Feminism, as a common topic of conversation, didn’t take off in the United States until the late sixties, so it may come as a surprise to some that DEFA tackled the subject in 1952, with the film, Destinies of Women (Frauenschicksale). Communists were early adopters of the principle that everyone should have the same rights, be they male or female, black, white, or brown. International Women’s Day, after all, came from the socialist movement. Throughout its history, DEFA made a point of making films that showed women in positions of power (e.g., Her Third, In the Dust of the Stars, Trace of Stones, The Dove on the Roof). Of course, as with every other major country at the time, all the top officials were still white males, but at least the topic was neither suppressed or intentionally subverted the way it was in America in the early fifties. Hollywood films from this period are egregiously offensive in their sexism. Women were ditzy, too emotional, and couldn’t drive, the public was told. It is better for everyone if men take over the reins again and let the women stay home and make the babies.
As is always the case, the primary reasons for this were economic. During the war, women had taken over many of the factory jobs, but now the men were home again and they wanted those jobs back. A lot of women discovered that they liked working better than housekeeping and they weren’t crazy about this turn of events. Instead of supporting this new attitude and working with it (as the Soviets did), the media used appalling tactics to get women out of those positions and back into the kitchen. Women, Americans were told, were ditzy, emotional, and terrible drivers. They were so much better at raising children, isn’t that what they should be doing? This message was reinforced again and again in films and television. Jokes about the impracticality of women became the common currency for comedians on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, broadcast to millions every Sunday night. The tactic was effective. By the mid-fifties, the working woman was seen as a slightly pathetic figure, either incapable of finding a husband to take care of them, or, in hushed tones, one of the them. [As a child growing up in the fifties, I always wondered what this meant. Was there some secret club I didn’t know about? It sounded interesting; it sounded fun.]
Of course, economic factors were at work in the Soviet sector as well, but the USSR fared far worse during the war than the United States ever did, and they needed Germany to get back on its feet as soon as possible and the fact that half the workers were women had no bearing on things. If anything, this helped boost the workforce, which had been decimated by the war.
Destinies of Women takes place in Berlin, a city divided, but without the wall to keep people on one side or the other. The action centers around a man called “Conny,” a black marketeer and playboy who likes to seduce women and then abandon them. He’s done this with dozens of women, but the story centers around four in particular. Barbara Berg is an East German law student who is about to start a promising career as a judge. After Conny breaks up with her, she walks dazedly into traffic and is nearly killed. Anni Neumann lives in West Berlin and is aspiring to be a fashion designer. After a fling with Conny leaves her pregnant, she loses her job and finds the attitudes in West Germany intensely unfriendly to an unmarried woman in need of work. Eventually, she crosses over into East Berlin, where the state-run companies not only don’t judge her for being a single mother, but also offer daycare for the kids at the factories—a relatively recent innovation in the west. Renate Ludwig is a frivolous young woman who lives in East Berlin but is enamored by the glitz and glitter of the western materialism. When Conny dumps her, she is convinced that it’s because she didn’t have that beautiful blue dress in the window a West Berlin department store. Her desire for the dress leads to the most disastrous consequences of all. The fourth woman (girl really) is Ursel, a member of the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend—East Germany’s communist youth group), and an ardent communist. Ursel’s parents died during the war, and she is at odds with her grandparents, who don’t understand her devotion to the cause. As one might imagine, Conny’s attempts to charm her with his materialism and flattery fare far worse with Ursel than it did with the others.
Tying all these story together is Hertha Scholz, who interacts with all four women in different ways. Frau Scholz is a longtime communist, who spent most of the war in a concentration camp for her beliefs. She is the moral center of the film, dispensing good advice and making the hard decisions when necessary. In some respects, this movie resembles the Rubble Films of the previous decade. Several of the characters here are deeply affected by the events of WWII and are only starting to get their lives back together. It is Frau Scholz who is both the most affected by the ravages of war, and the best at rising above it.
As with the films coming out of Hollywood at this time, this movie wears its politics on its sleeve. The west is shown as an uncaring environment devoted to profit and material pleasure. The people in power in West Germany (who are, for purposes of this film also mostly women) are shown to be callous and uncaring. Nightlife in the west is shown as either desperate or decadent. A motif that runs through the film is dancing. When Conny takes Anni to a dance in the west, we notice that many of the couple dancing together are women, while other women sit alone at tables. Where are the men? Unemployed, perhaps, and unable to afford the dance? Later, when Conny goes with Renate to a dance in the east, the loneliness of the early scene is missing. Everyone is paired off and happy. The capper comes when Conny woos the Baroness Isa von Traudel. Conny presumably sees the Baroness as a meal ticket, unaware that she is as broke as he is. The two go out dancing at what looks like a modern a discotheque. In this scene, western decadence is on full display. Aging women dance with stoned young hipsters to hyperkinetic jazz. Everyone is overdressed and desperately trying to have fun. Punctuating the scene are zoom shots of the framed illustrations of gorillas dressed as capitalist fat cats that lines the walls of the disco. “Yeah!” a man screams every time one of these drawings is shown. The end result looks like Dante’s Second Circle of Hell filtered through Saturday Night Fever.
In 1952, when the film was made, West Germany had yet to recover from the war. The Allied forces—still in control at that point—were in no hurry to see Germany get back on its feet after what happened during the Weimar days. Some western politicos, most notably Henry Morgenthau Jr., recommended dismantling all manufacturing in Germany and force the country to return to a pre-industrial state. While one could argue that this basic sentiment was no less true for the Soviets, they, at least, got the factories back up and running much faster than West Germany. In 1952, the idea of people crossing to the east to find work was far more likely. One need only look at the number of West Germans working at DEFA during its early years to see this. It was only after East Germany, under the communists, pulled out ahead of the western sectors in development that the allies finally abandoned their plans to keep Germany in the Middle Ages, quietly ignoring the Nazi credentials of some businessmen to help in this effort. Being a Nazi was bad, but, as far as the United States was concerned, it was better than being a communist.
