Archive for the ‘DEFA’ Category

The Crucible

At first glance, The Crucible (Die Hexen von Salem) doesn’t appear to be an East German film at all. It is directed by a Belgian, it stars French actors, and it has a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre. Additionally, almost all of the technical crew are French. In this respect, it is reminiscent of DEFA productions of the forties and early fifties, such as Razzia and The Heart of Stone, which were, for all intents and purposes, West German films, DEFA in name only. Those films were the result of the fact that West Germany had no film industry at the time, thanks to the U.S. military government (OMGUS), doing as little as possible to encourage West German film production. They preferred, instead, for West Germans to watch Hollywood films, sometimes without even bothering to dub or subtitle them. This gave DEFA a leg up in Germany, at least until West Germany became a sovereign state in 1949 and film production was put back on track.

Even so, Hollywood had an edge in film production and distribution, not just in Germany, but in the rest of Europe as well. For one thing, many extraordinarily talented film people fled to America to escape the Nazis, and many decided to stay in Hollywood after the war was over.1 For another, most countries were too busy rebuilding their basic infrastructures to worry about things like film production. It was nearly impossible for a film company from any single European country to compete with the production capabilities of Hollywood.

To solve the problem, production companies from different countries would join forces to make movies. Those Steve Reeves sword-and-sandal films so beloved by the gay community, were Spanish-Italian co-productions, and the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood westerns were made with Italian, Spanish and West German money. Italians offer figured figured into things, thanks to Cinecittà, the movie production facilities built by Mussolini to make pro-fascist films.

Die Hexen von Salem

East Germany should have figured into more of these co-productions. They had some of the best facilities for filming in Europe—partly thanks to East Germany’s early lead in European moviemaking, and partly because they inherited Ufa’s Babelsberg studios—but the United States and West Germany were doing everything in their power to marginalize East Germany; going so far as to hire hundreds of former Nazis to help them do the job. In 1955, West Germany took the ultimate step with the Hallstein Doctrine, which threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with any country that recognized the sovereignty of East Germany (excluding, of course, the Soviet Union).

Sweden’s Pandora Film was making films with DEFA, but Pandora was actually a front for Erich Mehl’s West German production company. The French were the only NATO country to engage in co-productions with East Germany. DEFA officials saw these joint productions as a way to thumb their noses at the Hallstein Doctrine, but, as we shall see, it was all for naught.

The Crucible is adapted from the play by Arthur Miller. It is known in France as Les Sorcières de Salem, and in West Germany as Hexenjagd (Witch Hunt). Miller wrote the play in response to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and its attacks on Hollywood writers, directors and actors. Started after the war (or, more aptly, rebooted), HUAC was designed to root out threats to the American way of life. For HUAC, this didn’t mean racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, that were lynching blacks in the South, or the companies that were actively doing everything in their power to stop unionization at their sweatshops; it meant communists. If you were a communist, you had no rights in America, and supporting that ideology could lose your job. Starting in 1947, HUAC began investigating and prosecuting suspected communist spies, but pretty soon it became engulfed in wave of anti-communist hysteria that saw Russian spies hiding behind every bush. Things got really ugly when the committee decided that the biggest nest of communists was Hollywood and started throwing people in jail for believing in the first amendment.

Les Sorcières de Salem

Miller’s play examined this deeply repressive, anti-communist committee by comparing it to the witch trials in seventeenth-century Salem, where a group of hysterical schoolgirls convinced the locals that their town was full of witches. Although today the red-baiting excesses of the fifties are pinned almost entirely on Senator Joseph McCarthy, in truth it started as a team effort by republicans bent on using a committee originally intended to find actual threats, as a way to push forward their conservative agenda and make left of center ideologies virtually illegal in America. McCarthy came late to the game and was just the schmuck who was too stupid to duck when public opinion turned.

The Crucible was first performed in 1953 and is now considered a classic of American theater. The play opened to mixed reviews, some reviewers clearly felt that by writing this play, Miller was catering to the commies, but the New York Times, to its credit, gave the play a glowing review and The Crucible went on to win the Outstanding Play award at the 7th Annual Tony Awards. It is certainly no coincidence that a few years later, Miller had his own confrontation with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

In 1954, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret—the Brad and Angelina of France in the fifties—appeared in the stage version of Miller’s play at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt (now Théâtre de la Ville). Talk of turning the play into a movie started almost immediately, but this time with a screenplay by the renowned existentialist writer, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre wrote his screenplay for the film after seeing Montand and Signoret perform on stage. He liked the play, but felt that Marcel Aymé’s translation—an accurate translation of Miller’s original—concentrated too much on the story of one man’s struggle against mass hysteria. Sartre, still a Marxist at this point, saw the story as a cautionary tale about the use of religion to help the rich suppress and steal from the poor. He wanted to make a political statement, but it was one that wasn’t getting much traction in the west, where the U.S. was using its might to clamp down on any pro-communist thinking, sometimes using shockingly repressive techniques to do so. So it was that the producers turned to DEFA to help get the film made.

