About

About This Blog

This blog is dedicated to the films of DEFA. From its start after World War II, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, DEFA—the official film studio of East Germany—made some of the most interesting films to come out of Germany during the last half of the twentieth century. In this blog I plan to talk about as many of these films as I can get my hands on. If you live in the USA, a remarkable number of them are available through Netflix (DVD only at this time). If you are from another country and know of a good source to rent these films; or if you know of any upcoming screenings in your area, please let me know and I will try and post something about it here. I can be reached at eastgermancinema via gmail, or Google+.

About Jim Morton

Jim Morton is a San Francisco writer whose work has focused primarily on unusual films and forgotten pop culture. From 1981 until 1983 he published a small fanzine devoted to horror and exploitation movies.  He distributed the newsletter in San Francisco, where it caught the attention of V. Vale and Andrea Juno of Re/Search Publications. Vale and Juno hired Jim as guest editor and the primary contributor to Re/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films, which was, at the time, one of the only books to take a serious look at exploitation films.

In 1988, Jim published Pop Void, a book devoted to various aspects of popular culture.  He assembled writers from many different walks of life to write articles about people such as Margaret Keane, Rod McKuen, William James Sidis, and Henry Gregor Felsen; and everyday items such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinners, novelty bath soaps, and fifties car design.

Through Pop Void, Jim was enlisted as a board member for the The Museum of Modern Mythology. In 1996, he was hired by Chronicle Books to write the text for What a Character!: 20th Century American Advertising Icons.

He was also a contributor to Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins’ Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head; and Jack Sargeant and Stephanie Watson’s Lost Highways, An Illustrated History of Road Movies. He has written articles for several magazines, including MacWorld and Personal Publishing.

About the Titles

When describing the films, I use the current U.S. distribution titles where applicable with the original title in parentheses. If a film has not been released in the United States at the time of publication, I use the German title with an approximate English translation in parentheses. It is possible when these films are finally released in the States, a different translation of the original title will be used. In some cases (e.g., Der schweigende Stern), the film is available in English with more than one title (The First Spaceship on Venus and The Silent Star). In this case, I use the titles preferred by the DEFA Library at Amherst . If a film is not available from or listed by the DEFA Library at Amherst, I use the titles shown on the Progress Film-Verleih website. When writing about a film that is not available with English subtitles yet, I use the DEFA Library title. If the film is not listed there, I use the best source I can find (e.g., IMDB, other respected authorities). If I find nothing, I try to translate the title as literally as possible. Sometimes, the literal translation is unsatisfactory, in which case, I might take some artistic license,

How to Watch East German Films

When you sit down to watch an East German film for the first time, you are likely to find it a bit, well, boring. There’s no other way to say it. The pacing, the scene lengths, the use of music are all virtually antipodal to the American method of making films. If the last three films you watched were Transformers, X-Men, and Mission Impossible, the pacing of the East German movies will likely turn you into a ten-year-old with ADHD. A quick check of the whinging in the reviews on International Movie Database will bear this out. Americans find it hard to watch East German films.

In truth, East German films are not boring at all, but they do require a different approach to the rhythms of film-watching. Many people, but especially we Americans, may find it difficult to adjust to this after years of hyperactive film editing and visual over-stimulation. Here are a few pointers to help you better enjoy your East German movie experience:

Style and Form. While watching these films, keep in mind the environment in which they were made. Babelsberg wasn’t Hollywood, and every film that was made had to be approved by a gang of party stiffs (we actually do the same thing here with the MPAA Ratings Board). What these officials they would or wouldn’t approve ofttimes was dependent on the prevailing mood, and that mood could change on a whim. If there was a leadership change in the Kremlin, then all bets were off. A film that was the top grosser at the local Kino a month earlier could find itself sitting on a shelf for the next thirty years, or worse, destroyed.

One of the most remarkable paradoxes of East German cinema is that the rules for filmmakers usually loosened up right after a clamp down. So it is that some of East Germany’s most daring films were made right after the wall was built and right after the conservative hardliner Honecker usurped the more liberal Ulbricht. Whenever it looked like filmmakers were finally going to get to make the kinds of films they wanted to, the party would step in and put the kibosh on things.

