The Female Director of East Germany, Pt. 2: The DFF Directors

In my last article, I looked at the women who made feature films for DEFA. Even more overlooked—but no less worthy of attention—are the women who directed films for Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF), the GDR’s state-run television station broadcaster.1 For DEFA directors, especially after the 11th Plenum, television was sometimes used as a form of punishment when the authorities decided a director was making films that didn’t toe the party line. But for female directors, television was a place where they could actually practice their craft.2 The women who worked in television got a lot more done than their DEFA counterparts, but such is the nature of the television. They not only created TV-movies, but also worked on episodes of popular shows such as Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The Prosecution Has the Floor) and Polizeiruf 110 (Police Call 110).

Television as a popular medium took a while to establish itself in Germany. During the Third Reich the Nazis had already started broadcasts, but almost no one had a set. People could watch the broadcasts at community halls equipped with broadcasting equipment. After the War, the television infrastructure was completely destroyed. Both Germanys had to rebuild their systems from scratch. In the West, the Allied powers weren’t crazy about the idea of the Germans having television and in the East, the Soviets were indifferent to the medium, preferring to concentrate on filmmaking (I go into more detail about this in my book).

Television didn’t really get started until both countries declared themselves as sovereign states. By 1952, some television broadcasts were being made, but few people had televisions. It wasn’t until 1956 that TV started to gain any traction in East Germany. Seeing the effects of television on western democracies, the SED was quick to realize that this was a medium that needed careful monitoring. It was a powerful tool for educating people, but what did you want them to learn?3 In 1952, the government established the State Committee for Broadcasting (Staatlichen Komitee für Rundfunk) to oversee both radio and television. In 1968, television got its own governing body, the State Committee for Television (Staatliches Komitee für Fernsehen). For most of its existence, the committee was presided over by Heinz Adameck, a loyal SED party man whose career ended with the Mauerfall. As a consequence, there is a perception that East German television was more regulated and less likely than films or theater to present subjects that would rock the boat. While that may be true, it’s important to remember that it was East German television that gave us Ursula—one of the more transgressive and radical films to come out on either side of the Wall.

In the early days, television was primarily a man’s world. In the West, there were exceptions, such as Irna Phillips, who, along with Emmons Carlson,​ essentially invented the soap opera, and women such as ​​Gertrude Berg, who wrote and starred in The Goldbergs, one of televisions first sit-coms;4 but there was really only one woman consistently working as a director in television in the West and that was Ida Lupino, who had already proved herself by directing films such as Not Wanted and The Hitch-Hiker. During the fifties, she started directing TV shows of every stripe, from 77 Sunset Strip and The Untouchables to Bewitched and The Donna Reed Show. Female directors in East Germany were getting their work on television back then, but this was mostly because East German television in the early days spent a good portion of its time screening the short documentaries being made by the documentary group at DEFA.

It wasn’t until the seventies that female directors at DFF started making significant inroads into television. When they did, they wasted no time. By the end of the decade, a woman director at DEFA was no longer an oddity. Here are a few of the better-known ones. I’ve omitted women who worked as actresses or writers in East Germany, but whose careers as directors didn’t begin until after the Wende.

Ursula Schmenger (April 13, 1927)

One of the first women to work at DFF exclusively was Ursula Schmenger. She started her career life right after the War as a kindergarten teacher, but only kept the job a couple years before becoming a Russian interpreter. She kept that job until 1956, when she got a job at the DFF. There, she worked on the popular children’s television show Meister Nadelöhr erzählt (Master Needleeye’s Stories, later renamed Zu Besuch im MärchenlandVisit to Fairyland), making her the first female director at DFF.5 Most of the shows and movies she made for East German television were geared towards children. Her career in television ended with the Wende

Ingrid Sander (August 9, 1931)

Like Bärbl Bergmann, Ingrid Sander got her start in the fifties making short films and documentaries for DEFA, but, unlike Bergmann, she never made a feature film, moving, instead into the world of television, where she worked as a director, a producer, and spokesperson. She made several TV-movies, including Der Nachfolger (The Successor), Kein Mann für Camp Detrick (No Man for Camp Derrick), Die Ballade von der Geige (The Ballad of the Violin), Rückkehr als Toter (Return Dead), and Yvonne. Although she was a bigwig in East German television, and often spoke at the Verband der Film und Fernsehenschaffenden meetings (Association of Film and Television Makers), she is less well-remembered than other female East German directors. This probably comes down to the fact that she was resolutely and unrepentantly a supporter of the SED.