To direct the film, the Belgian actor-director Raymond Rouleau was chosen. Rouleau studied drama at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels before moving to Paris. He started as an actor, with an auspicious debut in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent. He started directing a few years later and continued to act and direct until his death in Paris in 1981. From 1944 until 1951, he, along with Lucien Beer, headed the Théâtre de l’Œuvre, the theater that premiered Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. While there, Rouleau directed La neige était sale (Dirty Snow), mystery writer Frédéric Dard’s theatrical adaptation of the novel by Rouleau’s countryman, Georges Simenon. As a director, Rouleau was more craftsman than artist. The mise-en-scène in The Crucible is logical and composed to drive the story forward, but does little to project the inner turmoil of the characters. For that, Rouleau relies almost entirely on the skills of his actors. Fortunately, they are up to the task.

Mylène Demongeot

At the center of The Crucible is Mylène Demongeot, who plays the sexy and spiteful Abigail Williams. Historically, Abigail Williams was a fourteen-year-old, but Miller pushed her age up to seventeen to create the adulterous situation the play needed to create the sexual dynamics that interested Miller. Demongeot exudes sexuality from every pore. Although it wasn’t her first film, The Crucible put her on the map and led to several more parts, including the carefree Elsa in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse, Fandor’s girlfriend, Hélène in the Fantômas trilogy, and the sexy British comedy, Upstairs and Downstairs, which features the tagline: “The babysitter with the French touch! M-M-M-Mylène Demongeot.” She continues to act and is an active participant in several humanitarian causes.

Besides the lead actors, most of the technicians were also French. The cinematographer was Claude Renoir, grandson to the artist and nephew to director Jean Renoir. Much of the film’s unspoken drama comes from Renoir’s moody work. He shot the film in noirish black-and-white that reflects the way the characters view the world. Renoir got his start in films as an assistant cameraman on his uncle’s films, but he is best remembered for his dazzling work on Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, and Blood and Roses.

The most dramatic story behind the making of The Crucible almost goes by unnoticed at the beginning of the film. If you watch a print of the movie intended for western audiences, you’ll see the film’s composer listed as Georges Auric, but if you watch the East German version, you’ll see the composer listed as Hanns Eisler. Yet, the music in both versions is the same, so what gives? Georges Auric was an excellent composer, responsible for the scores to Cocteau’s Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, Dead of Night, Wages of Fear, and many others, but he did not write the music for The Crucible. The music was by Eisler, and his own story parallels the story in the film in many ways.

Montand et Signoret

Hanns Eisler was born Germany to Austrian parents. His father was a noted philosophy professor who, along with Max Adler, founded the Vienna Sociological Society. The young Hanns, along with his brother Gerhart and his sister Elfriede, grew up in a hotbed of philosophical and sociological discussions. Although the senior Eisler was an atheist, his three children became highly active communists, particularly Elfriede, who took the name Ruth Fischer, and Gerhart. Hanns was more interested in music.

While his brother and sister became leading figures in the German Communist party (KPD), Hanns purused a career in music. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg, and wrote several pieces based on the twelve-tone system, but his communist beliefs turned him away from the intellectual sonic gymnastics of Schoenberg to the music of the oppressed class: jazz. It was around this time that Eisler met Bertolt Brecht. Until then, Brecht had been collaborating with Kurt Weill, but when the two went their separate ways, Brecht started looking for a composer whose political viewpoint would jibe with Brecht’s own. He found that person in Hanns Eisler.

In 1932, Eisler composed the music for Kuhle Wampe oder Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?), director Slatan Dudow’s film with a script by Bertolt Brecht. Unfortunately, the film came out just as the Nazis were rising to power and the film was promptly banned. Both Brecht and Eisler found themselves on the Nazi Party’s first list of banned artist; both men fled Germany, eventually ending up in the United States; and both were forced to leave the U.S. thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Around the same time, Eisler’s sister Ruth—who had become one of the leaders of the KPD—was constantly butting heads with Stalin. She didn’t care much for his reinterpretation of Marxism, nor the level of control he exerted of Germany’s communists. Ruth wanted a return to values of Lenin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and a turn away from Stalin’s egocentric brand of communism. After traveling to Russia, she met with Stalin, and let him know exactly how she felt. She returned to Germany to find herself marginalized by the Communist Party, replaced with the very pro-Stalin Ernst Thälmann (for more on Thälmann, see The Ernst Thälmann Films). At that point, Fischer became a virulent anti-Stalinist. To the point where she started working with the U.S. to do everything in her power to end his regime. Going so far as to work for “The Pond”—a top secret precursor to the C.I.A.

Hanns Eisler

After Hitler came to power, all three of the Eisler children eventually ended up in America. Hanns got work composing film scores, and received Oscar nominations for his work on Hangmen Also Die! and None But the Lonely Heart. Gerhart, meanwhile, was working as a spy for Communist International (Comintern) in America. When Ruth was ousted from power in the KPD, Gerhart did not come to her defense. A fact that stuck in her craw. When Gerhart was brought before HUAC for espionage, Ruth was only to happy to against him at the hearing. He was found guilty, but while out of bail he fled the country, making his way to East Germany.

As the hunt for “those dirty reds” widened, Hanns Eisler was caught in the web. Called “the Karl Marx of Music” by HUAC secretary Robert Stripling, Eisler was blacklisted in Hollywood, dragged before the committee and charged with being a communist. As she had with Gerhart, Ruth Fischer testified against Hanns as well, and he was promptly deported. Like his brother, he went to East Germany, where he composed the music for the East German national anthem, “Auferstanden aus Ruinen,” and continued to write melodies for Brecht—who had also taken up residence in the GDR. Eisler continued to write film music, contributing scores to many classic DEFA films, including Our Daily Bread, The Council of the Gods, and Destinies of Women.

