Underground Film in the GDR

Little Angel

When we talk of East German films, we are mostly talking about the films of DEFA, the GDR’s state-owned motion picture production company, and, to a lesser extent, the made-for-TV films from DFF. All other feature films shown in East German cinemas came from other countries, with Russia at the top of the list. If you wanted to be a filmmaker, the paths were limited, and if the authorities decided you weren’t filmmaker material, you weren’t likely to get into film school.

But there were people making movies outside of the system, sometimes at great personal peril. These films weren’t shown in movie theaters. They had to rely on state-sanctioned amateur film circles, or limit screenings to immediate friends. Attempts to screen these films outside of such confines were met with stiff resistance in some cases and prosecution in others. An offense might result in an apartment search in Jena, but a fine in East Berlin.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, East Germany was in a constant fight with itself over what was “acceptable” artistic expression. After the Wall went up, the state was eager to show their “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (anti-fascist barrier) was meant to help preserve freedom in East Germany and creative types were allowed to make films that really challenged the status quo. Four years later, the authorities came down hard on anything too creative at the notorious 11th Plenum. When Honecker came to power, he wanted to show that he was not Ulbricht and the creative juices were allowed to flow again, albeit not with the the same freedom of expression we saw in the early sixties (see The Dove on the Roof). Then in 1976, the authorities reached yet another of their limits of tolerance. Wolf Biermann was exiled and an ordinance was passed that made it illegal to screen films that weren’t officially sanctioned. It was still okay to show films in the privacy of one’s own home, or within the confines of a film group, but as soon as you tried to show it publicly without permission, you were guilty of sedition.

The man largely held responsible for these policies was Kurt Hager. Hager held many posts in the government, but it was in his roles as the chief ideologue and person in charge of all cultural matters that he had the greatest impact on the creative arts. His writings on dialectical materialism and Marxist-Leninist philosophy were used as guidebooks for the SED, and his name was used as a mantra by club owners not willing to provide performance space for aspiring filmmakers and other creative types. He is probably best known in the west as the man who banned Udo Lindenberg from performing in East Germany.

As with underground films in other countries, the films from East Germany were often quite abstract. Most weren’t overtly political, but they represented a level of anarchy that the authorities frowned upon. Everyone who took this path to make films could be pretty sure they’d wind up with a file dedicated to them in the Stasi headquarters.

The biggest trick in making films in East Germany was obtaining the equipment. Most people were limited to using 8mm and Super-8 cameras. A few lucky souls had 16mm cameras, but only DEFA and the Stasi had anything bigger. A popular choice for the underground filmmakers was the Russian-made Quarz camera, and in particular, the Quarz DS8-3, made by Krasnogorsk Mechanical Works (KMZ) near Moscow. Like all super-8 cameras, the Quarz was intended primarily for home movies, but it had enough features to make it particularly useful to aspiring filmmakers. It had a zoom lens, a trigger grip, variable frame rates—including one frame at a time, for animation—and a solar-powered selenium light meter. As a bonus, if you have a screwdriver handy, you could create in-camera dissolves and double exposures. It used a hand crank so it required no batteries, but this did limit the length of time one could shoot continuously to about twenty seconds.

As one might expect, most of these efforts at creative filmmaking are lost to the sands of time, but a few managed to survive past the Wende and are available on a DVD titled Gegenbilder – DDR-Film im Untergrund (Counter-images – East German Film in the Underground). It is primarily these films that I will be discussing here. Most of the efforts to save the underground films of the GDR are thanks to filmmaker and historian Dr. Claus Löser, the founder of ex.oriente.lux, an archive dedicated to preserving such films. Dr. Löser also wrote the booklet that comes with the DVD. His help also was invaluable in putting this article together.

action, situation

The DVD gets off to an interesting start with Here Comes the Sun (listed on the DVD as action, situation) by Helge Leiberg. In this film, simple shapes of various colors dance across the film, overlaying and sometimes obscuring the images behind them. The filmmaker painstakingly painted kinetic shapes on nearly every frame of film with the help of a magnifying loupe—an impressive task, especially considering he was working with the tiny Super-8 format. Leiberg has continued to explore with other art forms, most notably dance, where he draws pictures over the dancers using an overhead projector.

