© DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst
When the DEFA Studio for Animation Film was founded in Dresden on 1 April 1955, the chief investor—the East German state—expressed one wish: eighty percent of the films made there were to specifically target children. Of the approximately 750 animated films ultimately made at the Studio between then and 1990—which included animated cartoons, puppet films, shadow plays and stop-motion animation—there were naturally also many works intended for adults, however. Experimental forms were seldom employed, as filmmakers at the Dresden Animation Studio wanted to avoid being accused of formalism, which officials understood as an overemphasis of form over content and an antithesis to socialist realism. The fundamental mission of East German animators at the Studio thus changed very little over time. Not until the last years of the GDR did they begin to get to the heart of social issues with any regularity, resulting in cheeky, aggressive and witty animations.
The British Film Institute credits DEFA with offering "the most consistent and coherent analysis of fascism of any national cinema." In European socialist parlance, the Nazis were considered part of the fascist phenomenon that had also taken hold in Italy and Spain. In East Germany, antifascism thus primarily referred to anti-Nazi resistance activities. A wide range of DEFA films spanning four decades dealt with the Nazi past in one form or another. The classic antifascist films highlight—and often glorify—communist resistance to the Third Reich, although titles like Five Cartridges, set during the Spanish civil war, are also included in the genre. Another strand focuses more on Nazi anti-Semitism and war atrocities, including films by acclaimed German directors, such as Frank Beyer (Jacob the Liar, Naked among Wolves), Kurt Maetzig (Marriage in the Shadows), Wolfgang Staudte (The Murderers Are among Us) and Konrad Wolf (Stars, Professor Mamlock).
This theme highlights the importance accorded to the arts and artists in the socialist state. East German films addressing this topic fall into one of several categories. Many DEFA feature films recount the lives of well-known artists of the past, including Goya, The Lost Angel, Marriage in the Shadows and Käthe Kollwitz: Images of a Life. Many documentaries about artists were also made, such as Three of Many, Hermann Glöckner – A Brief Visit and Slatan Dudow – A Film About a Marxist Artist. Other films, such as Solo Sunny and The Architects, present fictional stories about artists and the challenges they face in society. Yet other DEFA films represent the work of artists filmically; The Flying Dutchman belongs to this category, as do Tuba wa Duo, Latest from the Da-Da-R and Transformations, three experimental shorts by painter and director Jürgen Böttcher. Finally, the DEFA Film Library collection also includes films about avant-garde and underground artistic activity in the GDR, such as La Villette, Counter Images and The Subversive Camera.The Artists of the Marx-Engels Forum, Artists Featured in the Film La Villette
Although avant-garde artistic forms were frowned upon by officials in the GDR, some artists and filmmakers nevertheless succeeded in creating artworks in this vein. Best known among them is director Jürgen Böttcher, who also paints under the name Strawalde. Films such as Egon Günther’s Farewell repeatedly tested the limits of what was acceptable. Filmmakers like Uli Weiss, Jörg Foth and Herwig Kipping increasingly experimented with form in East Germany’s last days and months. And artists like Cornelia Schleime and Via Lewandowsky, who have since become well known in the international art world, were experimenting with film in the GDR as well.
Censorship operated at various levels of the filmmaking process at the DEFA Studios. The role of the dramaturge was to help filmmakers develop scripts and films; at times this also involved helping them negotiate the demands of the administration and approval boards. In most cases, such behind-the-scenes work was successful. There were nevertheless recurrent cases of outright censorship and banning of films. Most of these cases involved individual titles (see Censorship below). In 1965, however, the Central Committee of East Germany’s ruling SED party abruptly changed its cultural policies, resulting in a wave of censorship in which all the feature films made at the DEFA Studio that year were banned. Referred to as the “rabbit films”—after the first one to be banned, The Rabbit Is Me—these twelve films (e.g., Born in ’45, Carla, Trace of Stones) were not publically screened until the Wall came down in 1989.