When The Crucible was prepared for release in the west, the producers decided that the film would have a better chance of U.S. distribution if the credits didn’t include a man who was forcibly removed from the States. The decision to list Auric as the composer was one that Eisler approved of. He and Auric were friends, and, presumably, he felt that if another composer must get credit, at least it was someone he liked and whose work he admired. When the head of the East German copyrights department asked Eisler if he wanted them to help him get the credit he deserved, Eisler responded “No, everything is perfectly arranged.”2

The Crucible

The film opened to generally favorable reviews, and won Simone Signoret the BAFTA award for best actress. Released in the States just months before Room at the Top, The Crucible undoubtedly helped Signoret win the Academy Award for that film.

While Arthur Miller wasn’t crazy about some of Sartre’s changes to his play, in a 1972 interview for Audience magazine, Miller said he was glad that the film was out there at a time when Hollywood refused to touch it. He would change his tune when Hollywood finally got around to making Miller’s version of the play with a screenplay by Miller himself. DEFA’s version of The Crucible was pulled out of circulation, reportedly thanks to Miller himself. The Hollywood version failed to perform well at the box office, but the end result of this is that the East German/French film is still out of distribution, although the folks at DEFA-Stiftung are working on correcting this situation. Meanwhile, VHS copies of the film are fetching high prices on eBay.

The expected benefits of co-producing films with the French didn’t pan out for DEFA. When the films were released in the west, DEFA’s name was removed from the credits. Worse, France did nothing to challenge West Germany’s absurd Hallstein Doctrine. After four films French/East German co-productions, East Germany abandoned these efforts, restricting co-productions to the Eastern Bloc and other communist countries. They wouldn’t engage in a co-production with a western nation again until 1978, when the Swiss/East German made-for-TV movie Ursula manage to offend nearly everybody on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Ironically, the first DEFA co-production with a western nation would be made with West Germany (FrühlingssinfonieSpring Symphony).

Special thanks to Sebastian Heiduschke, Hiltrud Schulz, Mariana Ivanova, and Peter Deeg for their help with this article.

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1. Lorre did return to West Germany to direct a film, The Lost One (Der Verlorene), but the experience didn’t encourage him to stay in his homeland. He quickly returned to Hollywood for the rest of his career. Wilder returned to Berlin to make his antic comedy One Two Three! But the film comes across as a thumbing of his nose to both halves of Germany. Two Hollywood refugees who did return to Germany to make films were Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang (technically, an Austrian).

2. Special thanks here to Peter Deeg at the International Hanns Eisler Society.

Five Days, Five Nights
At the end of World War II, Russian soldiers went on a plunderfest across eastern Germany. Think Sherman’s March to the Sea, but with dividends. Houses were stripped of their valuables, stores were looted, and machinery was taken. Much of this looting was done on a personal level—soldiers helping themselves to the contents of the houses they invaded—and some of this was done as part of the Soviet Union’s campaign to get the maximum financial benefit out of the war. They certainly needed it. Hitler’s ill-advised attack on Russia hurt Germany, but it devastated Russia.

On a more organized level, specialized American, British, and Soviet troops were tasked with finding specific things, the best-known example of this is the race between Soviet Union and the United States to procure German scientists and their materials related to rockets and atomic research. On the Soviet side there were also trophy brigades, whose job was to find as many works of art and antiquities as they could. While most of the art looting by American troops was done by individuals looking to bring home souvenirs, Soviet troops had a mission: Find the art and bring it back to Russia.1

A logical place to start was Dresden. Dresden had been the art capital of Germany. The museums there were outstanding. As the war escalated, museum officials decided to move many of the most valuable paintings to safer locations in case the city was attacked. This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Dresden wasn’t just bombed, it was nearly erased from the face of the Earth. U.S.and British bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and incendiaries on the city. The resulting firestorm was so intense that many people hiding in their air raid shelters died not of burns, but of asphyxiation when the firestorm sucked all the oxygen out of the area. The results of the firebombing are still visible today in the blackened facades of the buildings along the Elbe, and the calico churches built from the rubble left after the war.2

Fünf Tage - Fünf Nächte

When the Russians started arriving in Dresden, claiming they were there to save the artwork, the locals were, understandably, suspicious. Especially after these soldiers announced that they would have to take the artwork back to Moscow to protect it from the further deterioration due to mold and the elements. The Russians assured the locals that they were doing this for the benefit of the art, and they would return the artwork as soon as things had stabilized. No one in Dresden believed this for a minute, and they were probably right not to—Josef Stalin was not exactly the poster boy for trustworthiness. In truth, the collecting of the art of Germany was just what it looked like: an attempt at payback for the devastation and destruction that Germany rained down on the U.S.S.R.

But as the cold war heated up, the Soviets were looking for any ways they could to demonstrate they weren’t the ogre that the United States made them out to be. The subject of the Dresden paintings came up again. What better way to demonstrate their integrity than to show that the vow they made to the Dresdeners at the end of WWII was not just hot air? So it was that 750 of paintings were returned to Dresden in 1955. This wasn’t all of the artwork that was purloined, but it was a lot of it, and certainly enough to make for good press.

