New to East German films? Here are a few from DEFA with English subtitles that are well worth seeing. All of these films are currently available on the Kanopy streaming service.
I’m often asked for recommendations on East German movies that people should watch. There’s no one answer to this. I once showed my personal favorite (In the Dust of the Stars) to a friend who wasn’t that keen on it. He preferred I Was Nineteen because he was more interested in WWII than science fiction. I have another friend who couldn’t even sit through I Was Nineteen, but loves In the Dust of the Stars. Different strokes for different folks.1
With this in mind, I’m taking a page from Watching—a weekly newsletter from the New York Times that gives television recommendations based on the kinds of films you like. All the films I list (except where noted) are available with English subtitles and can be either purchased from the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst, or streamed via Kanopy.
What to watch if you like…
Joachim Kunert’s dark film about a nighttime robbery in a trainyard has all the elements of a good film noir. The protagonist is a criminal, it’s shot in lush black-and-white, and it takes places almost entirely at night. Every fan of film noir should know this film.
Double Feature: The Murderers Are Among Us
More dark noir from the the GDR. The first East German feature film ever made. Starring Hildegard Knef.
…Psychedelic Science Fiction
Sometimes referred to as the “East German Barbarella,” this film has to be seen to believe. I often use this film to demolish people’s preconceptions about East German movies. It is wacky and weird, and, strangely, almost a musical.
Double Feature: Love 2002 (short)
This short film is on YouTube at the time of this writing. Part documentary, part futuristic scenarios, part modern dance. It is a weird little film. German language only.
It’s a musical comedy about kidnapping. As if that’s not enough, it features some of the most over-the-top musical numbers this side of Carmen Miranda. Almost as weird as In the Dust of the Stars. Not surprisingly, it’s made by the same director.
Double Feature: Hot Summer
East Germany’s answer to Beach Party. This film is notorious and is a must see for any fan of communist musicals. One of the most popular East German movies ever made. The songs will be stuck in your head for days afterwards.
For Eyes Only takes the James Bond spy model and inverts it with a hero from East Germany trying to prevent the Americans from starting World War III. Amazingly, it’s based on an actual case, although, as one might imagine, some liberties are taken.
Double feature: Coded Message for the Boss
If For Eyes Only is Ian Fleming, then Coded Message for the Boss is John LeCarré. An electrical engineering student is recruited to be a double agent for the Stasi after the CIA tries to recruit him. Psychological strain ensues.
This dark story came out after the Wall came down but it is very much an East German film. In some ways, the few years while DEFA was still active was a golden age of German filmmaking. We may never see its like again. This story of a woman whose love is thwarted by a corrupt official is dark and sad.
Double Feature: Star-Crossed Lovers
Two lovers try to maintain a relationship during WWII. A beautifully filmed movie starring Armin Mueller-Stahl in one of his first leading roles.
…Films about the Holocaust
A young German soldier falls in love with a Jewish woman who is about to be shipped off to a concentration camp. As you probably tell from the set-up, nothing good can come from this, but the movie is powerful and poetic. A must-see.
Double Feature: Jakob the Liar
This was the only East German film to ever be nominated for an Oscar. A very high bar for any film coming from a communist country. This film combines joy and sadness and was the blueprint for several films that followed, including the terrible Hollywood remake.
…Films about WWII
Although there’s not much of a story arc here but the film is so dazzlingly filmed and directed that it should be seen by any film fan. The story of Hitler’s secret plan to invade Poland by staging a fake attack on a German radio station in Gleiwitz (now Gliwice). The film is precise and unflinching in its portrayal of the event.
Double Feature: I Was Nineteen
Konrad Wolf’s most personal film is about a young German communist recruited by the Russians to help dismantle Hitler’s war machine. Although Wolf soft-pedals the Russians’ behavior in Germany after the War, it does address it obliquely and remains an interesting eyewitness account of that time.