East vs. West. In the early days of DEFA, many of the people working on films in East Germany hailed from the west. The border was still porous, the cold war was only just beginning to heat up, and the authorities in the west (especially the Americans) were doing everything in the power to keep the Germans from resurrecting their film industry. If you keep this in mind while watching the films, you will quickly notice that the early DEFA films have a very different look and feel to the later films. Paul Verhoeven’s The Cold Heart (Das kalte Herz), for instance, is indistinguishable from its West German counterparts because nearly everyone involved in the making of this film hailed from the west. This started to change in 1957, partly because the state started making a more concerted effort to use their own technicians, and partly because by then the West German film industry was once again up and running and the West German film people felt no further need to use the east to get their films made. After the wall was built, East German films diverged substantially from their West German counter parts. There was still some influence from other countries, but it came mostly in the form of style—specifically the French New Wave and Italian neorealism.

Context. Just as American films often assume some familiarity with popular historical or cultural subjects, so too the East German films are filled with moments that have more relevance to East Germans than to others. When a character sings “Yes, we have no bananas,” keep in mind that bananas were like gold in the GDR. Or while discussing dress styles, the fact that miniskirts were endorsed by the government in the early seventies because cloth was sometimes in short supply. East German films are laden with such references, most of which go by unnoticed by anyone who didn’t grow up east of the Iron Curtain (including me).

Secret Subtexts. When it comes to reading and understanding a film’s subtext, no one can match the East Germans. A director could never come out and directly attack the government or socialism if he ever wanted to make another film. But, with a little care, he could slip a jab past the authorities (we had the same thing happening here during the Hays Code era in Hollywood, but it had more to do with sex than politics). Obviously, a film about surveillance in contemporary society had no chance of getting approval, but if you made the film about the Nazis (e.g., Your Unknown Brother), you might just get away with it. Likewise, the silly kings in a fairytale (Märchenfilm) might bear a resemblance to certain officials. This didn’t always work though. When Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther released Das Kleid (The Dress), it was immediately banned because the authorities thought it might be interpreted as an attack on them.

Tempo. East German films love to take their time; not with the nearly static, but intensely meaningful sorts of scenes that show up in films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but with scenes that seem to add little or nothing to the narrative. That’s because in East German films, place and routine are part of the narrative. Filmmakers from very few other country spend as much time setting up the scenario as the East Germans did. This approach did not go down that well, even in the east, but if you are willing to give it time, and let the story unfold at its own pace, you are usually rewarded for your patience.

Comments
  1. Hiltrud Schulz says:

    dear jim,
    i friend of the defa film library told me about your blog. i am very impressed what you did and it makes me happy to see your interest in our films. we would like to feature your blog in one of our upcoming newsletters and i am wondering if you would allows us to do so.
    could you please share few information about the blog with me: online since august 2010, the plan is a book, 2-3 films reviewed per month????? and how do you select the films? and what is the reason for your interest in east german film.
    i look very much forward to hearing from you.
    thank you so much for promoting our films.
    with kind regards,
    hiltrud
    defa film library at umass

  2. Richard McKenzie says:

    Dear Jim

    Hi, you followed me on Academia.edu and I thought I’d say hi. It is good to see a fellow DEFA researcher on the net. It would be good to stay in touch as I am developing lots of lines of enquiry, recently I met up with Rolf Sohre, who was Kunerts cameraman on Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt and Das Zweite Gleis, I am also hoping to publish an article about German War Films in the next few weeks, when I have finished writing it. I look forward to reading your blog and will keep you up to date with developments here in the UK. Regards Richard

  3. Robert Gemmell says:

    First of all, may I say that you’ve got a great blog.

    Have you considered doing a review on Signals – A Space Adventure (1970) by Gottfried Kolditz, another East German Sci-Fi, billed in the west as the East German 2001? It is not yet released on DVD, but there’s a TVRip on the torrent site Cinemageddon, with fan subs included.

    Apart from the four main East German Sci-Fi films (or utopian films as they were called in East Germany, to differentiate themselves from Western Sci-Fi) The Silent Star (1960), Signals – A Space Adventure (1970), Eolomea (1972), and In the Dust of the Stars (1976), about a dozen or so more were produced, although they’re relatively hard to track down. It would be good if all the core Sci-Fi films were covered in this blog.

    • Jim Morton says:

      Thank you, Robert, for your kind words. It’s always good to hear that people are enjoying the blog. To answer your question, yes, I do plan to review Signals at some point, along with some of the lesser-known, science-fiction themed films such as Der Mann mit dem Objektiv, and Das Ding im Schloß.

      • Robert Gemmell says:

        Just for reference, I’ve posted this researched listology of East Germany’s Sci-Fi output. You’ve mentioned some of the more obscure titles, but there might be others that you’ve not heard of. Genuine science fiction films, and films that are partly science fiction i.e. the Future Workshop trilogy (intended as science fact) are included. While this list is comprehensive, I wouldn’t say it’s complete because according to a dissertation by Sonja Fritzsche, several others are yet to be unearthed from the archives.