Films in this category range from poetic images that reflect on urban identities East and West, to arguments for the official East German perspective that the Wall was built in self-defense. Most tell stories about people living in this dynamic city at different points in time, from “rubble films,” to the divided city before and after the Wall. The history of Berlin in the 20th century is unlike that of any other city: during the Weimar Republic period in the “Golden ‘20s” it was a world center of modernism; with the Nazi take-over in 1933, it became the capital of Hitler's Third Reich; after WWII, virtually destroyed by war, the Iron Curtain of the Cold War was drawn through it, and the Wall was built in 1961; finally, in 1989 the East German democracy movement led to the fall of the Wall and the unification of East and West Germany. Most of the films in the DEFA Film Library collection
Biographical films were considered an important pedagogical genre by those who determined film and cultural policies in East Germany. Perhaps for this reason, most of the biopics made at the DEFA Studios focused on the lives of either artists (see Art & Artists above) or political figures—in particular iconic figures in the history of German communism, such as Ernst Thälmann and Karl Liebknecht.
Censorship operated at various levels of the filmmaking process at the DEFA Studios. The role of the dramaturge was to help filmmakers develop scripts and films; at times this also involved helping them negotiate the demands of the administration and approval boards. In most cases, such behind-the-scenes work was successful. When it was not, films were either censored (see Banned Films above), or they were granted a “limited release,” with very few film prints and little advertising. Authorities objected to given films for many reasons, including for: their depiction of certain characters (The Axe of Wandsbek, The Bicycle); their avant-garde style (Farewell, The Land beyond the Rainbow); addressing taboo topics (Sun Seekers, The Flight, Jadup and Boel, The Tango Player); or presenting an unrealistic (and ostensibly unflattering) picture of political and social life in the GDR (The Dove on the Roof).
These films from revolutionary Cuba by legendary filmmakers such as Tomás Gutiérrez, Alea Julio García Espinosa and Humberto Solás reveal a unique perspective which Americans are unaccustomed to seeing. Each film is a worthy addition to the canon of great world cinema, and rare special features further enhance our understanding of the rich historical and cultural heritage from which they emerged.
The Disco Film series, initiated by film composer Günther Fischer and produced by the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films between 1975 and 1981, was designed to be shown in East German cinemas before the main feature film. Most of the over 40 short films feature popular music groups of the time. This unique genre combines a variety of elements including documentary filmmaking, experimental animation, and DJ-style sampling. Today they provide a fascinating look into the beginnings of music video culture and the role of popular music in the GDR of the 1970s.
Eastern German spy films often exhibit an attempt to ideologically counteract and economically compete with similar entertainment films and television from the West. Films such as for eyes only and Coded Message for the Boss also contributed to East German justifications for building the Berlin Wall. Espionage and other genre films drew millions of viewers into movie theaters and became box-office hits.
The Newsreels 1946-1980 collection offers an interesting glimpse into daily events in East Germany and paints a picture of everyday reality in an East Bloc country during the Cold War. It features segments of the newsreels Eyewitness (Der Augenzeuge) series, produced by the East German DEFA Studios from 1946 to 1980. These segments, lasting approximately 1-3 minutes each, featured national and international news, as well as cultural and special interest stories. The weekly program (only bi-weekly 1957-1961) was screened in movie theaters before the main film.
Between 1962 and 1989 the East German Ministry for Foreign Affairs commissioned around 500 documentaries from the DEFA Film Studios that were dubbed into foreign languages and distributed abroad to promote “Auslandsinformation.” Auslandsinformation was public diplomacy and propaganda directed at foreign audiences inside and outside of the Soviet Bloc. During the 1960s, films like Belgian director Franz Buyens’ excellent yet controversial Deutschland—Endstation Ost (1964) emphasized the GDR’s position on the Berlin Question and on ending its own international isolation. In 1969, DEFA created a special studio called Camera DDR to work with the Foreign Ministry, and over the next 15 years the Foreign Ministry Films saw their heyday. Major themes from the 1970s and early 1980s included the socialist camp’s peace policy and the GDR’s growing importance in the world, as seen for example in Camera DDR leader Joachim Hadaschik’s series Begegung der Freundschaft on Erich Honecker’s visits abroad (these films were considered important enough to be shown on GDR television). However, the Foreign Ministry Films cover virtually every aspect of life in East Germany, including educational and youth policy, cultural life, the social welfare state, the status of women, industry and agriculture, the political system, sports, regional studies, and special events and anniversaries.
