The second film from DEFA captures the struggles of farmers and the people fleeing the destruction of the cities who are trying to start collectives in East Germany’s rural areas.
Free Land (Freies Land) was the second film made for DEFA. Like The Murderers Are Among Us before it, Free Land is a rubble film, dealing with the immediate aftermath of World War II. More specifically, it deals with the development of the Vereinigung der gegenseitigen Bauernhilfe (Association of Mutual Farmers Aid—VdgB for short). The first half of the movie sets things up with scenes of the post-war destruction and people fleeing the cities after the bombing. It’s during this hegira that we meet Frau Jeruscheit (Ursula Voss), sitting by the side of the road, disconsolate, having just buried her son. She ends up in the Mark Brandenburg where a community of fellow refugees have taken over the land once owned by Prussian Junkers. There is, of course, some resistance to the idea of joining the VdgB, especially from the older farmers, but eventually everyone gets on board and, with a plot development that would be right at home in Hollywood, Frau Jeruscheit’s missing husband shows up to help things along.
The VdgB was one of the groups organized in East Germany according to occupations. Nearly every interest or activity had an organization, but a few of these (the VdgB included) were large enough to be called “mass organizations.” The VdgB grew so large that it had its own bank and even ran a hotel intended for the use of members of the organization. As the movie shows, it started with the rural peasants and farmers, and eventually grew to include gardeners. It’s estimated that by 1989, the VdgB had 632,000 members, but the organization wouldn’t survive the Wende. Closely associated with the SED (East Germany’s ruling party), the people in power after reunification decided that the VdgB had to be eliminated, so it was assimilated into the Deutscher Bauernverband (German Farmers’ Association), West Germany’s equivalent organization.
Director Milo Harbich had a very short career at DEFA. He was born in Brazil, the son of an Austrian immigrant. When his family moved to Dresden, he took acting classes and trained as a stage designer. During the Third Reich, he primarily worked as a film editor at UFA, working on everything from fantasies (Münchhausen) to Nazi Propaganda (Hitlerjunge Quex). In 1940, he directed his first feature film, Kriminalkommissar Eyck (Detective Inspector Eyck). He was still working at UFA when the Soviets took over the eastern German states and DEFA was formed. He worked for a while at DEFA, directing this film along with some shorts, but left the GDR in 1947. He moved back to Brazil, where he started working for a paper company, while occasionally working on films. He died in 1988.
Ursula Voss got her start as an actress in 1938 when she was cast in The False Step (Der Schritt vom Wege) by director Gustaf Gründgens (the man upon whom the main character in Klaus Mann’s Mephisto is based). She continued to appear in movies and act on stage throughout the war. Free Land was her first post-war film. She then appeared in Peter Pewas’s Street Acquaintances before leaving East Germany for West Germany. She only appeared in a few films after that, her last being a small role in Many Passed By (Viele kamen vorbei) in 1956 (also directed by Peter Pewas).
Playing Frau Jeruscheit’s husband is Fritz Wagner, a handsome fellow who got his start in films in 1938, including Stukas—sort of a Nazi version of Top Gun. After the War, he appeared in a few DEFA films, including And 48 again (Und wieder 48), The Bridge, Modell Bianka (Model Bianka), and Anna Susanna. But Wagner was a West German, and he eventually settled back in the West, where he appeared in several films and television movies, as well as performing on the radio. He died in 1982.
The cinematographer was Otto Baecker, whose career, like those of Robert Baberske, Bruno Mondi, and Friedl Behn-Grund, stretches all the way back to the silent era. He continued working throughout the Third Reich years, but he rarely worked on high profile Nazi films. He made this film for DEFA, but, like many of the others on this production, his career for DEFA was short-lived. After making a few short films and one Der Augenzeuge (Eyewitness News) episode, Baecker headed to West Germany, where he continued his career until 1958, when he retired. He died in 1970.
Free Land hews closely to the stereotype of a DEFA film, with lots of proselytizing about the advantages of socialism. And a rousing finale where the factory workers and farmers come together in a celebration of socialist empowerment. In terms of style, the movie hearkens back to the films made by UFA during the Third Reich. It is competently put together, but it does not use the expressionism of the UFA films of the pre-Hitler era, nor the “socialist realism” that the Soviets championed, nor the “objective realism” DEFA would become known for. It’s curious that a film so resolutely on the side of the farmers and factory workers, a film that practically defines the old stereotype of what constitutes a DEFA film, was made by a cast and crew primarily made up of people who would not stay at DEFA, choosing, instead, to work in West Germany.
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