        Titles that have not received an international release have been translated:

        * Chemistry and Love [Chemie und Liebe] (1948) dir. Arthur Maria Rabenalt
        * The Silent Star [Der schweigende Stern] (1960) dir. Kurt Maetzig
        * The Man with the Objective [Der Mann mit dem Objektiv] (1961) dir. Frank Vogel
        * Hour of the Scorpion [Stunde des Skorpions] (1968) (TV movie in 3 parts) dir. Horst Zaeske
        * Signals – A Space Adventure [Signale – Ein Weltraumabenteuer] (1970) dir. Gottfried Kolditz
        * Eolomea (1972) dir. Herrmann Zschoche
        * Love 2002 [Liebe 2002] (1972) (short) dir. Joachim Hellwig
        * The World of Phantoms [Die Welt der Gespenster] (1974) (short) dir. Joachim Hellwig
        * Adventures with Blasius [Abenteuer mit Blasius] (1975) dir. Egon Schlegel
        * Flowers for the Man in the Moon [Blumen für den Mann im Mond] (1975) dir. Rolf Losansky
        * Future Workshop I [Werkstatt Zukunft I] (1975) (short) dir. Joachim Hellwig
        * Future Workshop II [Werkstatt Zukunft II] (1976) (short) dir. Joachim Hellwig
        * In the Dust of the Stars [Im Staub der Sterne] (1976) dir. Gottfried Kolditz
        * Brothers in Space [Brüder im All] (1977; East Germany) (short) dir. Joachim Hellwig
        * The Faithful Robot [Der getreue Roboter] (1977) (TV movie) dir. Jens-Peter Proll
        * Future Workshop III [Werkstatt Zukunft III] (1977) (short) dir. Joachim Hellwig
        * The Estate [Der Nachlaß] (1978) (TV movie) dir. Peter Deutsch
        * Professor Tarantoga and His Strange Guest [Professor Tarantoga und sein seltsamer Gast] (1979) (TV movie) dir. Jens-Peter Proll
        * The Thing in the Castle [Das Ding im Schloß] (1979) dir. Gottfried Kolditz
        * Visiting van Gogh [Besuch bei Van Gogh] (1985) dir. Horst Seemann
        * Boomerang [Bumerang] (1988, released in 1994) (short) dirs. Olaf Skrzipczyk, Bernd Sahling, Axel Ziegenspeck

      • Jim Morton says:

        Yes, I’ve seen this list, but thanks for posting it. I probably won’t be write about TV movies too often. There are still plenty of feature films left to explore. I don’t have any immediate plans to discuss shorts. I’m sure there is plenty of undiscovered gold out there.

  4. Anna Banhegyi says:

    Dear Jim,

    I’ve come across your wonderful blog while researching some details for a dissertation chapter (I’m writing about the ideology and mythology of Eastern Bloc westerns, with heavy focus on the DEFA-Indianerfilme) and happily found some interesting bits about the composers I did not have in my research files (thanks!). And I totally agree on the sorry saguaro-stand-ins in Apaches… when I screened the movie for fellow academics at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies it elicited some laughs for sure, but they also agreed that otherwise the landscape looked just fine.
    I’d definitely be interested in your take on the Indianerfilme in more detail and would be happy to share some of my findings as well.

    All the best,
    Anna Banhegyi
    SMU

  5. Jim,
    I have been planning an encyclopaedia of science fiction cinema, covering every Sci-Fi movie produced from the 1890s to the present….information aggregators such as Wikipedia don’t mention every Sci-Fi movie. Gaps from other books, magazines, journals and websites indicate that there is an encyclopaedia sized chunk still out there. Productions from all over the world will be covered. Sub categories also include theatrical/TV/OVA/made for video/made for DVD, live action/animated/live action-animated hybrids….DEFA’s Sci-Fi output will obviously be included in the publication.

    • Jim Morton says:

      Robert,

      I edited your two posts into one to keep things short and sweet. That sounds like quite an undertaking. I come across DEFA films and facts all the time that are not listed on IMDB, so that’s no surprise. You’ve got your work cut out for you. Good luck!

      If anyone is interested in contacting Robert about working on this, they can leave me a message in the comments, and I will forward his contact information.