Leiberg’s film is followed by Gino Hahnemann’s September, September. Hahnemann’s film is more overtly subversive than Leiberg’s. In it, Hahnemann recites a 25-word poem over a variety of images, from old film clips, to performance art, to Jean-Luc Godard. The poem is repeated several times, each time with a different vocal interpretation, from angry or frightened, whispered and screamed. Given this fascination with words, it is small wonder that much of Hahnemann’s post Wende career was dedicated to writing and translating poetry.

The next filmmaker, Cornelia Schleime, is well-known in the west as a painter. Schleime’s film, Unter weißen Tüchern (Draped in White), is equal parts experimental filmmaking and a chronicle of a performance piece she did involving people tapped like mummies to the wall of an empty room. It is easy enough to interpret the piece as a reflection on the state of personal freedom in the GDR. As the lead singer in the Ostpunk band, Zwitschermaschine, as well as an experimental artist, Schleime was someone the Stasi watched very closely. She found out years later just how close, when it was revealed that her bandmate, Sacha Anderson, was an IM (Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter—a civilian informant for the Stasi). Many of her pieces were confiscated before she left the country in 1984. She has gone on the become a highly successful artist in unified Germany, and is best known for her irreverent paintings of Pope John II and for a series of portraits of suspiciously sexy nuns. Several books by her and about her have been published; some in German and in English.

After three aggressively abstract films, the action shifts to a seemingly more gentle form of storytelling, but don’t be fooled. Cornelia Klauß’s Samuel is every bit as subversive as the previous three, and much more heartbreaking. It is one of the few films on the DVD that has something approaching a storyline. The action takes place on a train platform, where a young boy runs around trying to attract the attention of the adults who stand disconnected from their environment and from one another. The boy is caught and dressed as an adult, and becomes as unresponsive to the world as the adults that surround him. This is the first film in the series that feels like it was made by someone more interested in filmmaking than in art-for-art’s-sake. It’s no surprise, then, that Cornelia Klauß has continued to work in film, primarily documentaries, including a short film about the Super-8 scene in East Germany that is included on this DVD.
[Note: Here is a link to a screening of the film, complete with the sound of the projector and the audience. It’s probably the closest of any the YouTube videos linked here to what it feels like to watch films like this in an actual underground setting.

Via Lewandowsky’s Report brings the DVD back to the abstract with a film that combines a static-filled report of surveillance with old film footage while a woman repeatedly takes her blouse off and massages her breasts. This is interspersed with a mad jumble of disparate images all overlaid with rhythmic, experimental, fuzz-guitar rock reminiscent of early Chrome. Like Cornelia Schleime, Lewandowsky studied art in school in Dresden, is primarily known as a visual artist. Also like Schleime, he has presented work at MoMA’s PS1 space in New York City, but unlike her, he has not restricted his post-Wende artwork to one medium, preferring to combine several media, including sound and visuals in his work.

Film is about images, and some of the most disturbing appear in Thomas Frydetzki’s Little Angel (Engelchen). It starts innocently enough with a kaleidoscope of light and shadows, but soon the film becomes a catalog of grotesqueries as it shifts from a woman reading a forensic pathology book, to a man killing and skinning a rabbit, to a very strange young woman eating a sausage and purchasing a skull. this is an odd little film—like a home movie by David Lynch. It contains equal dollops of humor and horror, and except for the fact that it’s missing the ironic references to American exploitation movies, it would fit comfortably into Nick Zedd’s Cinema of Transgression. Frydetzki brought the same shock tactics to the feature film, Max und Moritz Reloaded, which takes Wilhelm Busch cartoon brats and places them in modern Hamburg. Critics were appalled by the politically incorrect humor in that film (although the original stories aren’t exactly polite), and Frydetzki has not made a feature film since. He continues to work in film, primarily as a writer.