Five Days, Five Nights (Fünf Tage – Fünf Nächte) is the story of the Russian art recovery effort at the end of the war. The films was the first of several joint productions between East Germany and the Soviet Union. DEFA often joined forces with production companies from other countries to make movies. During the fifties, they made movies in conjunction with Swedish and French production companies, but after the border tightened up and relationships with western countries became strained, most of the co-productions were made with Eastern Bloc nations, primarily Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Whether or not these co-productions looked and felt like DEFA movies was largely dependent on the director and which film company wielded the most control over the production. Stars was made in cooperation with Bulgaria’s Boyana Film, but the film is pure DEFA, thanks to Konrad Wolf’s sure hand at the helm. On the other hand, the French/East German co-production Die Hexen von Salem (The Crucible) is, for all intents and purposes, a French film, having been directed by a Belgian from a screenplay by Jean-Paul Sartre, and starring Simone Signoret and Yves Montand.

Russian soldiers

Five Days, Five Nights, is very much a Russian film. It forgoes the usual, cool DEFA objectivity in favor of socialist realism (which, let’s face it, isn’t very realistic at all). People are either filmed at chest level, making everyone, even the children, look heroic, or from above looking up to the sky in triumphant bliss. The effect is further enhanced by a powerful score, written for the film by Dmitri Shostakovich.

Along with Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky, Shostakovich is one of the great Russian composers of the twentieth century. Unlike western classical composers, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, the fact that he wrote scores for movies did not assign him to the film ghetto, or reduce his standing as a classical composer. He could write a score for a film one year, and compose an opera the next. This was largely due to the Soviet Union’s attitude toward film. Unlike the west, where film was was viewed as a form of mindless entertainment for the masses, the Soviets already saw the power of film to galvanize public opinion back in 1925 with Battleship Potemkin. So it was that Shostakovich was hired to write the score for October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a film about the October Revolution of 1917.

Shostakovich had a rocky career under the Soviets, thanks mostly to Stalin’s tin ear and lack of musical sophistication. Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда) was initially a hit, but later came under attack as “coarse, primitive and vulgar.” When Stalin attended a performance of the opera in 1936, he behaved boorishly, laughing and grimacing throughout, leaving poor Shostakovich sweating bullets in the back. This was around the time Stalin started his Great Purge. Having him as your enemy was a good way to wind up freezing to death in a Siberian prison.

To keep on Stalin’s good side, Shostakovich cancelled performances of his musically challenging fourth symphony and restricted much of his composing to film music, knowing Stalin was rather fond of films. With the release of his crowd-pleasing fifth symphony, Shostakovich got back in the good graces of Stalin and the public, at least until 1948, when he was once again attacked by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who accused his music of being “formalist”—a term that was thrown around a lot, and appears to have no more meaning to Soviet critics than “I don’t like it.”

After Stalin died, Shostakovich started receiving the attention he deserved. His work came to the attention of Leonard Bernstein in New York, who became a strong advocate for Shostakovich, and played his compositions in concerts on a regular basis. Eventually, Shostakovich joined the Communist Party in 1960, mostly as a formality so that the government could appoint him as the General Secretary of the Composers’ Union. This seems to have given him both clout and courage. He protested against the incarceration of the poet Joseph Brodsky, and was one of the signatories on a an appeal to Brezhnev not to rehabilitate Stalin’s reputation. In both cases his causes were triumphant.

During the late sixties and early seventies, Shostakovich’s already bad health got worse. He had lost the use of his right hand to polio in the fifties, then broke both legs, causing him to remark in a letter to a friend: “All I need to do now is wreck the left hand and then 100% of my extremities will be out of order.” He died August 9, 1975, but his music continues to be a popular addition to movie soundtracks.

Five Days, Five Nights

With most films, the job of directing is assigned to one person and the resulting movie is attributed them as the auteur. The whole auteur concept falls apart when talking about the films from the East Bloc nations, where the contributions of everyone involved are given greater weight than in the west and the choice of cast and crew are not always left to the director.3 Five Days, Five Nights features three directors. The German language scenes were directed by Heinz Thiel, who directed Black Velvet, recently discussed on this blog; some of the Russian scenes were directed by Anatoli Golowanow, who probably would have receive a second unit or first assistant director credit in a Hollywood film; and the whole affair was overseen by the Russian director Lev Arnshtam, who is listed as the film’s head director.

Unlike DEFA directors such as Kurt Maetzig and Joachim Hasler, who came to filmmaking via the film labs, or Jürgen Böttcher, Arthur Pohl, and Peter Pewas, entered the field through graphic arts, Lev Arnshtam came to films via music. He studied piano at the Leningrad Music Conservatory and, for a while, was the music department head at Vsevolod Meyerhold’s theater. There, he met people in the film industry, and soon started working as a sound director and later a screenwriter. He directed his first film, Подруги (Girlfriends, originally released in U.S. as Three Women) in 1936. Mr. Arnshtam’s style is heavily influenced by the work of Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, whom he met while working at the Meyerhold Theater. Their influence is on full display here. After Five Days, Five Nights, he directed only one more film—Софья Перовская (Sofiya Perovskaya), a film based on the life of the Russian revolutionary, Sophia Perovskaya, who was hanged for her part in the assassination of Alexander II. Mr. Arnshtam died in 1979.

