Even if you are a fan of East German films and have seen nearly everything in the DEFA catalog, you may not be familiar with the name Joachim Hellwig. Hellwig primarily made documentaries. He was a bit of a party wonk, and avoided rocking the boat, so you won’t find any of his films on lists of banned or controversial films. To all appearances, he was a true believer in the politics of East Germany. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to reject his work outright. Some of his films are so spiked with imaginative and fanciful scenarios that they barely seem like documentaries at all. Today, he is best known as the founder of defa futurum, an artistic working group at DEFA that specialized in science fiction-themed documentaries and feature films.
While still in school, Hellwig worked as a projectionist at the Phoenix Theater in Berlin, from there he got a job as a production manager at DEFA, which eventually led to assistant directing and directing jobs. In 1954, he completed training as a director and started directing documentaries shortly thereafter. His early documentaries often examined the close association between West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the ex-Nazis he put into positions of power. Hellwig received his greatest recognition for A Diary for Anne Frank (Ein Tagebuch für Anne Frank), a short film that uses the story of Anne Frank as its basis for an examination of the complicity between the SS and German industries, and showing that many top Nazi officials such as Hans Globke, Hermann Conring, and Albert Konrad Gemmeker lived unmolested in West Germany after the War. He followed it with This is How Chancellors are Made (So macht man Kanzler), a critical (some would say propagandistic) film about Konrad Adenauer and Franz Josef Strauss and their rises to power in West Germany after the War.
As you can probably tell by his choices of subject matter and his approaches to them, Hellwig was one to challenge the politics of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany—the governing party in the GDR). He was fully in support of them and he made films that reflected this. This kept him out of trouble with the government, and gave him more leeway than most to experiment with the documentary film format. He was a fan of Dziga Vertov and his approaches to “non-narrative” filmmaking. This gives Hellwig’s documentaries more verve and visual appeal than most other films—from both sides of the border—that are aimed at advancing a political agenda.
Although he was no rebel, he did have a soft spot for science fiction and future studies (futurology). One aspect of future studies that particularly interested him was bürgerliche Futurologie (bourgeois futurology). Hellwig feared that the West was getting to dictate the way people saw the world’s future and he wanted to do something about that.
With this in mind, he started defa futurum, a working group at DEFA dedicated to exploring possible future developments. Although primarily intended as a documentary film group, the group occasionally made science fiction feature films, including The Thing in the Castle (Das Ding im Schloß) and the classic In the Dust of the Stars. defa futurum got off to a bad start when attempts to film futuristic landscapes could not be achieved using the existing buildings in East Germany and the Soviet Union. Japan, on the other hand, had plenty of such buildings, but DEFA wasn’t allowed to film there. Things finally got off the ground with Love 2002 (Liebe 2002), a semi-documentary film on how love has changed over the years and what might come of it in the future. It’s an odd film that is as daffily sexual in places as In the Dust of Stars and Barbarella. It starts with women in leotards and tights, and frizzy blonde Afro wigs dancing around on a small, futuristic-looking set. They are eventually joined by suitors of the opposite sex, chosen for them by a computer, based on their preferences in partners. At that point a man looking for all the world like a game show host shows up and starts talking about how attitudes toward love and love-making have changed over the years and how they may change again in the future. To this point, he interviews various people as to what they think love means. From here, the film shifts between present-day interviews, reenactments of the past, and the futuristic scenario that started the film.
The script was co-written by Hellwig and Claus Ritter. Ritter was an important film scholar and journalist in East Germany whose work often focused on science fiction and perceptions of the future. He and Hellwig were very much on the same page with this, and together they wrote Papas Kino. Auch eine Sittengeschichte vom Film (Papa’s Cinema – also an intimate history of film), a book that takes its title from the Oberhausen Manifesto.1 When Hellwig started defa futurum, Ritter was a natural choice to help him realize his ideas. Both men felt the presentation of future scenarios in science fiction affect the way the future plays out and neither man wanted the West in control of these paradigms.
Noticeably missing from Love 2002’s futuristic scenario in is the presence of same-sex couples. The film includes a scene where the various couples in the film engage in a baby-making process that could have been applied to same-sex couples as well, but perhaps that concept was a little too futuristic for Hellwig and Ritter, even though East Germany struck down the old laws against same-sex relationships in 1968.2
Hellwig also contributed the Future Workshop (Werkstatt Zukunft) series to the defa futurum group. These further explored technological and social developments as seen through a socialist lens. Like Love 2002, the Future Workshop films featured fanciful situations structured around street interviews with people on various topics.
In some ways, the most imaginative film Hellwig ever made was also the shortest and the one that best delineates Hellwig’s position on West German science fiction—The World of Ghosts (Die Welt der Gespenster). Using the covers from West German science fiction paperbacks (primarily Perry Rhodan novels) overlaid with a collage of music that flips between “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and musique concrète while a narrator criticizes the capitalistic ideas of war and exploitation in their visions of the future. This vision of the future isn’t that of East Germany, the narrator says. East Germans can still choose the future they want. It’s an exhilarating little film, although, like Hellwig’s other films, asserts its position a little too stridently for its own good.
After the failure of defa futurum, Hellwig went back to making documentaries following the same template as his early efforts. In In the Land of the Eagles and Crosses (Im Land der Adler und der Kreuze), he looks back at the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler with a strong suggestion that the Allies dropped the ball on the prevention of fascism. In Father of a Thousand Suns (Väter der tausend Sonnen) he examines the life of Klaus Fuchs, one of the physicists at Los Alamos who also happened to be a Soviet spy. The film uses an interview with Fuchs that was conducted by master spy Markus Wolf, along with those of friends, acquaintances, and fellow scientists. The film was screened on January 4, 1990 at the Akademie der Künste der DDR (Academy of Arts of the GDR). This would be Hellwig’s last film. It would also be one of the last films screened at the academy before its name was changed to the Akademie der Künste zu Berlin (Berlin Academy of the Arts).
As one might expect, for someone so heavily invested in the political stance of the GDR, Hellwig wouldn’t have much future in unified Germany. His career ended with the Wende. There was no place in this capitalist future for a disciple of Ulbricht and Honecker. After reunification, he worked as a consultant on several documentaries on German history. Hellwig died in 2014.
1. The Oberhausen Manifesto was a short declaration by young filmmakers in West Germany decrying the banality of films made in their country and calling for a new kind of film. The phrase “Papas Kino ist tot” (Papa’s cinema is dead) became the rallying cry for this group although, curiously, that phrase does not appear in the manifesto. The Oberhausen Manifesto is now seen as a the first stirrings of the New German Cinema developed by folks such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Margarethe von Trotta, and Wim Wenders.
2. That law, known as Paragraph 175, dated back to 1871, shortly after Germany was first unified. East Germany removed the paragraph in 1968 but had stopped prosecuting homosexuality as a crime since 1957. West Germany removed the paragraph the following year, but homosexuality remained a crime in the West.
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