There’s no shortage of films from East Germany that tackle subjects pertinent to women.2 I could have chosen any one of a dozen films that are currently available on the subject, but I choose this one. The film is shot in a cinéma vérité style reminiscent of Cassavetes’ early work. It follows a day in the life of a woman while she waits to learn the results of a biopsy for potential breast cancer. In this respect it resembles Agnés Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, but in every other respect it’s completely different movie. It’s handled so believably that it seems at times more like a documentary than a feature film.
Double Feature: Winter Adé
A documentary film that looks at the lives of women in East Germany as the director and her film crew travel by train from the south to the north. Some of the stories will break your heart.
…Old Universal Horror movies
DEFA never made an actual horror movie, but this film version of Richard Wagner’s opera, strangely, manages to evoke the look and feel of those wonderful old monster movies that Universal Pictures made back in the thirties. It also has a little Night of the Living Dead vibe to boot. A unique and remarkable film.
Double Feature: The Singing, Ringing Tree
A film made for kids that scared the Marmite out of British children in the sixties. It’s a dazzlingly colorful film, but you can turn it into a horror movie by watching it in black-and-white.
When it comes to Germany and neorealism, Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero gets all the ink, but Somewhere in Berlin is the better movie and was made two years earlier. It has all the hallmarks of neorealism, but offers a thread of hope, unlike Rossellini’s nihilistic film.
Double Feature: The Story of a Young Couple
This one’s more early Michelangelo Antonioni than Roberto Rossellini. It follows the course of a love affair between two people with different political views, with lots of dialectic arguments. This movie is a film à clef about real people, including Veit Harlan.
While homosexuality was still illegal in West Germany, the GDR was more lenient. This film about a school teacher who is only just starting to realize that he likes boys more than girls was a landmark film in German cinema and years ahead of the rest of the world. It premiered the night the Wall came down.
Double bill: Her Third
Not really about same-sex love, but it did feature the first woman-on-woman kiss in an East German film, and the first anywhere to appear in a non-exploitation film. West German audiences were less shocked by the kiss than they were by the fact that a woman had a management job at a business.
…Deeply weird movies
Like The Bed-Sitting Room or The Final Programme, this film takes place in a surreal, imaginary landscape. Set in a nonexistent town in 1953, The Land Beyond the Rainbow is one of those amazing post-Wende film that could only have been made during that small window of time in the early nineties, when East German filmmakers could make the films they wanted to make without tempering their visions to the political restraints of the SED or the box office requirements of capitalism.
Double Feature: Latest from the Da-Da-R
An even more extreme and sardonic look back at life in the GDR starring two comedians who were already getting on the wrong side of the Stasi before the Wall came down. Peta members beware: It does contain a scene in a slaughterhouse that’s hard to watch.
While Hollywood was still making films about brave cowboys fighting evil Indians, DEFA had inverted the paradigm, making films about brave Indians fighting evil cowboys. They are all worth seeing, but I chose this one because it’s about an actual event in New Mexico that has never been given a screen treatment in the US.
Double Feature: Blood Brothers
If you think Dancing With Wolves was groundbreaking, you need to see Blood Brothers. The same story told several years earlier. It stars Dean Reed, an American pop star who became known as the “Red Elvis.” It also features a scene that appears to have been shot with a Steadicam a full year before the first movie to use this device (Bound for Glory). I’d like somebody to explain that to me.
Fairytale films were like DEFA’s private endowment fund. While the other DEFA films encountered distribution issues in non-communist countries owing to the anti-capitalist stance in many of their contemporary dramas, this was never an issue with the fairytale films. Nearly all fairytales are cautionary tales against avarice, vanity, and deceit. Moral lessons that nearly everyone on both sides of the Iron Curtain agreed with, with the possible exceptions of Ayn Rand and Donald Trump. The DEFA Library at UMass has released several excellent East German fairytale films with English subtitles. I’ve already mentioned The Singing, Ringing Tree, and Sebastian Heiduschke’s book East German Cinema goes into great detail on The Story of Little Mook, so I’m recommending The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. The movie starts as an ordinary fairytale, but, once the protagonist enters hell on a quest to pluck three golden hairs from the head of the devil, things get crazy. The art direction on this film is a sight to behold.