Dresden

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film, aside from Shostakovich’s majestic score, is the representation of Dresden after the firebombing. By 1960, when this film was made, much of Dresden had been rebuilt. To recreate the destroyed city, miniatures were used to remarkably good effect. Much of the credit for this must go to production designer Herbert Nitzschke. Mr. Nitzschke got his start as a set painter for German film productions. He first worked as a production designer on L’Entraîneuse (Nightclub Hostess), a French/German co-production from 1939. Several more films followed. At the end of WWII, his career as a production designer went on hiatus until 1955, when he was hired as the production designer for Hotelboy Ed Martin, a film adaptation of Albert Maltz’s play, Merry Go Round.

Mr. Nitzschke’s career in film was starting to take off again, and his miniature work in Five Days, Five Nights is spectacular—helped greatly by Ernst Kunstmann, a master of filming miniatures, whose work includes Metropolis, Triumph of the Will, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and First Spaceship on Venus. Unfortunately, Herbert Nitzschke lived in West Berlin, and his career at DEFA came to an abrupt halt on the 13th of August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up. His last credit as production designer was on Five Days, Five Nights co-director Heinz Thiel’s Tanz am Sonnabend (Dancing on Saturday).

Also worth mentioning is Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who designed the costumes for this film. A sculptor by training, it was Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff who designed the Maria Robot for Metropolis. At that point, Mr. Schulze-Mittendorff was still billed as a sculptor. With Amphitryon, he got his first billing as a costume designer and showed a real knack for it. After the war, he started working for DEFA, and often found himself on the same projects as his old Metropolis co-worker, Ernst Kunstmann. Like Herbert Nitzschke, Mr. Kunstmann lived in West Berlin and found his career at DEFA stopped cold with the building of the wall. He worked on a few West German productions, most notably, The Castle (Das Schloß), then retired in 1968.

The story of wartime art theft is not a new one, nor a dead subject. Jewish families are still wrangling for the return of artwork stolen by Nazis, and in November 2014, the son of an East German art collector—from Dresden, coincidentally—filed to recover artwork that was stolen from his father by the Stasi.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. The allies did have a team of people searching out art, but it was a much smaller effort. These people mostly worked alone (although the film The Monuments Men would have you believe otherwise), and their primary goal was to identify historic sites. The search for stolen artwork arose as a by-product of that effort, and a reaction to the Soviet Army’s art recovery efforts.

2. It’s probably worth pointing out here, that, as bad as the firebombing of Dresden was, it couldn’t hold a candle to Berlin, which saw nine-and-a-half times as many bombs dropped on it.

3. There are a few Hollywood exceptions to this: Tora! Tora! Tora! featured Japanese sequences by Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda, while The Longest Day featured a host of directors from different countries, all under the watchful eye of producer Darryl Zanuck.

Die Buntkarierten

In the years after World War II, there was a lot of soul-searching in East German films. At first, this took the form of the Rubble Films, which used the destruction of Germany as a metaphor for the German soul—blown to pieces and ready for reconstruction. Rubble Films usually focused on a few people and took place over relatively short spans of time. At a certain point, the films moved away from this introspection, and started to look at the bigger picture in an attempt to answer the question: How did we get to this point? Films such as Rotation, The Kaiser’s Lackey, and The Council of the Gods take a broader perspective on German history, involve several people and groups, and cover many years. Girls in Gingham (Die Buntkarierten) is one of these films.1 It starts during the Wilhelmina period at the end of the nineteenth century, and ends right after World War II. It is based on a radio play by Berta Waterstradt, and its intro keeps the radio practice of introducing the characters by name along with the names of the actors playing them.

The story follows Guste, the illegitimate daughter of a maid who dies in childbirth. Guste is a headstrong young girl who has no intention of following in her mother’s footsteps, but history is stronger than will. Guste grows up, becomes a maid herself, marries, has two children, and suffers through two world wars. Along the way, observations are made on the inherently evil nature of a society where 1% of the population controls nearly all the wealth, and the way corporations use wars as an excuse to make money.

girls in gingham

Girls in Gingham was the second feature film directed by Kurt Maetzig, one of the most well-respected directors in East Germany, and no stranger to this blog. He directed such classic DEFA films as The Council of the Gods, The Silent Star, and the banned masterpiece, The Rabbit is Me. Mr. Maetzig, along with Gerhard Lamprecht , Peter Pewas, Wolfgang Staudte and others, was one of the filmmakers who helped found DEFA.

Reportedly, Mr. Maetzig’s decision to make Girls in Gingham was based on Bertholt Brecht’s criticism of Maetzig’s first film, Marriage in the Shadows. Never mind that it remains one of the most successful movies DEFA ever released, Brecht found the film kitschy. Girls in Gingham was Mr. Maetzig’s attempt to make a film more in line with Brecht’s aesthetics. One can see hints of Mother Courage in Guste’s character, but Mr. Maetzig has more faith in personal heroism than the cynical Brecht, which is probably why he was tapped to make the Ernst Thälmann films.

In 1976, Mr. Maetzig retired from filmmaking, but maintained a lively presence in the film community and was always there to offer advice younger filmmakers and impart his extensive knowledge of the history of DEFA. He died in 2012 at the age of 101 and is buried in the Dorotheenstädtischen Cemetery in Berlin.