      Jim

  6. Hey Jim any chance of a link to my blog http://www.germanwarfilm.co.uk ? I am trying to promote interest in German War FIlms and a link from your site would really help. Richard

  7. nguyen says:

    hey Jim.
    Sorry if this is a bit unrelated but I’m wondering if you could use your general expertise in german cinema to help me out here.
    I’ve been scouring around for a german movie made in 2009 i think about a german mother in east germany with some depression issues. She was raising two daughters and suspected her husband of having an affair. I think the opening scene was her parking her VW on a traintrack to commit suicide. It was a really cool movie but alas cos I don’t know the title or any actors it’s been impossible to track down.
    (I saw it on a flight and didn’t think much of it at the time but it stuck inside my head)
    Another note was it had an aretha franklin “when i wake up” soundtrack.

    if you can’t help me do you know where i could look? i’ve tried all the titles in goethe movies but no joy.
    Thanks in advance!

    • Jim Morton says:

      I don’t recognize this film. Are you sure it was a VW? If it takes place before the Wende, it would more likely have been a Trabant, or a Wartburg. Perhaps a reader of this blog will know the answer.

    • Charlie says:

      If Nguyen could give some more information on the movie I might be able to find it. Was it a black and white film? Was it in colour? How did the mother look like? Did she have long hair? Short hair? Details make the research of a film much easier.

  8. Sandra says:

    you can use imdb.com advanced search, search by country, then sort by year in descending order. did you see it at a film festival? what was the venue? I looked through a bunch of titles starting with page 901 in the search
    http://www.imdb.com/search/title?countries=de&sort=year,desc&start=901&title_type=feature

    • Jim Morton says:

      Sandra, I tried that based on the info from nguyen, but I didn’t have much luck. To vague, not to mention the possible variations on things like “train tracks” (railroad tracks, traintracks, tracks, etc.). The best possible solution is if someone recognizes the scene from the film that nguyen mentions. I haven’t come across it myself yet, but I do watch a lot of German films, so one of these days, it may pop up.

  9. Hello Jim

    I am writing from London England- can you please advise me if there are any German film societies close to me- websites or even organizations – thank you!

  10. Hi Jim,

    As an East German, I am deeply impressed about your knowledge about East German culture. Though I grew up there for 9 years from 1980 to 1989, I saw my surroundings through the innocent lens of a child. Indeed, I really liked my childhood in East Germany and I wouldn’t have wanted to live it anywhere else. But of course I also got a sense of what was wrong in East Germany through my parents daily stories/complaints. So my good childhood memories didn’t turn me into a voter for “Die Linke” party after the wall came down. I am glad that that part of German history is over and will hopefully never repeat. I don’t understand how anybody would want such a repressive regime back, but there are many people who feel way too romantic about the “good old times”. I saw some of the movies you feature here and it’s like going back to childhood. Anyway, thanks for keeping up this blog. You did (and do) an awesome job.

    Martin

    • Jim Morton says:

      Thanks Martin,

      I am always so flattered when people who actually grew up in the GDR give my blog a thumbs up. Coming from America as I do, it is sometimes difficult to gauge how successful I am in explaining things about East Germany that most of us who grew up in the States were never taught. The aspects of everyday life alone require as much study on my part as the details of the films.

  11. Dear Jim, did you see “Anderson” at the Berlinale 2014? I just posted an interview with Berlin musician Robert Lippok on the doc about the former East Berlin art star –and Stasi spy– Sascha Anderson that you & your readers might be interested in: http://www.goethe.de/canada/germanfilm. And the next blog article there will actually be about Hanns Eisler’s music to Dudow-Brecht’s 1932 DEFA film “Kuhle Wampe”. Best from Toronto, Jutta

    • Jim Morton says:

      Thanks for the info Jutta! Anderson sounds fascinating. Hopefully someone will bring the film to San Francisco (or Los Angeles) in the near future. I look forward to seeing it. Your blog is excellent. I’ve added it to my blogroll. Vielen dank!

  12. Emanuel K says:

    Hello,
    For the benefit of film students who may read this blog, I would like to bring to your attention a short film competition held by the EU. The competition aims at raising awareness to a research conducted by the EU about the future of the European transportation industry, by calling film students from all over Europe to participate and make a short movie about one of two scenarios presented by the research. The details can all be found here >> http://www.race2050.org/competition
    including the way to submit entries.
    If you could bring this to the attention of the blog readers or other blogs about cinema I would appreciate it very much.
    Thank you.

  13. Skye says:

    This is amazing! Thank you so much for compiling this. I have a long-standing fascination with the DDR, which I have never found in anyone else here I’m California. Your blog simplifies something that was before a bit of a process. I’ll really enjoy checking out your suggestions, it will be fun to put my knowledge of East Germany and it’s culture to use in watching these films! Thank you so much, preserving what came out of the DDR is something more people should focus on.