Double Feature: The Blue Light
One of the odder East German fairytale films, The Blue Light was directed by Iris Gusner, one of the first female director to work regularly at DEFA. Younger than most of the other directors at the time, she trained at the German Academy of Film Art and the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography before getting a job as assistant director to Konrad Wolf on Goya. The Blue Light forgoes the set-bound DEFA storybook style in favor of realistic settings.
Bonus Feature: Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella
This is the only film on this list that isn’t available from either the DEFA Library or on Kanopy. That’s because it’s as much a Czechoslovakian film as it is an East German film, so the issues of rights get a little more sticky. You can watch it, however, on the Eastern European Movies site in Czech with English subtitles. It’s a beautiful movie, filmed with less artifice than the previous DEFA fairytale films. It set the template for a new style of fairytale film at DEFA (for more on this, see my book).
Filmed in 70mm Totalvision (DEFA’s version of Cinemascope), and featuring an international cast, Goya is a visual feast. The story starts with Goya in Madrid during the final years of the Spanish Inquisition and moves on to his career as a court painter for Charles IV, and finally the creation of his etchings on The Disasters of War.
Double Feature: Lotte in Weimar
Lotte in Weimar is filled with the colorful fashions of early-nineteenth century Germany. It’s based on Thomas Mann’s novel of the same name, and stars Lilli Palmer in one of her few German-language roles. The scene between Palmer and Jutta Hoffman is worth the price of admission.
East Germany’s quintessential juvenile delinquent film, Berlin – Schönhauser Corner follows many of the same tropes found in American juvenile delinquent films (i.e., that a little understanding and help from caring officials could straighten these kids out).
…Communist propaganda movies
The fifties—in both the West and the East—was rife with films that could be considered propaganda. The most common were films that beatified actual people. In America, that would be Davy Crockett; in East Germany, it was Ernst Thälmann. In 1954 and 1955, DEFA made two movies about the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) who was murdered by the Nazis. In truth, Thälmann was no hero, but you couldn’t tell it from these movies.
Double feature: Castles and Cottages
Like the Ernst Thälmann films, this is a story told in two parts. It follows the events in a small town starting at the end of the War through the uprising on June 17, 1953.
After the 11th Plenum, a raft of excellent movies were banned, sometimes for the most frivolous for reasons. One of the first to receive this treatment was Frank Beyer’s film about a romantic triangle at an East German construction site.
Double feature: The Rabbit is Me
The most famous of the films banned after the 11th Plenum. Sometimes the films from that period are called “Rabbit” films after this movie’s title.
…Berlin Wall stories
A story of romance that was being shot when the Wall went up. The quick-thinking director Frank Vogel captured footage of the process and re-wrote the story to incorporate it into the film. Seven years later, Haskell Wexler would get all the credit for doing the same thing in Medium Cool.
Double feature: Divided Heaven
Another story of the effects of the Wall on a romance. Made after the Wall went up, but before the 11th Plenum put a stop to films depicting anything even remotely controversial.
That’s it. Do you have a personal favorite, or a film you think everyone should see? If so, let me know in the comments below.
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1. I don’t know if German has an exact equivalent for the idiom “different strokes for different folks.” Perhaps it’s a cultural difference, but the German idioms invert the model suggesting that different opinions have more to do with being part of a different group than a personal choice ( “Jedem Tierchen sein Pläsierchen,” and “neue Länder, neue Sitten”) or the result of idiocy (“Jeder Jeck ist anders”).
2. In fact, until recently, the list for German films about women’s issues was all DEFA films.
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