Photo (c) 1995, Lother Schuster
Petra Tschörtner was born in Potsdam, East Germany, on May 6, 1958. After graduating from high school in 1976, she worked at VEB Deutsch Schallplatten, East Germany’s only record followed by a two-year later practicum at the DEFA Studio for Feature Films. There, she met director Angelika Andrees, and together they directed the short film Heim about a home for kids with unstable family situations. Heim was slated to screen before showings of Roland Gräf’s feature film P.S. (1978), but the short was banned by officials, who accused the film of painting a picture of a country with many social and family problems. It would not be screened until 1990.
Between 1979 and 1983, Tschörtner studied directing at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Potsdam-Babelsberg. Her classmates included the famous documentarian Helke Misselwitz as well as Thomas Heise, Dieter Schumann and Herwig Kipping. Tschörtner profiled these friends and classmates in her 1994 documentary, Marmor, Stein und Eisen, a film that reflects on memories, unredeemable desires and what remains after ten years.
Her final film at the academy, Hinter Fenstern (1983), showed her exceptional artistic talent. This film about three couples in a Potsdam housing development was screened at the West German Oberhausen Film Festival, where it won two prizes—the main prize of the international jury and the prize of the German Children's and Youth Film Center (KJF).
After graduating in 1984, Tschörtner returned to the DEFA Studio for Feature Films to work as an assistant director for a year before she moved to the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films and joined the children’s film artistic production group. She made short documentaries about a wide range of topics. Filmkinder (1984), for example, accompanies two children during a day of shooting of Weisse Wolke Carolin (1984, dir. Rolf Losansky). Der Zirkus kommt (1985) portrays family life at a circus, and Unterwegs in Nikaragua – Eine filmische Reisebeschreibung für Kinder (1987) narrates the daily lives of children in Nicaragua seven years after the revolution. This latter film won the Special Award of East Germany’s Film and Television Workers Union at the Goldener Spatz Children’s Film Festival.
In the late 1980s, Tschörtner moved to the DEFA Kinobox production group and started filming for an adult audience, often focusing on depictions of her own generation. In her film Das Freie Orchester (1988), she introduces the members of the Freie Orchester avantgarde band with poetic language. Her atmospherically dense documentary Schnelles Glück (1988) is a portrait of a retired woman who frequents the betting window at the East Germany’s only harness racetrack in Berlin-Karlshorst. In 1988, Tschörtner was selected to produce a 60-minute documentary, Und die Sehnsucht bleibt, about the daily lives of three single mothers in East Germany, for West German public television.
In 1989, Tschörtner shot one of her most moving films, Unsere alten Tage. In this film she demonstrates her predilection for capturing the vulnerable, marginalized members of society by documenting elderly people spending the last chapter of their lives in a nursing home. She visits a new, modern nursing home, where external circumstances are tolerable, and the residents well cared for. Nevertheless, they seem to have been forgotten by the outside world—especially by their own children, who are busy with their own affairs.
In her atmospheric black-and-white documentary Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg – Begegnungen zwischen dem 1. Mai und dem 1. Juli 1990 (1990-91), Tschörtner captures the mood before the monetary union of Germany through very personal encounters with residents of Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. For a number of reasons, these people look at the future rather critically and in viewing the film from today’s perspective, their reservations do not always seem misguided. Tschörtner’s final documentary film, Herr Giwi und die umgekehrte Emigration was produced in 1997. It tells the story of author Gwini Margwelaschwili, whose parents emigrated from Georgia to Germany in the 1920s but were arrested by the Soviet secret service after WWII and interned in the Sachsenhausen camp for almost a year before being sent back to Georgia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gwini Margwelaschwili returns to Berlin, where he meets with the director.
In years leading to Tschörtner’s untimely death on July 25, 2012, she worked primarily as an assistant director for documentaries and feature films. She also accepted lectureships as a visiting professor at her former film academy. Film historian Claus Löser praised her work as a director—comprising almost 25 films, including her films made at the film academy—as “one of the most beautiful moments in German documentary filmmaking.” Petra Tschörtner was one of the most important women filmmakers of the last DEFA generation, alongside Helke Misselwitz (Winter Adé) and Sibylle Schönemann (Looked-Up Time).
Festivals & Awards:
|2022||Hinter Fenstern, part of retrospective Female Documentarists of the GDR, DokFilm Leipzig, Germany|
|2022||Heim, program DEFA Matinee: Angelika Andrees – The Empathetic Eye, DokFilm Leipzig, Germany|
|2020||Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, Frauenfilmfest, Dortmund + Cologne, Germany|
|2018||Retrospective, In Memorian: Petra Tschörtner, Berlin, Germany|
|1991||Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, program New German Films, Berlin Int. Film Festival, Germany|
|1990||Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, DokFilm Leipzig, Germany|
|1990||Heim, Oberhausen Short Film Festival, West Germany|
|1987||Special Award of East Germany’s Film and Television Workers Union for Unterwegs in Nikaragua – Eine filmische Reisebeschreibung für Kinder at the Goldener Spatz Children’s Film Festival, East Germany|
|1983||Main Prize of the International Jury and Prize of the German Children's and Youth Film Center (KJF), for Hinter Fenstern, at Oberhausen Short Film Festival, West Germany|
Bibliography & More:
Felsmann, Barbara. “Petra Tschörtner – Radikal, versöhnlich und immer fasziniert von den Menschen.” Sie – Regisseurinnen der DEFA und ihre Filme. Berlin: Bertz + Fischer Verlag, 2019.
Löser, Claus. “Auf Augenhöhe. Notizen zum filmischen Werk Petra Tschörtners.” Leuchtkraft – Journal der DEFA-Stiftung. E-magazine, 2020.
|2008-10||Stubbe - Von Fall zu Fall (Stubbe: Case by Case, TV series, asst. dir., feature film)|
|2007||Elli Makra, 4277 Wuppertal (asst. dir., feature film)|
|2007||Mein schöne Nachbarin (My Beautiful Neighbor, asst. dir., feature film)|
|2006||Eine Liebe in Königsberg (A Love in Königsberg, TV, asst. dir., feature film)|
|2004||Ein krasser Deal (An Unbelievable Deal, TV, asst. dir., feature film)|
|1999||Money, Money! (asst. dir., feature film)|
|1997||Herr Giwi, und die umgekehrte Emigration (Herr Giwi and the Reverse Emigration, doc.)|
|1994||Marmor, Stein und Eisen (Marble, Stone and Iron, doc.)|
|1990||Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg – Begegnungen zwischen dem 1. Mai und dem 1. Juli 1990 (Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg: Encounters from May 1 to July 1, 1990, doc.)|
|1989||Unsere alten Tage (Our Old Days, doc.)|
|1988||Das Freie Orchester (The Free Orchestra, doc.)|
|1988||Schnelles Glück (Fast Luck, doc.)|
|1987/88||Und die Sehnsucht bleibt… (And the Longing Remains…, doc.)|
|1987||Unterwegs in Nikaragua – Eine filmische Reisebeschreibung für Kinder (On the Way in Nicaragua – A Cinematic Travelog for Children, doc.)|
|1985||Der Zirkus kommt (The Circus Is Coming, doc.)|
|1984||Filmkinder (Film Children, doc.)|
|1984||Weisse Wolke Carolin (White Cloud Caroline, asst. dir., feature film)|
|1983||Hinter Fenstern (Behind the Windows, doc.)|
|1978||Heim (Children’s Home, asst. dir., doc.)|