The GDR Magazine (DDR-Magazin) newsreel series, in production between 1962 and 1980, accounts for roughly half of the total films commissioned by the Foreign Ministry. These documentary episodes covering various aspects of daily life and politics in the GDR were intended primarily for distribution abroad.
Films in this category offer unique perspectives on an all-too familiar topic, intertwining the themes of German/Jewish relations, anti-Nazi resistance and the Holocaust. As soon as WWII ended, (East) German directors began addressing the horrific legacy of the Nazis in a wide range of films produced between 1946 and 1988. In contrast to what were broadly included in the definition of antifascist films in the GDR (see above), this theme focuses more narrowly on those films in which there is a strong depiction of the racially motivated crimes of the Nazis against Jews, Roma and Sinti, among others.
This theme combines films about authors or the theater—for example, Fallada: The Last Chapter, The Actress, Marriage in the Shadows—and literary adaptations. A wide selection of literary works were used as a basis for East German films. These ranged from Grimms’ fairy tales, to German classics such as Georg Büchner’s Wozzeck and Heinrich Mann’s The Kaiser’s Lackey. Also widely adapted were works by authors forced to flee from the Nazis—Arnold Zweig (The Axe of Wandsbek) and Friedrich Wolf (Professor Mamlock)—and acclaimed novels by East German authors, such as Christa Wolf (Divided Heaven), Jurek Becker (Jacob the Liar) and Christoph Hein (The Tango Player). The unique film The Flying Dutchman stands out for its treatment of Wagner’s opera.
These films prominently feature musical performances, including opera adaptations and musicals. They are significant, to a large extent, because there are not many. Considering the prominence of opera in the GDR’s cultural production, it is surprising that there were not more opera films, although to be sure, the length of most operas substantially outpaces the constraints of film. There are also not many musicals, as the genre was worrisomely close to flashy Hollywood films; those that were made, however, represent some of the most popular DEFA films. In addition, this theme also encompasses biographical pictures about composers and musicians, films that document important performances, and a selection of works with critically acclaimed soundtracks.
The Stacheltier ("Porcupine") series made between 1953 and 1964 consisted over almost 300 productions. These short films provide an example of the lively cabaret-style tradition of social and political satire that existed in East Germany.
"The series of Stacheltiere shows the modest glory and tragedy of domestic political satire in a public sphere under party control."
— Sylvia Klötzer, cultural historian
After WWII, western occupation forces were leery about letting Germans start to make films again. In the Soviet sector, in contrast, filmmaking was seen as an important way to rehabilitate the population after twelve years under Nazi rule.
German film artists and technicians who had spent the War in exile were joined by others who had survived within Germany to found the DEFA Studio in May 1946. Their primary concern was to address the horrors that had been perpetrated in their name and lay the foundations for a better world. The pioneers of DEFA’s first generation include Slatan Dudow (Destinies of Women), Falk Harnack (The Axe of Wandsbek), Georg C. Klaren (Wozzeck), Gerhard Lamprecht (Somewhere in Berlin), Kurt Maetzig (Marriage in the Shadows, Council of the Gods) and Wolfgang Staudte (The Murderers Are among Us), among others.
Theoretically, religion was not condoned by socialist doctrine. In practice, however, churches remained open throughout the history of the GDR and, in the country’s last years, offered important gathering places for those involved in the citizens’ rights and democracy movement that eventually led to the fall of the Wall and German unification. Because there are not many discussions or representations of religion in DEFA films, the exceptions are of particular interest. Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens, for example, stages a debate between the premises of socialism and Christianity, while The Mistake depicts a citizens’ movement gathering in 1989.