Claus Löser’s film, Nekrolog, begs to be interpreted, with its thread of a story, beginning with a body falling from a building. Is this homicide or suicide? Who is this person? Made in Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) in 1985, Nekrolog is a moody piece of surrealism featuring a dissonant soundtrack that might described as No Wave Krautrock. Shot in black-and-white, the film is highly cinematic and compelling. As previously mentioned, Löser has been more responsible than anyone for the preservation of the underground films of the GDR. Besides founding the ex.oriente.lux film archives, he is a co-founder of the Brotfabrik (literally, “bread factory”) in Berlin. The Brotfabrik hosts both gallery shows and film screenings.

7×7 Facts About the Life of the Poet Tohm di Roes in Present Climes seems to be intentionally designed to shock and annoy. If that is true, it partially succeeds. The music, in keeping with the visual information is dissonant and aggressive, a cross between seventies jazz-rock, Masonna, and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. The film purports to be about the filmmaker himself, but it more of an exploration of the concept of reinventing oneself outside of the bounds of acceptable society. If the film is any indication, Tohm di Roes—the pen name for Thomas Roesler—clearly wasn’t a good fit with East German society. Small wonder, then, that he immigrated to West Berlin in 1986. As the title implies, the film is a series of vignettes of the filmmaker doing various things in his apartment and on the street. The film starts innocently enough with di Roes staring up at a skull perched atop his head, but as it moves along, the imagery gets more and more shocking. Here’s di Roes, dancing manically, massaging a woman’s breasts, showing his ass in repeated zoom shots, and so on. The film ends, almost logically, with di Roes urinating on food and then eating it. After what came before, it seems like the only thing left to do.

More than any other film on the DVD, this one is hard for someone from the west to fully appreciate. Had it been made in the west, it would have been yet another forgettable example of an art student trying to shock us, but considering when and where it was made, it’s a brave film, and almost certainly left the audiences in East Germany aghast. In Cornelia Klauß’s documentary included on the disc, di Roes cites a Stasi report which describes people screaming and fainting at the screening.

After di Roes’s ode to shock, Thomas Werner’s send-up of German culture, Hallo Berlin! is a welcome change of pace. Werner combines home movie visuals with German lessons and organ music à la The Three Suns or Joe Vento. This is very much a product of the eighties, with its ironic visuals of sexual aggression overlaid with bland German 101 lessons. Werner was a highly active figure on the underground scene in the eighties, From 1987 to 1989, he published Koma Kino, a magazine of essays about the Super-8 underground in East Germany. He is trained as a silkscreen painter, but often works in various other media including photography and film and lives and works in Berlin.

Konrad! Sprach di Frau Mama

The DVD saves the best for last, with Ramona Köppel-Welsh’s powerful film, Konrad! The Mother Said… (Konrad! Sprach di Frau Mama…). The film is helped immensely by Art Zoyd’s dramatic “Les Portes Du Futur.” Amazingly, of all the films on this DVD, this was the one that caused the Stasi the most consternation. It  includes brief glimpses of the Berlin Wall, which was strictly forbidden, and it’s scenes of people running seemed to suggest (at least to the authorities) that action is better than reaction.

Ramona Köppel-Welsh was an active figure on the art scene in east Germany. She was a member of Medea, an underground theater group that performed plays combining music and film. She started making films when she asked a friend in the West to send her a camera. She meant a still camera, but her friend sent her a Super-8 camera. Konrad! The Mother Said… was her first film. It was edited using scissors and clear tape because she didn’t have a editing table.