Regina Krupkat (April 1, 1943)

Regina Krupkat got her start in films as an actress, appearing briefly in Helmut Krätzig’s Pension Boulanka among others. Around the same time, she started working at the DFF, directing TV-movies and television episodes. She is best remembered for Der überlistete König (The Outwitted King), a TV fairytale film (Märchenfilm). In the seventies, she married and started working in theater. She occasionally lectures at the Filmschauspielschule Berlin.

Karola Hattop (December 26, 1949)

Karola Hattop graduated from the film and television school in Babelsberg in 1973 and started working in television. She specialized in family movies and fairytale films made for television, such as Die Drachenprinzessin (The Dragon Princess), Das Mädchen vom Eisberg (The Girl from the Iceberg), Nachhilfe für Vati (Teaching Dad), Jeder träumt von einem Pferd (Everyone Dreams of a Horse), and Feriengewitter (Holiday Thunderstorm). She finally got her chance to make a DEFA film in 1992 with Elefant im Krankenhaus (Elephant in the Hospital) as a joint project between DEFA and DFF. At this point, both of these companies were on their last legs. Owing, perhaps to her background in television and her age, Hattop’s transition after the Wende was more successful than many of her counterparts. She continues to make TV-movies and direct episodes of popular television shows.

Christa Mühl (1947 – 2019)

Christa Mühl studied directing at the film school in Babelsberg and started working in East German television in various roles. She started her directing career in at DFF in 1977 and worked there until the Wende. Her DFF films include Die Rache des Kapitäns Mitchell (The Revenge of Captain Mitchell), Puppen für die Nacht (Dolls for the Night), Paulines zweites Leben (Pauline’s Second Life), and Weihnachtsgeschichten (Christmas Stories). After the Wende, she continued to work in television until 2010 when she turned to writing. In 2015, her comic crime novel Seniorenknast – wir kommen! (Prison for Seniors – Here We Come!). She followed this in 2018 with a second novel about the same characters, Seniorenknast: Da sind wir! (Prison for Seniors – We Made it!). Mühl died on October 14, 2019 after losing her battle with cancer (a complete obituary here).

Christa Kulosa

I’ve already devoted a page on the East German Cinema Blog to the work of Christa Kulosa, but she can’t go unmentioned here. Her television work includes Antons liebe Gäste (Anton’s Beloved Guests), Liebling, Du irrst (You’re Wrong, Darling), and Warum gerade Hubert! (Why Hubert, of All People!). For more information see, The Teleplays of Christa Kulosa.

Vera Loebner (July 25, 1938)

Born in Sorau—now Żary, Poland—Loebner mostly worked on series shows at the DFF, in particular Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort (The Prosecutor has the Floor), for which she directed twelve episodes. In 1980, she was given the Kunstpreis der DDR (Art Prize of the GDR) for her work. As was more often the case with people working in television than the people at DEFA, the Wende didn’t end her career. She has continued to direct television series since the Wende, including Manfred Krug’s Liebling Kreuzberg (Darling Kreuzberg), and several TV-movies.

Ursula Bonhoff

Starting in 1975 with Zum Beispiel Flick (For Example, Flick), Bonhoff had a successful career as a TV-movie director at the DFF. Unfortunately, her career appears to have ended with Wende, and there is very little available information on what she has done since reunification.

Christine Krüger (February 23, 1947)

Christine Krüger (AKA Christine Schmidt-Schaller) was an actress first, but moved into directing near the end of DFF’s life. She first studied acting from 1965 to 1969 at Theaterhochschule “Hans Otto” Leipzig. She started her acting career on stage before moving to DEFA. There, she decided she wanted to become a director and studied directing at the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin. After the Wende, she taught acting at the University of Film and Television “Konrad Wolf” in Potsdam. She continues to act in television series and TV-movies.