Genre films—including children's films, comedies, Westerns, war films, science fiction, musicals and spy films—were an important part of East German film production. They were an attempt to ideologically counteract and economically compete with entertainment films and television from the West. The genre films drew millions of viewers into movie theaters and became box-office hits. Despite their modest number, science fiction films made at the DEFA Film Studios offer many insights—into East German film-watching public, the socialist imagination, and the integration of ideology and visual effects—which make DEFA’s contributions to the science fiction genre integral to GDR pop culture from the late 1950s to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
These films were produced in the midst of radical upheaval in East Germany—from increased demands for freedom in the late 1980s, the “peaceful revolution” and fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by German unification and the ultimate closing of the East German DEFA Studios. While certain films revisit flashpoints of East Bloc history—such as the unrest following Stalin’s death in 1953 or the Prague Spring of 1968—others assess GDR society, even as it was slipping away. Yet others depict the spirit of transformation that existed during and after the fall of the Wall—often resorting to humor or satire to capture the sometime surreal aspects of radical social change.
In 1961, rising Cold War tensions resulted in the building of the Wall dividing the two Germanys and the city of Berlin. Some films made at the DEFA Studio contributed to the effort to justify this step, for example, the vividly polemical documentary Look at This City; in contrast, other films made in the early 1960s offered a more nuanced view of its impact on East Germans, including the feature films And Your Love Too and Divided Heaven. The themes raised in these films were reworked and reverberated until the end of the GDR, with a last permutation in Heiner Carow’s The Mistake. These treatments, however, abided by the ban on actually showing the Wall in films. It is therefore no wonder that the Wall itself figures prominently in films made after this restriction was lifted in 1989, including The Architects, The Wall, Jana and Jan and Latest from the Da-Da-R.
This collection focuses on the First and Second World Wars from a leftwing German perspective. They explore connections between the wars involving Germany from 1871 to 1945 and seek to untangle the precedents of the Second World War, which was the primary formative experience of the East Germany policy. Thus, the WWI films focus less on soldiers’ experience of trench warfare and more on the wartime experience of individual men and women, of generations and families, and of what war’s interface with the contemporaneous workers’ movement and Russian revolution. The WWII films, in contrast, more fully explore the experience of soldiers, while they craft a nuanced portrayal of political pressures on Jews and non-Jews alike.
DEFA’s so-called “Red Westerns” sought to tell well-researched stories about the American West from the point of view of the Native Americans, in which exploitative US settlers and the cavalry—the capitalists—were most often the bad guys. Genre films—including children's films, comedies, Westerns, war films, science fiction, musicals and spy films—were an important part of East German film production. An attempt to ideologically counteract and economically compete with entertainment films and television from the West, the genre films drew millions of viewers into movie theaters and became box-office hits and films always presented an ideological twist.
Strong female roles reflecting socialist gender ideals and policies abound, such as in the filmic foundation myth, Castles and Cottages. In other films, such as A Berlin Romance, women are portrayed as susceptible to the consumer attractions of the West, but also the site of conscience and moral action, as in The Murderers Are among Us and Destinies of Women. Later films, such as Her Third, Solo Sunny and All My Girls, emphasize the search for personal fulfillment in a society that professes gender equality and emancipation, economic independence, professional sovereignty and self-determination for women, even though it is still male-dominated. Certain films about women and women’s issues were considered too controversial and banned (Carla, Jadup and Boel) or censored (The Bicycle). A key film in this collection is the groundbreaking 1988 documentary Winter Adé, in which women of different ages and backgrounds openly discuss their lives and question the official image of women in the GDR.
From UFA to DEFA: Soon after the end of WWII, the Ufa studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg—the center of German filmmaking throughout the Weimar and Nazi periods—became DEFA: the Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft (or German Film Company). The studio and its directors explicitly sought to make a clean break with Nazi filmmaking, for example by reviving Weimar-era styles and techniques. In the early postwar years DEFA was also an artistic melting pot that brought together strange bedfellows, including: Ufa artists who had worked in the German film industry under the Nazis; artists who had spent the war in Germany in “inner emigration;” and rémigrés who had spent the last years in international exile. As a result, some early DEFA productions exhibit striking formal and thematic similarities to Ufa filmmaking. The films of the postwar period thus defy and complicate the historical relationship between continuity and rupture.