Like many of the other filmmakers featured here, Köppel-Welsh eventually decided it was time to leave the GDR, and ended up in the West a week before the wall came down. From 1994, until 1997, she—along with her fellow East German, Pamela Homann, and the West German filmmaker, Dagie Brundert—ran Frei Berlin Ischen, a group that promoted public screenings of Super-8 underground films in Berlin.

An interesting aspect of this collection is how many of the filmmakers were involved in other art forms. Claus Löser, Helge Leiberg, Tohm di Roes, and Cornelia Schleime all were members of bands at some point. Most were mixed media artists as well. This was no accident. Your odds of getting a film made were substantially improved if you had some bona fides as an actual artist. A filmmaker who was only a filmmaker and wanted to make films that challenged the state was doomed from the get-go. This is not to say that these filmmakers were only dabbling in these other art forms, however; many have gone on to become successful artists in unified Germany.

As mentioned earlier, Cornelia Klauß’s short documentary, The Subversive Camera (Die Subversiv Kamera), is included on the DVD. While the documentary does contain interviews with some of the filmmakers presented here, the primary source for information in it comes from Thomas Frick, whose work does not appear on this DVD. Scenes from Frick’s films Der Ausflug ins Gebirge (Excursion into the Mountains), Massaker (Massacre), and Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood) show a filmmaker who, while definitely experimental, was working from a more structured approach than most of his contemporaries. Small wonder, then, that Frick continues to work in film and television, and sees Hollywood as a worthy goal. It is Frick who gives us the classic example of the Stasi’s astoundingly pervasive use of IMs, when he tells of opening his Stasi file after the Wende to discover that his girlfriend was the person they enlisted to spy on him.

Also appearing in the documentary, but not in the collection, is Mario Achsnick, along with scenes from his films Kino (Cinema), Ein braves Pferd stirbt in den Sielen (A Good Horse Dies in the Ditch), Ein Motorrad stürtzt plärrend seinen Lichtfleck nach (A Motorcycle Roars Toward its Speck of Light), and Was sagt Cho-Ba-Kov? (What’s Cho-Ba-Kov Saying?). As with the other filmmakers on this DVD, Achsnick avoids overtly political statements, but still manages to sneak some interesting things into his movies. The scene in Ein braves Pferd featuring a woman reacting to the realization that she is being filmed brings to mind the issue of state surveillance, and I have to wonder how the authorities interpreted the scene in Ein Motorrad stürtzt of the couple snogging and drinking Coca-Cola at the same time.

A third filmmaker who also appears in the documentary but not in the collection of films on the DVD is Christine Schlegel, Her films, Zustande – Mikado (Condition – Mikado), Treibhaus (Hothouse), and Ein Abendmahl (An Evening Meal) are shown in excerpts. Of the filmmakers interviewed here, Ms. Schlegel has the most interesting things to say about the perceptual differences between the East German and western audiences. Her film Ein Abendmahl, features a scene in which a woman gives birth to a cabbage. The afterbirth is a piece of red cloth that a man pulls out and waves above the exhausted woman’s head. In the west, this scene was interpreted in feminist terms, as menstrual blood. Schlegel, on the other hand, was thinking in terms of communism.

Naturally, many of the filmmakers featured on this DVD also appear in Ms. Klauß’s documentary, including Helge Leiberg, Tohm di Roes, Claus Löser, Cornelia Schleime, and Ramona Köppel-Welsh. The documentary also includes clips from other films by these filmmakers, including scenes from Cornelia Schleime’s 1983 film, Das Nierenbett (The Kidney Bean), which uses an editing style similar to Brion Gysin’s cup-up technique; and Helge Leiberg’s exploration of African imagery, Ferne Gegenden (Faraway Places). In fact, the documentary contains enough new material to provide a convincing argument for the release of a second DVD.

[Note: Lutz Dammbeck’s Hommage à La Sarraz, which appeared on the VHS version of this compilation, was removed by the artist’s request. It is, as of this writing, available for viewing on YouTube.]

Buy this DVD.

Claus Löser’s essay on underground films (in German).

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