Dagmar Wittmers (November 15, 1952)

As part of the Nachwuchsgeneration, Wittmers got her start at DFF five years before the television station disappeared. After the Wende, it took a couple years for her to get reestablished in the New Germany, but she has gone on the to become one of the more prolific directors in German television. During her DFF years, Wittmers mostly worked on series shows such as Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort and Polizeiruf 110, but has gone on, since the Wende to create several TV movies and documentaries.

Ursula Reinhold

Reinhold’s career at DFF was shorter than most. She made TV-movies and directed episodes of Der Staatsanwalt hat das Wort from 1965 until 1968, then disappeared. There is an Ursula Reinhold who worked as an editor, author, and research assistant at the Academy of Sciences of the GDR, but I haven’t verified that this is the same person. Reinhold’s TV-films include Zielansprache (Target Language), Der Steckbrief (The Wanted Poster), Zwanzig Zahnbürsten (Twenty Toothbrushes), and Ein Wort zur rechten Zeit (A Word at the Right Time).

Johanna Clas

Although primarily an actress, Clas also directed for television. Most notably, Bau’n se billig, Schinkel (Build it cheaply, Schinkel). In the March 19, 2006 issue of Der Spiegel, Ulrich Muhl, star of The Lives of Others accused someone named “Johanna Glas” of being an informer for the Stasi (IM) at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. This is assumed to be a typo and that he was referring to Johanna Clas, who was working at the theater at the time. Clas died in 2009.

Petra Tschörtner (1958–2012)

Petra Tschörtner was a documentary filmmaker. The daughter of East German publisher Heinz Dieter Tschörtner, she started making documentaries in 1978. Her first short film, Heim (Home), a documentary about kids with shitty parents, got off to a rocky start when it was shelved for being too grim and not showing the GDR in its best light. It wasn’t released until after the Wende. She was considered by her peers to be one of the best documentarians in East Germany. She continued making documentaries after the Wende and also worked as an assistant director on a variety of TV shows. Her films include Unsere alten Tage (Our Olden Days), Berlin – Prenzlauer Berg, and Herr Giwi und die umgekehrte Emigration (Mr. Giwi and the reverse emigration). After a long illness, she died of colon cancer in 2012.

Gabriele Denecke

Mostly documentaries since the Wende. In 12015, she joined directors Peter Kahane, Thomas Knauf, Andreas Voigt, Hannes Schönemann, Ralf Marschalleck, and Lars Barthel to make the documentary Als wir die Zukunft waren (When We Were the Future), all members of the Nachwuchsgeneration, they each explore their childhood and what growing up in the GDR was like. On the 2015 German radio program, Eine Lange Nacht über DDR-Regisseurinnen Filmemachen – um jeden Preis? (A Long Night about Women Making Films in the GDR – A What Cost?), Denecke, along with Helke Misselwitz and Petra Tschörtner, talk about growing up in the GDR and how they came to become directors.

There are a few other women I could mention here. Women such as Sylvia Ackermann, Vera Oelschlegel, Anna Knabe, Gitta Nickel, and Anne Pfeuffer. These women did occasionally direct, but they mainly worked in peripheral fields such as acting, producing and dramaturgy.

I will be looking more closely at the films made by the women in this list and the ones in the previous article. Many of them were (or are) quite good at their craft and deserve more recognition.

1. The DFF went through a few name changes during its forty year history, from Fernsehzentrum to DFF to DDR-Fernsehen to Fernsehen der DDR. To keep things simple, I’ll be referring to it as DFF through this article.

2. After the 11th Plenum, several of DEFA’s best directors, such as Frank Beyer, Egon Günther, and Günter Stahnke, found themselves relegated to making TV-movies for perceived transgressions.

3. This aspect of television was used for humor in a cartoon that first appeared in New Yorker magazine in 1965 (and later in Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage, in which a couple watching television comment: “When you consider television’s awesome power to educate, aren’t you glad it doesn’t?”

4. For more on this subject, check out Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today.

5. Mention should also be made here of Friedgard Kurze, who was the puppeteer on Meister Nadelöhr erzählt and Zu Besuch im Märchenland.

© 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.