The political backdrop for (East) German film production in the 1950s was marked by the founding of the two German states, the beginning of the Cold War, accompanied by intense fear of atomic war, the peaking of the artistic doctrine of Socialist Realism and the end of Stalinism. The DEFA Studio prioritized films to help establish the legitimacy of the East German state (Castles and Cottages) and its relationship to the West (A Berlin Romance, The Story of a Young Couple, Berlin–Schönhauser Corner). The need for entertainment films started becoming accepted, for example resulting in major fairy-tale productions (The Story of Little Mook; The Singing, Ringing Tree). While the 1950s witnessed the first banned films (The Axe of Wandsbek, Sun Seekers), other films that addressed antifascism continued to be a produced (Council of the Gods), as were the first co-productions and internationally awarded titles (Stars).
Rising Cold War tensions resulted in the building of the Wall dividing the two Germanys in 1961. The East German DEFA Studio contributed to the effort to justify the step with polemical documentaries (Look at This City), as well as more nuanced feature films, such as And Your Love Too and Divided Heaven. Genre films for the now restricted domestic market entered their heyday, with the production of the first spy film (for eyes only), the first sci-fi film (The Silent Star) and—the genre that would prove the most enduring—the first Western (The Sons of Great Bear). Technical breakthroughs enhanced the influential film opera The Flying Dutchman, one of the first films with 4-channel magnetic sound. Films that addressed Nazism and the Holocaust from an antifascist perspective continued to draw international attention (Professor Mamlock, Naked among Wolves), as did two masterpieces on WWII: The Adventures of Werner Holt and I Was Nineteen. In 1965-66, the abrupt reversal of the cultural thaw deemed possible behind the Wall decimated a young genre of critical films that addressed issues of contemporary life in the GDR (e.g., The Rabbit Is Me, Carla, Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry, Trace of Stones).
In the 1970s, East Germany finally achieved international recognition as a state. The films of the 1970s show signs of trends in fashion, politics and popular culture that were sweeping the globe. Many focused on the experience of women—at work, with children, in love—and their longing for fulfillment: Too Young for Love, Until Death Do Us Part, and the box-office hit The Legend of Paul and Paula. Some won awards at prestigious international festivals, such as Her Third (Venice Film Festival) and Solo Sunny (Berlin International Film Festival), and Jacob the Liar became the only DEFA film ever nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. In addition to the continued production of genre films were costume films with high budgets—such as Goya, a co-production with the USSR shot in 70mm. While Konrad Wolf finally succeeded in getting his banned 1957 film Sun Seekers released, other films were put on ice—including one of the first DEFA films made by a female director, The Dove on the Roof.
During the 1980s, many artists opted to leave East Germany in the wake of the expulsion of the critical singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann and their resulting loss of hope in a better future for creative work in the GDR; this phenomenon is touched upon, for example, in Cornelia Klauss’ 1997 documentary The Subversive Camera. Those who remained nevertheless created exceptional films, such as the box-office hit All My Girls, the campy Bailing Out, and the beautifully poetic The Women and the Stranger. Established and young directors alike addressed controversial topics (The Architects, Coming Out, Your Unknown Brother), as well as comic relief (Ready for Life, Ete and Ali). Starting in the early 1980s, a new group of directors started lobbying for an autonomous, alternative studio within DEFA. By the time their demands were met, however, it was too late: the Wall was about to fall, and the GDR and DEFA would soon no longer exist. Despite such upheaval, this group succeeded in producing a handful of films (Latest from the Da-Da-R, Herzsprung, The Land beyond the Rainbow, Miraculi) that reveal a critical edge not permitted to prior generations.