The Female Directors of East Germany Pt. 1: The DEFA Directors

There is no shortage of recent articles regarding the too long overlooked subject of female directors. While many of these articles are specific to the women directing films today (Patty Jenkins, Kelly Reichardt, Kathryn Bigelow, etc.), there are many more that claim to be comprehensive overviews of the contributions made by women to the art of cinema. These articles are careful to remember female directors from the distant past (Lotte Reiniger, Alice Guy-Blaché) and the ones who boldly made films in Hollywood when women weren’t even considered for jobs as directors (Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, Barbara Loden). They are careful to include women of color (Gina Prince-Bythewood, Chloé Zhao), and they don’t forget the well-known foreign women directors (Lina Wertmüller, Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman). But there’s one group of female directors who haven’t been given due credit for their work: The female directors of East Germany.

You can go through as many articles on the topic of female directors as you’re willing to read, and you won’t find Iris Gusner, Evelyn Schmidt, or Hannelore Unterberg mentioned at all. Never mind that the films by these women are often better than any of the films made by some of the directors that did make those lists. Even the list of female directors Wikipedia includes no female East German directors (although I, or someone else, may have corrected this situation by the time you read this). And when the BFI decided to devote an article to “overlooked” female directors, assembled from the work of no less than 55 different film critics, not one East German woman is on the list.1 Not one.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, the GDR was much better than other countries when it came to representing women’s issues on film. This is not to say things were nice and equal. Most of these “women’s issues” films were directed by men.2 In this respect, DEFA wasn’t that different from Hollywood, where certain male directors (most notably, Vincente Minelli, John M. Stahl, George Cukor, and Douglas Sirk) were the ones making films about women. When women did direct films in East Germany, they were less likely to tackle women’s issues than their male counterparts (perhaps not wanting to be pigeonholed).

The subject of East German female directors was recently tackled by Cornelia Klauß and Ralf Schenk in their book Sie: Regisseurinnen der DEFA und ihre Filme, which lists 63 female directors who made films at DEFA. Unlike this article, it includes in its list the women who made short films at DEFA. My list here is made up of the women who made feature films and feature-length documentaries for DEFA prior to its closing its doors in 1991.

Ella Ensink (1897 – 1968)

Ella Ensink was primarily a film editor. She got her start as a sound editor, but switched to film editing while working on Karel Lamac’s A Night in Paradise (Eine Nacht im Paradies). During the Third Reich, she continued to work on films, primarily potboilers and lighter fare. After the War, she went to work for DEFA. Although still primarily an editor, she directed several short films for DEFA’s documentary group. She also contributed feature length documentaries, including Wilhelm Pieck – Das Leben unseres Präsidenten (Wilhelm Pieck – The Life of our President) and Baumeister des Sozialismus Walter Ulbricht (Walter Ulbricht, Builder of Socialism) which she codirected with Theo Grandy.

Scene from Ein ungewöhnlicher Tag, directed by Bärbl Bergmann, Photograph: Josef Borst

Bärbl Bergmann (1931 – 2003)

Bergmann was the first woman to direct a feature film at DEFA. She trained as a photographer at the Weißensee University and was hired as an assistant director at DEFA. She made several shorts and documentaries before making her first feature film for DEFA in 1959, Ein ungewöhnlicher Tag (An Unusual Day). In 1964, she moved to Cairo with her husband, cinematographer Helmut Bergmann (younger brother to Konrad Wolf’s favorite cinematographer, Werner Bergmann). While in Egypt, the couple taught at the Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema. They returned to East Germany in 1968. Being away from the film community in East Germany during such a crucial time at DEFA effectively ended her career as a director. Her last film credit was as an assistant director on Erwin Stranka’s Motoring Tales.

Wanda Jakubowska (1907 – 1998)

After Bärbl Bergmann, the Polish director Wanda Jakubowska was the second woman to direct a feature film for DEFA. She had started her film career in the thirties, but owing to her allegiance to the Polish Communist Party, she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, then later to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. After the War, she resumed her career as a director with The Last Stage, a fictionalized account of her experiences in Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. She only made one film for DEFA. She went on to achieve greater fame in her native Poland. In 1960, she directed the joint DEFA/Film Polski film, Begegnung im Zwielicht (Encounters in the Dark)

Ingrid Reschke (1936 – 1971)

Reschke might have become the most famous female director in East Germany, had she not died at the age of 35 in a car accident. Reschke studied filmmaking at the film school in Babelsberg from 1959 to 1963. Shortly after graduating, she directed her first film, Daniel und der Weltmeister (Daniel and the World Champion). She directed a few more films, and had her biggest success with Kennen Sie Urban?, her last film before her death. When she died, she was working on the screenplay for The Legend of Paul and Paula, which she co-wrote with Ulrich Plenzdorf.

Iris Gusner, Photo: The DEFA Library at UMass Amherst

Iris Gusner (January 16, 1941)

Gusner was one of the first of a generation of directors either born after the War or too young to remember it. Technically, this categorization usually refers to the Nachwuchsgeneration—Baby Boomers (1945-1965), but Gusner, born in 1941, comes close enough. Gusner got her training at the VGIK in Moscow (now called the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography), the oldest and one of the most prestigious film schools in the world. There, she studied under Soviet film director Mikhail Romm. After a brief stint in East German television, she started working at DEFA, at first as an assistant to Konrad Wolf on Goya. When she got a chance to make her own movie, The Dove on the Roof, the film was promptly banned for showing people who were unhappy with their lives in the GDR. To avoid further controversy, her next feature film was a fairytale movie (Märchenfilm), The Blue Light, followed by Einer muss die Leiche sein (Someone Must Be the Corpse), a relatively innocuous murder mystery. She finally achieved accolades for her film All My Girls, about women working at a lightbulb factory. She followed this with the beautiful Were the Earth Not Round, and the humorous Bailing Out. More recently, she and West German filmmaker/author Helke Sander co-wrote Fantasie und Arbeit (Fantasy and Work) , a book that compared their experiences as filmmakers on each side of the Wall.