To any fan of East German films, the thing that is most striking about Destinies of Women is how little like a DEFA film it looks. If anything, it resembles the classic styles of UFA and Hollywood. This isn’t that uncommon in the early days of DEFA. Filmmakers such as Konrad Wolf, Frank Beyer, and Wolfgang Staudte had yet to reshape and redefine what filmmaking meant in East Germany. As previously mentioned, several of the early films were made by West Germans, whose style didn’t vary that greatly from the overblown heroics and romanticism of the Third Reich (see any Heimatfilm for an example). Director Slatan Dudow wasn’t one of these people, but his style was almost certainly shaped by his early years at UFA. He started making films in the 1930s, but Hitler’s rise to power put an end to this. Dudow’s last pre-war film—Kuhle Wampe oder wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), which was co-written by Bertolt Brecht, was banned by the Nazis for its communist ideology. Dudow was arrested by the Nazis for being a communist. Born in Bulgaria, he was slated for deportation when he fled first to France and later to Switzerland, where he continued to work in theater. After the war, he returned to the Eastern Sector of Germany and was one of the co-founders of DEFA. Ironically, his first effort at filmmaking—a screen adaptation of his play, Der Weltuntergang (The Apocalypse), was rejected for being too formalist. His first film for DEFA was Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread), which follows the fate of a family after WWII as they eventually come to realize the advantages of socialism. Dudow continued making films in East Germany until 1963, when he was killed in a car accident. At the time, he was making a film titled Christine that, like Destinies of Women, tackled the issue of feminism in the GDR, but with a far less idealistic stance. An attempt was made to finish the film from the existing footage, but by all accounts, the results were unsatisfactory and it was screened only once.
Destinies of Women was only the second feature films that DEFA made in color and the first by master cinematographer Robert Baberske. Baberske pulled out all the stops for this film. The color is spectacularly vibrant and uses a palette that the world hasn’t seen since the early fifties. The only film that comes close to this in its use of color is the 1945 Hollywood classic Leave Her to Heaven, for which cinematographer Leon Shamroy won an oscar. Baberske is clearly enjoying this new technology, and several scenes have the rhythmic fascination with movement that characterized his work on the 1927 visual tone poem, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (for more information on Robert Baberske, see The Ax of Wandsbek). In one scene in particular, the camera follows three women as they explore the rides at a carnival. Wherever they go, the camera follows, spinning on a Tilt-a-Whirl or soaring aloft on a swing ride. It is exhilarating footage.
The help write the screenplay, Dudow enlisted two young writers of considerable talent, Gerhard Bengsch and Ursula Rumin. Gerhard Bengsch went on to have a long and fruitful career at DEFA. Using pseudonyms, he also managed to get teleplays produced by ARD in West Germany shortly before reunification. This, no doubt, helped him continue his career after the Wende. Bengsch continued working in television until 1993, retiring from writing for the small screen at that point to concentrate on his novels and short stories. He died in 2004 and is buried in Kleinmachow.
Ursula Rumin’s life took a very different path from those of her co-writers. Rumin lived in the western sector of Berlin and had very little interest in politics. Shortly after Destinies of Women was made, Ms. Rumin was asked to come to DEFA to sign a contract for further work, but instead of taking her to the film studio, the limousine that picked her up took her to the Soviet secret service headquarters where she was accused of espionage and collaboration with the enemy (a charge she has always denied). She was sentenced to 15 years hard labor at Vorkuta, the northernmost outpost of the infamous Siberian Gulags. She was released in 1954 as part of an amnesty, and moved to Cologne, where she worked for many years for Deutsche Welle. She wrote about her experiences at Vorkuta in her book, Im Frauen-GULag am Eismeer (In the women’s Gulag on the Arctic Ocean).
No discussion of Destinies of Women would be complete without mentioning the spectacular costumes designed by Vera Mügge. The fashion trends of the early fifties are on full display here in every form, from the practical business suits of Barbara Berg, to the outrageous, costume-like outfits worn by the West German decadents, to Renate Ludwig’s simple day dress. Ms. Mügge takes full advantage of the film’s Agfacolor with a pallet of colors that firmly pins this film to its time. Unlike many costume designers in Germany at that point, Ms. Mügge was no stranger to color film costume design. She also worked in wardrobe on the very first Agfacolor film ever made, Frauen sind doch bessere Diplomaten (Women are Better Diplomats). Undoubtedly she learned a thing or two about the process during that problem plagued production, which often suffered from color mismatching due to the natural shifts in light that occur throughout the day. She got her start as a costume designer during the Third Reich, working on, among other things, the infamously anti-Semitic film, The Rothschilds. After the war, she immediately started working at DEFA, producing costumes for the classics Council of the Gods, and Das verurteilte Dorf (The Condemned Village); but it is her work on Opernfilme (opera films) and Märchenfilme during this period for which she is best remembered. In 1958 she moved to the west, where she continued working for many years, primarily for CCC-Films. She retired in 1974.
Although the film was an attempt to show a more feminist perspective, it was roundly criticized by party officials and women’s worker organizations for its depictions of women. Nonetheless, the film was popular with audiences and is now recognized for its attempts to address the issue of women’s rights at a time when few people (Simone de Beauvoir notwithstanding) were willing to discuss the subject at all.