaries discussing contemporary events in the GDR stand out as distinctive contributions to East German documentary filmmaking. In preparation for his 1983 production Erinnerung an eine Landschaft - für Manuela, he spent three years observing the destruction of villages and landscapes in the path of open-pit mining projects; the film explores politically sensitive environmental issues related to losing one’s home and ravaging nature in the name of progress and prosperity. The last two films Tetzlaff made at the DEFA Studios—Im Durchgang - Protokoll für das Gedächtnis and Im Übergang - Protokoll einer Hoffnung—offer a unique chronicle of the tumultuous changes that took place in East Germany in 1989-90. Over the course of a year, Tetzlaff followed Alexander Schulz, the son of a pastor graduating from high school, and other young people who were part of the GDR’s alternative political scene. His extended observation reveals a lot about the feelings of young people during the last months before the Berlin Wall fell and the ensuing year of changes. In front of the camera, young people share their hopes and dreams of revolution, which ultimately end in resignation.


Tetzlaff ventured into other areas of filmmaking as well. Always interested in puppet animation, in 1964, he wrote and directed a children’s puppet film about a boy who does not want to learn: Das Märchen vom Jens und dem Kasper. Based on a film script by Heiner Carow (Icarus, The Legend of Paul and Paula), this film was shown at the Cannes International Youth Festival. He also collaborated on two films—writing the scenario and co-authoring the script— with Kurt Weiler, one of East Germany’s masters of animation. One is a puppet-animation history, in three parts, about the influence and power of money, Nörgel & Söhne (Nörgel & Sons, 1967-69). Das Geschenk – eine beinliche Geschichte (The Present, 1974), is about the manipulation of young people. In 1974, Tetzlaff directed his only fiction feature film, Looping—the story of a carefree, 30-year-old worker whose life changes when a co-worker is killed in a carbide furnace explosion, and he is blamed for the accident.


Alongside directing, Kurt Tetzlaff taught at the Deutsche Hochschule für Filmkunst from 1964 to 1969 and was a member of the committee for the Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Animated Film from 1973 to 1989. After the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films closed in 1992, Teztlaff was one of few East German documentary filmmakers able to continue working in unified Germany. Among other films, he directed a TV documentary about the 1956 Hungarian uprising: Am Rande eines Krieges – der ungarische Aufstand 1956.


Kurt Tetzlaff died on July 4, 2022.

Festivals & Awards:

2016 Die Verantwortung; Es genügt nicht 18 zu sein; Guten Tag – das sind wir. Screened in series Deutschland 1966: Filmische Perspektiven in Ost und West, Berlin International Film Festival
1994 Prize of Journalists, National Committee for Die Garnisonkirche - Protokoll einer Zerstörung
1990 Youth Jury Prize and Swiss Television Prize for Im Durchgang - Protokoll für das Gedächtnis
1971 Golden Dove, Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Short Film for Wer, wenn nicht wir
1967 Special Award of the International Women’s Federation, Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Short Film for Saatfrüchte sollen nicht vermahlen werden
1966 Cannes International Youth Festival for Das Märchen vom Jens und dem Kasper
1961 Bronze Medal, Helsinki Student Film Festival, Finland for Die erste Seite einer Chronik



1999 Leben in Haidemühl – Schulgeschichten (School Stories: Life in Haidemühl)
1996 Am Rande eines Krieges – der ungarische Aufstand 1956 (On the Brink of War: The Hungarian Uprising, 1956, TV)
1995 Bis die Russen kamen – Kiegsende in Mitteldeutschland (Until the Russians Came – End of War in Central Germany)
1994 Anmerkungen zur DDR-Kunst (Remarks on GDR Art)
1994 Der lange Abschied von Chemnitz (The Long Farewell from Chemnitz)
1993 Leben im besetzten Haus (Life in the Occupied House)
1992 Entdeckungen im Havelland (Discoveries in Havelland)
1992 Die Garnisionskirche – Protokoll einer Zerstörung (The Garrison Church: Report on a Demolition)
1991 Im Übergang – Protokoll einer Hoffnung (In Transition: Report on a Hope)
1990 Im Durchgang – Protokoll für das Gedächtnis (In Transit: Report for Posterity)
1989 Paul Robeson: "I'm a Negro, I’m an American." (Paul Robeson: I’m a Negro, I’m an American)
1986 Im Jahr 1932 – der rote Kandidat (In 1932: The Red Candidate)
1983 Erinnerung an eine Landschaft - für Manuela (Memories of a Landscape – for Manuela)
1981 Das Atelier (The Photographer’s Studio, short)
1980 Die Kinder Palästinas (The Children of Palestine)
1980 Die drei anderen Jahrzehnte (The Three Other Decades)
1978 Die Pflaumenbäume sind wohl abgehauen (The Plum Trees Have Surely Been Cut Down)
1978 …und sie bewegt sich doch (And Yet It Moves)
1976 Begegnung an der Trasse (Encounter on the Pipeline)
1976 Alltag eines Abenteuers (The Daily Life of an Adventure)
1974 Looping (feature film)
1973 Auf bald in Berlin (See You Soon in Berlin)
1971 Wer, wenn nicht wir (Who, If Not Us?)
1969 Paule – Porträt eines Jungen (Paule – Portrait of a Boy)
1968 Die Störche bleiben in Buchara (The Storks Will Stay in Buchara)
1968 DDR Magazin 1968/40: Brecht Dialog 1968 (Brecht Dialog 1968
1967 Saatfrüchte sollen nicht vermahlen werden (Seed Corn Should Not Be Ground)
1966 Die Verantwortung (The Responsibility)
1964 Das Märchen vom Jens und dem Kasper (The Tale of Jens and Punch, puppet animation)
1964-66 Guten Tag – das sind wir (Hello, This Is Us)
1964 Es genügt nicht 18 zu sein (Being 18 Is Not Enough)
1963 Im Januar 1963 (In January 1963)
1961 Die erste Seite einer Chronik (The First Page of a Chronicle)

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