Camilla Spira

Guste is played by Camilla Spira in a tour de force role that sees her go from a bright-eyed young woman to a war-weary old lady. Acting was in the blood for Ms. Spira. Both her parents, Fritz and Lotte, were successful actors on stage and screen, so it seemed natural for her to follow in their footsteps. She got her start in silent films during the Weimar Republic, only to see her career cut short by the Nazis. Unfortunately, the fact that her father was Jewish got in the way. Fritz and Camilla were send off to concentration camps, where Fritz Spira died in 1943. Camilla’s mother, who was not Jewish, divorced Fritz in 1934 under pressure from the Nazis. This allowed her to continued to acting in films, but after 29 years of marriage, the cost was too high. She died shortly after hearing about her ex-husband’s death.

Girls in Gingham was Camilla Spira’s first feature film appearance after the war, and she won the East German National Prize for her performance. She appeared in a few more DEFA films, but started working in West Germany in the early fifties. Among the West German films she appeared in were: Des Teufels General (The Devil’s General), Emil und die Detektive, and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor)—one of the few West German films to address the issue of lingering Nazism in West Germany, albeit in a comedic fashion. Her sister, Steffie Spira, stayed in East Germany and continued to appear in films until after the Wende. Camilla Spira died in 1997.

Considering how important it is to this film, it is remarkable that no credit is given for the make-up artist. Most DEFA movies at the time listed this information. Given the film’s production year, it is possible that the make-up artist was one of the technicians that went to West Germany to work. West Germany had just declared itself an independent state and was starting to wriggle out from under the anti-film-production policies of the United States Millitary authority (OMGUS). Directors, actors, and cinematographers who had previously been able to find work only in East Germany were now getting jobs in the BRD. In a year or two, the GDR would officially take a stand against this and stop using West German technicians, but this was a bit like closing the barn door after the horse has run off. A technician that made it public ally known that they were switching to western productions might well have found their name stricken from the credits on a DEFA film. If that is the case, my money would be on Jette Arlt, who did the make-up for Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows, but started working in the west in 1950. This is pure speculation, however. Whoever it was, they did a remarkable job of aging Camilla Spira and Werner Hinz and deserve more credit (and if anyone had more information on this mystery, please let me know in the comments).

Girls in Gingham was a hit both in East and West Germany and is one of the all-time, top-selling DEFA films. It’s anti-capitalist sentiments might have rankled the authorities in West Germany, but it still resonated with those who lived though the war. More importantly, it didn’t blame the people for Hitler’s actions, placing most of the blame, instead, on the Krupp family, which built a 400-year dynasty by providing armaments for all the major wars in Europe. This is a theme we’ve seen often in East German films from this period, where the primary blame for WWII is placed at the feet of corporations such as Standard Oil, Krupp, and IG Farben (see also, Council of the Gods).

IMDB page for this film.

Buy This film.


1. Due to an error made somewhere along the line in translation, you will often see this film listed under the title The Beaverskin. This weird error probably got it’s start with the English subtitles on the German DVD. There is a DEFA film titled The Beaverskin (in German: Der Biberpelz) that came out the same year as Girls in Gingham, and perhaps that has something to to do with the error. This mistake is so prevalent that even Wikipedia repeated it (although hopefully by the time you read this, I, or someone else, will have fixed that). Such is the power of the Internet.

The 100th Post!

Posted: October 18, 2014 in DEFA, Film

East German Blog

I was going to post about yet another film when I suddenly realized that this marks the 100th post on the East German Cinema Blog. When I started this project four years, I had no idea if anyone else in the world was interested in these films. Since then I have discovered a thriving community and growing interest in the movies worldwide. My recent presentations on the subject in San Francisco and Copenhagen were extremely well attended and enthusiastically received. Of course, I couldn’t have done this without help, so I’d like to thank a few people right now. First off, Barton Byg and Seán Allan, who were into these film long before I knew anything about them; Evan Torner, who provides the best subtitles for DEFA films, and has been a font of information; Sebastian Heiduschke, who has become a great friend, and whose book on East German Films should be on everyone’s shelf; Hiltrud Schulz and Sky Arndt Briggs at the DEFA Library, who have helped immeasurably in making this blog as good as it is; Jale Yoldas (San Francisco) and Mia Munck Bruns (Copenhagen) the Goethe Institut for their continued encouragement; and finally Jack Stevenson at the Husets Biograf Theater in Copenhagen and Stephen Parr at Oddball Films in San Francisco for providing venues for my talks. And of course, thanks to all of you, my readers, and those of you who attended the presentations in San Francisco and Copenhagen (and my apologies to anyone who couldn’t get into the San Francisco talk).

After four years, one might think that I’ve already uncovered the best films, but there seems to be no end to it. Every month I come across new gems from the DEFA archives. I studying film has taught me anything, it’s that  no matter how many films you’ve seen, there’s always another one out there waiting to blow your socks off.

And with that, I’ll resume my regularly scheduled programming. Tomorrow I’ll be talking about a film that has the dubious reputation of having the most egregiously mistranslated titled on the Internet.