  14. Hi there from Germany! I’m working for the DEFA-Stiftung in Berlin and I’m very enthusiastic about your Website. You are doing a amazing job. We are glad that there are people who are so interested in DEFA-Films and who write so knowledgeable about them. Maybe you like to add our homepage http://defa-stiftung.de to your blogroll. Under “Dokumentation” we provide a lot of informations about films, persons, institutions and historical events, a large bibliography and articles from newspapers as pdfs. Under “Filme” you get also detailed filmografical informations.

    • Jim Morton says:

      Danke for the kind words. I’ve added DEFA=Stiftung to the blogroll. I was actually surprised (and a little embarrassed) that it wasn’t there already. Your website has been a valuable asset in my research.

  15. Dieter Petzler says:

    Hi there! As I’ve been living in Hamburg for all my life (61 now), I was able to watch DDR 1; Hamburg was rather close to the border. DDR films and TV series have formed my “audience habits” considerably.

    I must say I find your blog somewhat hard to navigate (a “film by film” or “director by director” list instead of a monthly one would be a treasure!), and your catchword bit on the left seems a bit random to me. The only director explicitly mentioned is Maetzig – why not Wolf, Kohlhaase, Beyer, etc.? Why not “anti-fascist films” and “present-day films”, the two hallmarks of DEFA productions, at least IMHO?

    The result is that I’d like to give a few hints about films not knowing whether they are already in your blog or not. Be that as it may, here we go:

    For the anti-fascist films, I’d like to mention “Die Verlobte” (Rücker/Reisch, 1980) with Jutta Wachowiak as the imprisoned resistance fighter hoping to meet her fiancé again after the liberation – in vain… Wachowiak is heartbeaking in every respect! Again, this film is based on an autobiographical novel, this time “Haus der schweren Tore” by Eva Lippold. The heavy-gated house is, of course, the “Zuchthaus”, a more severe version of a prison.

    Another film I’ll never forget is “Der Aufenthalt” (Beyer/Kohlhaase) based on a novel by Hermann Kant where a young German POW is mistakenly accused by a Polish woman as a war criminal. He is imprisoned, and his innocence is only ascertained some time after. When he is finally released, the Polish warden remarks: “You do not expect us to apologize, do you?” – You feel sorry for the young man but still, the reacton of the former victims is totally understandable.

    For the present-day films, I recommend “Bürgschaft für ein Jahr” with another impressing performance by Katrin Sass as a single mother becoming neglectful of her children after her divorce and then patiently brought back to realizing her responsability by her two “Bürgen” (guarantors).

    DEFA also produced for DDR TV – and in that field, the two “Martin Luther” and “Johann Sebastian Bach” series are admirable. West German critics at the time (1983 and 1985, respectively) were sort of ashamed that the GDR produced better anniversary films than their own rich film industry did. Both series feature Ulrich Thein in the respective leading role, and especially his Luther is simply unique! With Bach, it came in handy that Thein was a musician, too – so he could actually play the organ himself and not mime along…

    So, that’s my bit for now – if anything else comes to mind, I’ll be sure to post it!

    • Jim Morton says:

      Thanks Dieter. Glad you’re enjoying the blog. The reason Kurt Maetzig is listed more conspicuously than the other directors is because I created a category for him before most of the others. There are also the tags below the film titles, which take you to various directors and actors that I haven’t created categories for yet. I usually use the search bar though, myself. One of these days I hope to go back through all the posts and add the directors whose categories were created later. Then You’ll see more of them listed.

      I’ll keep an eye out for those films you mentioned. So far, I’ve been at the mercy of what I can find in the Saturn stores when I visit Germany, and what’s been made available with English subtitles by the DEFA Library at UMass Amherst, but I’m looking to change that.

      As for “anti-fascist” and “present day” categories, that’s a little trickier. English doesn’t have a similar expression to “Gegenwartsfilm.” The closest is “contemporary film,” but even that usually refers to the date on which a film was made rather than the content of the movie. As for “anti-fascist” well, that’s a really tricky subject, so I prefer to categorize them according to type of fascist (mostly Nazis, of course).

  16. David Strohl says:

    Loved finding your blog. Having lived in West Berlin before, during and after the fall of the wall, this site is like a godsend to find. I’ve seen so many DEFA films in East German kino’s that I found myself with a fascination with the form. Also found that I’m in a very small group of film lovers with a specific niche market. Thanks very much!

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