About This Blog
This blog is dedicated to the films of DEFA. From its start after World War II, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, DEFA—the official film studio of East Germany—made some of the most interesting films to come out of Germany during the last half of the twentieth century. In this blog I plan to talk about as many of these films as I can get my hands on. If you live in the USA, a remarkable number of them are available through Netflix, both on DVD and by streaming. If you are from another country and know of a good source to rent these films; or if you know of any upcoming screenings in your area, please let me know and I will try and post something about it here.
About Jim Morton
Jim Morton is a San Francisco writer whose work has focused primarily on unusual films and forgotten pop culture. From 1981 until 1983 he published a small fanzine devoted to horror and exploitation movies. He distributed the newsletter in San Francisco, where it caught the attention of V. Vale and Andrea Juno of Re/Search Publications. Vale and Juno hired Jim as guest editor and the primary contributor to Re/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films, which was, at the time, one of the only books to take a serious look at exploitation films.
In 1988, Jim published Pop Void, a book devoted to various aspects of popular culture. He assembled writers from many different walks of life to write articles about people such as Margaret Keane, Rod McKuen, William James Sidis, and Henry Gregor Felsen; and everyday items such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinners, novelty bath soaps, and fifties car design.
Through Pop Void, Jim was enlisted as a board member for the The Museum of Modern Mythology. In 1996, he was hired by Chronicle Books to write the text for What a Character!: 20th Century American Advertising Icons.
He was also a contributor to Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins’ Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head; and Jack Sargeant and Stephanie Watson’s Lost Highways, An Illustrated History of Road Movies. He has written articles for several magazines, including MacWorld and Personal Publishing.
About the Titles
When describing the films, I use the current U.S. distribution titles where applicable with the original title in parentheses. If a film has not been released in the United States at the time of publication, I use the German title with an approximate English translation in parentheses. It is possible when these films are finally released in the States, a different translation of the original title will be used. In some cases (e.g., Der schweigende Stern), the film is available in English with more than one title (The First Spaceship on Venus and The Silent Star). In this case, I use the titles preferred by the DEFA Library at Amherst . If a film is not available from or listed by the DEFA Library at Amherst, I use the titles shown on the Progress Film-Verleih website.
How to Watch East German Films
When you sit down to watch an East German film for the first time, you are likely to find it a bit, well, boring. There’s no other way to say it. The pacing, the scene lengths, the use of music are all virtually antipodal to the American method of making films. If the last three films you watched were Transformers, X-Men, and Mission Impossible, the pacing of the East German movies will likely turn you into a ten-year-old with ADHD. A quick check of the whinging in the reviews on International Movie Database will bear this out. Americans find it hard to watch East German films.
In truth, East German films are not boring at all, but they do require a different approach to the rhythms of film-watching. Many people, but especially we Americans, may find it difficult to adjust to this after years of hyperactive film editing and visual over-stimulation. Here are a few pointers to help you better enjoy your East German movie experience:
Style and Form. While watching these films, keep in mind the environment in which they were made. Babelsberg wasn’t Hollywood, and every film that was made had to be approved by a gang of party stiffs (we actually do the same thing here with the MPAA Ratings Board). What these officials they would or wouldn’t approve ofttimes was dependent on the prevailing mood, and that mood could change on a whim. If there was a leadership change in the Kremlin, then all bets were off. A film that was the top grosser at the local Kino a month earlier could find itself sitting on a shelf for the next thirty years, or worse, destroyed.
One of the most remarkable paradoxes of East German cinema is that the rules for filmmakers usually loosened up right after a clamp down. So it is that some of East Germany’s most daring films were made right after the wall was built and right after the conservative hardliner Honecker usurped the more liberal Ulbricht. Whenever it looked like filmmakers were finally going to get to make the kinds of films they wanted to, the party would step in and put the kibosh on things.
East vs. West. In the early days of DEFA, many of the people working on films in East Germany hailed from the west. The border was still porous, the cold war was only just beginning to heat up, and the authorities in the west (especially the Americans) were doing everything in the power to keep the Germans from resurrecting their film industry. If you keep this in mind while watching the films, you will quickly notice that the early DEFA films have a very different look and feel to the later films. Paul Verhoeven’s The Cold Heart (Das kalte Herz), for instance, is indistinguishable from its West German counterparts because nearly everyone involved in the making of this film hailed from the west. This started to change in 1957, partly because the state started making a more concerted effort to use their own technicians, and partly because by then the West German film industry was once again up and running and the West German film people felt no further need to use the east to get their films made. After the wall was built, East German films diverged substantially from their West German counter parts. There was still some influence from other countries, but it came mostly in the form of style—specifically the French New Wave and Italian neorealism.
Context. Just as American films often assume some familiarity with popular historical or cultural subjects, so too the East German films are filled with moments that have more relevance to East Germans than to others. When a character sings “Yes, we have no bananas,” keep in mind that bananas were like gold in the GDR. Or while discussing dress styles, the fact that miniskirts were endorsed by the government in the early seventies because cloth was sometimes in short supply. East German films are laden with such references, most of which go by unnoticed by anyone who didn’t grow up east of the Iron Curtain (including me).
Secret Subtexts. When it comes to reading and understanding a film’s subtext, no one can match the East Germans. A director could never come out and directly attack the government or socialism if he ever wanted to make another film. But, with a little care, he could slip a jab past the authorities (we had the same thing happening here during the Hays Code era in Hollywood, but it had more to do with sex than politics). Obviously, a film about surveillance in contemporary society had no chance of getting approval, but if you made the film about the Nazis (e.g., Your Unknown Brother), you might just get away with it. Likewise, the silly kings in a fairytale (Märchenfilm) might bear a resemblance to certain officials. This didn’t always work though. When Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther released Das Kleid (The Dress), it was immediately banned because the authorities thought it might be interpreted as an attack on them.
Tempo. East German films love to take their time; not with the nearly static, but intensely meaningful sorts of scenes that show up in films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but with scenes that seem to add little or nothing to the narrative. That’s because in East German films, place and routine are part of the narrative. Filmmakers from very few other country spend as much time setting up the scenario as the East Germans did. This approach did not go down that well, even in the east, but if you are willing to give it time, and let the story unfold at its own pace, you are usually rewarded for your patience.