The Cinema of the Other Germany

Silke von der Emde, Vassar College,

Nearly a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, films from and about the former GDR are finally becoming available to audiences, students, and researchers in the U.S. DEFA produced over 850 feature films and countless documentaries between 1946-1990, yet East German film culture had remained terra incognita for the Western public during the existence of the GDR. This course examines the successes and failures of some DEFA films as they aspired to be a national cinema in their own right. We will analyze this significant segment of German film history in relation to the development of New (West) German Cinema and think about the exact "placing" of GDR cinema within German film history and international debates around national cinema.

The course is divided into six parts: we will begin with a Wendefilm (films that talk about events leading to the fall of the Wall) and we will discuss the idea of history as melodrama. We will then explore a body of anti-fascist films produced in the GDR. The analysis of these films will help us grasp important motivations and political convictions of many East German directors, such as Wolfgang Staudte, Frank Beyer, and Konrad Wolf. The "forbidden films" from 1965/66, which until 1990 have never been seen before, show how advanced
East German film was already in the early sixties. The analysis of GDR Westerns, the immensely popular series of Indianerfilme, will help us understand the way popular culture worked in East Germany. A number of documentary films will give students a glimpse at everyday life in the GDR while encouraging discussions about the self-representation of artists in the GDR. The last film of the semester will be a comedy by Frank Beyer, one of the last GDR films before the Wall came down in 1989.

The course aims to examine the films within the larger socio-historical context in Germany. Since this is a culture studies course, we will analyze 20th century German history, politics, and culture by looking at German films. In this course we will talk about the fundamentals of film analysis and contemporary film criticism, so that the formal structures of the films can be understood. By the end of the course, students should be able both to do a "close reading" of a film and to place it within the larger historical context defined by the aesthetic and political debates in German society to which the films respond.


1. Short film responses to be handed in every Monday.

2. Opening class discussion of film with one or more other students - at least once. You are asked to prepare background information on the film/the filmmaker, talk about important issues the film raises, and prepare questions for the discussion.

3. Final paper (10 - 15 pages)

Topics for Discussion and/or Student Papers: 

  • questions of national identity and the cultural heritage

  • DEFA--national cinema in its own right?

  • New (West) German Cinema and DEFA

  • the depiction of the Jews and the Holocaust in East German Cinema

  • depictions of Nazism and Anti-Fascism

  • the relationship of artist/intellectuals to power

  • the "Bitterfelder Weg" and Socialist Realism

  • writers and DEFA (Jurek Becker, Christa Wolf, Ernst Loest, Helga Schütz, Ulrich Plenzdorf, etc.)

  • aesthetic influences in DEFA films (UFA films of the 30s and 40s, Soviet Socialist Realism, Italian neo-realism, Avant-garde, new wave, and documentary traditions)

  • the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the situation since German unification

  • women in GDR society and the representation of women in DEFA films

  • sexuality in GDR film (women, gay sexuality, family politics in the GDR)

  • the banned films of 1965

  • popular culture in the GDR

  • DEFA documentary films


Week 1: September 1 - 3: INTRODUCTION

     Brief Overview of German Film History
     Read (for Thursday): Hans-Michael Bock, "East Germany: The DEFA Story" 

Week 2: September 8 - 10: HISTORY AS MELODRAMA?

     Frank Beyer, Nikolaikirche (1995: 133 min)
     Read (for Tuesday): Barton Byg "DEFA and the Tradition of International Cinema"
     Henry Krisch, The German Democratic Republic:: The Search for Identity, 1-22, 129 - 45.

Week 3: September 15 - 17: ANTI-FASCIST FILMS

     Wolfgang Staudte, The Murderers Are Among Us (1946, 91 min.) Poster
     Read (for Tuesday): Barton Byg, "Nazism as Femme Fatale"

Week 4: September 22 - 24:

     Konrad Wolf, I Was Nineteen (1968, 120 min.)
     Read (for Tuesday): Marc Silberman, "The Authority of Autobiography: Konrad Wolf's I Was Nineteen"

Week 5: September 29 - October 1:

     Frank Beyer, Jacob the Liar (1975, 101 min.) Poster
     Read (for Tuesday): Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar.

Week 6: October 6 - 8: FORBIDDEN FILMS

     Frank Beyer, Traces of Stones (1966: 139 min) Poster
     Read (for Tuesday): Joshua Feinstein, The Triumph of the Ordinary: Depictions of Daily Life in East German Cinema. Excerpts.

Week 7: October 13 - 15:

     Maetzig, The Bunny Rabbit, That's Me (1965/89, 110 min.) Poster
     Read (for Tuesday): Barton Byg, "What Might Have Been: DEFA Films of the Past and the Future of German Cinema"

     October 18 - 25: FALL BREAK

Week 8: October 27 - 29: POPULAR CULTURE

     Gottfried Kolditz, Apache Indians (1973: 94 min.) Poster 

Guest Lecture by Gerd Gemünden (Dartmouth College), "Between Karl May and Karl Marx: The DEFA Indianerfilme (1965-1983) Slide Show: DEFA Posters Gerd Gemünden

Week 9: November 3 - 5:

     Egon Guenther, When You Grow Up, Dear Adam (1966/90: 78 min)
     Read (for Tuesday): David Bathrick, "Little Red Riding Hood in the GDR: Folklore, Mass Culture, and the Avant-Garde"; Uta Poiger, "Rock'n'Roll, Female Sexuality,
     and the Cold War Battle Over German Identities"

Week 10: November 10 - 12: DOCUMENTARIES

     Helke Misselwitz, Goodbye to Winter (1988, 115 min.)
     Read (for Tuesday): Interview with Helke Misselwitz

Week 11: November 17 - 19:

     Sybille Schoenemann, Locked-Up Time (1991, 90 min)
     Read (for Tuesday): Marc Silberman "Post-Wall Documentaries: New Images from a New Germany?"

Week 12: November 24 - 26:

     Tamara Trampe and Johann Feindt, Black Box (1992, 90 min.)
     Read (for Tuesday): Michelle Stone, "Documentary and Subjectivity: Documentary Practice in Two Recent East German Films"

Week 13: December 1 - 3: COMEDY

     Frank Beyer, The Break (1988, 111 min.)
     Read (for Tuesday): Sigrun D. Leonard, "Testing the Borders: East German Film Between Individualism and Social Commitment."

Week 14: December 8: Course Summary and Conclusion(s)

Recommended Readings:

  • John Bornemann, After the Wall: East Meets West in the New Berlin

  • Corrigan, New German Film: The Displaced Image

  • Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History

  • Heide Fehrenbach, Cinema and the Democratization of Germany

  • Frieden, McCormick, et. al., Gender and German Cinema: Feminist Interventions (2 vols)

  • Giannetti, Understanding Movies

  • Goulding, Daniel, ed. Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe

  • Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat: The Return of History as Film

  • Leiser, Erwin, Nazi Cinema

  • Liehm, Mira and Antonin J. Liehm, The Most Important Art: Soviet and Eastern European Film After 1945

  • Mast and Cohen, eds, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings

  • Pflaum and Prinzler, Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany

  • Rentschler, West German Film in the Course of Time

  • Rentschler, ed. German Film and Literature: Adaptations and Transformations

  • Santner, Eric, Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory and Film in Postwar Germany    

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