Latest from the Da-Da-R

Identifying the beginning of the East German movie industry is easy. It began in 1946 with The Murderers Are  Among Us. That film—started before DEFA even existed—was the first of a long line of excellent films to come out of the GDR before the whole system came crashing down under the weight of its own ossification and blinkered leadership. Pinpointing the end of East German Cinema is a little more complicated. Several films were already “in the can,” so to speak, when the wall came down. Production at DEFA continued after East Germany no longer existed, right up until 1992, when the company was dismantled in the name of capitalism. Novalis – Die blaue Blume is credited with being the last film put out under the old DEFA badge, but philosophically and thematically, if not literally, the last film to come out of East Germany was Latest from the Da-Da-R (Letztes aus der DaDaeR), a satirical look at life in East Germany at the end of its forty-year existence.

The film follows the exploits of two clowns (literally) during the dying days of the GDR, from their release from prison, through a garbage dump, down a river to hell, through the surrealistic landscape of post-Mauerfall East Germany, and into a slaughterhouse, with scenes as shocking as those in Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes. The story is not told as a continuous journey, but as a series of skits and musical numbers, each a little darker than the last. Some of the scenes look improvised. The scene at the bonfire protest seems as spontaneous as Haskell Wexler’s footage of the police riots in Medium Cool. There is an improvisational quality to the routines, and certain aspects—such as the use of objects to represent other things—betray the theatrical roots of the routines. The criticism is sharp, but even-handed, attacking the stodgy leadership of East Germany and the callow behavior of West Germans alike. It is not hyperbole to say that one year earlier this film could not have been made. I doubt that it could have been made one year later either, after western interests took over the film studio and profit became the main motivating factor. This film exists as a record of an extremely specific time in German cinema history.

Latest From the Da-Da-R

Filming began after the wall came down, and was made by the newly formed artists’ work group (künstlerische Arbeitsgruppe), “DaDaeR.” The name is a play on “DDR” (the abbreviation for Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and “Dada”. In German, the “Letztes” in the film’s title can be translated as “the last” or “the latest”, giving the title a double punch. The film is filled with such witticisms, several of which are specifically intended for East German audiences only. The mailman with the broken bicycle is Gustav-Adolf Schur, an East German bicyclist as well known in the GDR as Lance Armstrong is in the United States; and the garbageman was played by the popular East German writer Christoph Hein. Much of the humor in the film cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who didn’t live in the GDR, but the film has enough other things going on to keep the rest of us entertained.

Latest from the Da-Da-R stars Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel. They also wrote the screenplay. It was the final product of comedy reviews they performed in the eighties, starting with Neues aus der DaDaer (News—or newest—from the Da-Da-R) and followed by Altes aus der DaDaer (Oldest—or Old Newsfrom the Da-Da-R). Mensching and Wenzel joined forces in 1980, when Steffen Mensching joined Wenzel’s theater group, Karls Enkel. Wenzel and Mensching developed the clown characters, Meh and Weh—abbreviations of their last names, but also puns on indifference and woe.

In 1989, Mensching and Wenzel helped draft the “Resolution of Rock Musicians and Songwriters” (Resolution von Rockmusikern und Liedermachern), a protest letter sent to the SED warning that the government’s indifference to the needs of the people was in danger of causing the country’s collapse. The SED’s reaction to the resolution was swift and stupid. Tour dates were cancelled and prohibitions were placed on the signatories. That was September 18, 1989. A little over a year later, the GDR would cease to exist.

After the wall fell, Mr. Mensching and Mr. Wenzel continued to perform together from time to time, but each went on to do other things. Mr. Mensching occasionally performs and directs theater productions, most recently working with the Theater Rudolstadt. Mr. Wenzel continues to perform, primarily as a singer-songwriter (and the songs in Latest from the Da-Da-R are very good). He was invited by Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora to create German versions of her father’s songs, resulting in his 2003 album Ticky Tock, on which Mr. Wenzel sings Guthrie’s songs in German and English.

Letztes aus der DaDaeR

Latest from the Da-Da-R was directed by Jörg Foth. Mr. Foth was part of the “Nachwuchsgeneration” (next generation)—a group of young filmmakers who trained as filmmakers, only to find that opportunities to practice their craft were blocked by the clogged infrastructure that was endemic to East Germany in the eighties. Mr. Foth took a roundabout route to his eventually career as a director. He graduated from high school with a certificate as a cook, but then joined the Volksmarine as a radio operator. Upon leaving the Volksmarine, Mr. Foth started working as a volunteer at the East German television company, which eventually led to a diploma in film studies from the film school in Babelsberg.

He worked as as an assistant director on several films, including Blauvogel (Blue Bird), Die Verlobte (The Fiancee), and Die Kolonie (The Colony), eventually getting a chance to direct in 1984, with the children’s film Das Eismeer ruft (The Arctic Sea Calls).  In spite of good reviews, further jobs directing feature films were not forthcoming. He made a few more short films and documentaries, and co-directed the Vietnamese/East German joint production Dschungelzeit (Jungle Time), but it wasn’t until the wall fell that he was finally given a permanent position as a director at DEFA. Of course, “permanent” is a qualified term, even in the best of times, but during those tumultuous times, it meant less than a year.

Since the Wende, Mr. Foth has had very few opportunities to demonstrate his talent. He has worked on a few TV shows and made a few short films, but Latest from the Da Da R was his last feature film.