Hannelore Unterberg (December 28,1940)

Unterberg studied filmmaking at the film school in Babelsberg (now the Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf). She specialized in children’s films, including Konzert für Bratpfanne und Orchester (Concert for Frying Pan and Orchestra), Ein Mädchen aus Schnee (A Girl Made of Snow), Der Junge mit dem großen schwarzen Hund (The Boy with the Big Black Dog), and Verflixtes Mißgeschick! (Darn Misfortune!). In 1981 she became head of the Children’s Films group at DEFA. Today, she is best known for Isabel on the Stairs, the story of a twelve-year-old Chilean girl who moves to East Germany with her mother to escape Pinochet’s purges. Unterberg worked at DEFA until the Wende put an end to the film studio. Since that time, her work has been sporadic but includes episodes of the television shows Achterbahn (Roller Coaster) and Karfunkel.

Evelyn Schmidt, Photo: Wikidata

Evelyn Schmidt (June 20, 1949)

Evelyn Schmidt studied at the film school in Babelsberg where she studied as a master student under Konrad Wolf. Her first feature film for DEFA, Seitensprung (Infidelity) was met with positive reviews and was shown at the Berlinale. Her next film, The Bicycle, ruffled the feathers of the authorities for its portrayal of a less than ideal situation in the GDR. The film was banned from international distribution and Schmidt wasn’t allowed to make another film for three years. Unfortunately for her, that film, Auf dem Sprung (Crossroads) was also attacked and it would be another four years before she got a chance to make another film for DEFA. Like other East German directors, when faced with repeated criticism from the authorities for her films, she turned to the safer world of children’s films next, making Felix und der Wolf (Felix and the Wolf). In 1990, she finally obtained a permanent position at DEFA, but permanent didn’t mean much by that point. The film production was on its last leg and closed a year later. Since then, she has primarily worked as a teacher at the same film school she attended, and at a private Drama School in Berlin-Charlottenburg. She made no further movies after DEFA closed its doors.

Karin Howard (April 14, 1944)

Not an East German, Karin Howard made one film for DEFA, a co-production between the East German film company and several West German concerns. That film, The Tigress (Die Tigerin), received terrible reviews and flopped at the box office. Today, it is largely remembered for containing the last performance by the popular American actor George Peppard. This was Howard’s only attempt at directing. Since that time she has worked primarily as a screenwriter.

Helke Misselwitz (July 18, 1947)

Helke Misselwitz arrived late to the party, working at a number of different jobs before being hired as a director. She directed several shorts before getting a job in the DEFA documentary branch. During this time, her film Winter Adé was a critical success and is considered one of the best documentaries to come out of East Germany. She finally got her chance to direct a feature film for DEFA with Herzsprung, but DEFA was already moribund at this point. Since 1997, she has taught directing at the Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf.

Greti Kläy (1930 – 2015)

This Swiss director only made one film for DEFA—Anna annA, which she co-directed with East German cinematographer Jürgen Brauer. She trained as a dressmaker and got her start in films as a costume designer. Anna annA is her only film listing as director.

Sibylle Schönemann, DEFA Stiftung, Photo: Michael Loewenber

Sibylle Schönemann (October 5, 1953)

Schönemann started working for DEFA shortly after she graduated from high school, while attending the Babelsberg Film and Television Academy at the same time. She worked as an assistant director on Swan Island and as a dramaturge on other films. In 1984, she applied for an exit visa to go to West Berlin and was subsequently arrested for “interfering with government activities” (“Beeinträchtigung staatlicher Tätigkeit”)3 and thrown in prison. After the Wall came down, she returned to DEFA and made Verriegelte Zeit (Locked-Up Time) in which she visited her Stasi interrogators, former bosses, the judge who sentenced her, and a prison guard to question them and find out what they were thinking. As one might imagine, not everyone was willing to speak to her.

While the Wende may have been good for the East German people in terms of personal freedoms, it didn’t do much for job opportunities, and effectively ended the careers of most of the women working for DEFA. Few of these directors received offers to direct after the Wende. More tragic is the way the East German female editors—some of the best in the business—were essentially kicked to the curb after reunification. Coming to West German filmmaking at a time when computerized editing systems such as the Avid were just beginning to make inroads into the film community and the West Germans who now controlled filmmaking in the country weren’t that interested in bringing these East German technicians up to speed with the new technology. As a result, the careers of exceptional editors such as Christa Wernicke, Lena Neumann, Hildegard Conrad, Brigitte Krex, Monika Schindler, Ilse Peters, Helga Krause, and Evelyn Carow saw little or no work after the Wende.4

Next time, I’ll be looking at the female directors working at Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF), the GDR’s state-run television station broadcaster.

1. Wanda Jakubowska is mentioned, but she was a Polish filmmaker, although she did direct one film for DEFA.

2. The one area of filmmaking where women in the GDR surpassed men was in the editing room. By the end of the fifties, nearly every editor at DEFA was a woman. This was less true in the States, although a few female editors here did manage to make a name for themselves (most notably, Verna Fields, Mary Sweeney, and Thelma Schoonmaker).

3. A common charge in East Germany at the time and usually carried a sentence of a year or more in prison.

4. Some of this comes down to ageism rather than West German prejudice against the East Germans. The younger editors such as Renate Schäfer and Haike Brauer, whose careers at DEFA began shortly before the Wende, found careers in unified Germany, primarily in television production. A few, such as Rita Hiller, did manage to continue their careers after the Wende, but pitifully few.

© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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