Irm Hermann

Playing Meh and Weh’s jailer—identified only as “She”—is Irm Hermann. Anyone familiar with the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder will recognize her immediately. She appeared in most of his films, sometimes in small roles, and other times as one of the leads. She was a founding members of Fassbinder’s antiteater (anti-theater) and appeared in Fassbinder’s early short films as well as his early features. She was as much a muse to Fassbinder as Hannah Schygulla.  Like Schygulla, she parted ways with Fassbinder after Lili Marleen, but continued acting, appearing in dozens of films since then.

Director Foth could have had his pick from any number of excellent East German actresses to play this part. The fact that he chose a West German certainly is no accident. It addresses the feeling that—no matter what Honecker and friends would have one believe—it was the West Germans that were calling the shots. She is the one who lets them out of prison, and feeds them, and watches over them throughout, but she also the one keeping  them in prison. In one scene she is shown removing bullets from their shells. A reference to disarmament, certainly, but whose ammo is she dismantling?1

As you can no doubt tell, there is a lot going on in this film. It is impossible to catch it all in one viewing. To help with this, the DEFA Library has included essays and an interview with the director as PDF files on the American DVD. If, like me, you have an aversion to clowns and mimes, you may approach this film with some trepidation, but don’t let the white facepaint put you off. This is an exceptional film.

IMDB page for this film.

Buy this film.


1. Perhaps a reader with better knowledge of such things than I can provide better information on this.

The Bridge 1949

The Bridge (Die Brücke) was a 1949 film made by DEFA about displaced persons at the end of WWII. It has little in common with Bernhard Wicki’s 1959 well-known film of the same name except its relative time frame. In this film, a group of evacuees in a resettlement encampment encounter hostility from the people in a nearby town; not because they are Jewish, or black, or even from another country, but because they are from a different town. The prejudice here is not racial or anti-Semitic, but parochial—roughly analogous to a group of Californians trying to resettle in Mississippi. Thrown into the mix is a relatively formulaic love triangle between the Mayor’s nephew, a girl from the resettlement camp, and a scheming pub owner who smokes way too much for her own good. The bridge of the title is a wooden footbridge between the resettlement camp and the village. After the bridge is sabotaged, resulting in the death of one of the camp’s leading figures, the two groups are cut off from each other. It will take an even greater calamity to bring them together again.

As with Street Acquaintances, this film exists in that transitional space between old-school melodrama and the socialist realism promoted by the Russians. Visually, it hearkens back to the Ufa films from the Third Reich years, but the film’s message of tolerance is strictly post-war thinking. The screenplay is by Arthur Pohl, who also wrote the screenplay for Street Acquaintances, but this time he also directed the film. It was his first time directing a feature film, although he had already directed several stage productions.

bridge7

Arthur Pohl began his career as a set painter at the Staatstheater in Darmstadt. Later on, he moved into directing plays as well. In the 1930s, he began working in films as a screenwriter, co-writing the screenplays for Der Tiger von Eschnapur (The Tiger of Eschnapur) and Das indische Grabmal (The Indian Tomb), which were based on a book by Thea von Harbou (of Metropolis fame). In 1941, Mr. Pohl’s career in films came to an abrupt end when he was drafted and later captured by the Allied forces. After he was released from a P.O.W. camp at the end of the war, he moved to West Berlin. In spite of living in an allied sector, he got a job with DEFA; at first as a scriptwriter, then later as a director. After The Bridge, He went on to write and direct several more films for DEFA, including Corinna Schmidt, Die Unbesiegbaren (The Invincible), and Pole Poppenspäler.

In 1957, he wrote and directed Spielbank-Affäre (Casino Affair), based on Hans von Oettingen’s book of the same name. It would be Mr. Pohl’s last feature film. It was made as joint project between DEFA and Sweden’s short-lived Pandora-Films. The film told the story of counterfeiting and intrigue around a casino. While Pohl may have intended the film as a statement about capitalism and its deleterious effects on the human psyche, the authorities at DEFA felt that the film—which was DEFA’s first wide-screen production and was shot in gorgeous Agfacolor—made West German decadence look too appealing. In one of the weirder decisions to come out of DEFA, the film was screened in black-and-white in East Germany, while the color version was shown in West Germany under the title Parkplatz zur großen Sehnsucht (Parking Lot for Desire). As one might imagine, the western press had a great time making fun of this decision.

The foofaraw over the film led to a parting of ways between DEFA and Mr. Pohl. He started looking for work in the west, but, unfortunately for him, his long association with DEFA didn’t make this any easier. He made a few TV-movies in the early sixties, but by 1963 his career as a director was essentially over. Maybe he would have gone back to DEFA, but by that time the border was well sealed and working in the east while residing in the west was no longer an option. He died in 1970 in Berlin.

steppat5

If the film at times has the look of the Weimar Republic era Ufa films, there’s a good reason. The cinematographer was Fritz Arno Wagner—one of the most well-respected cinematographers in the business. He started working as a newsreel cameraman in 1913 and a feature film cameraman in 1919. A list of the films he worked on during the silent years is impressive. It includes Nosferatu, M, Diary of a Lost Girl, and both of Fritz Lang’s silent Dr. Mabuse films. Unlike his compatriot Karl Freund, Mr. Wagner chose not to go to Hollywood. He  stayed in Germany, filming unmemorable programmers and Nazi propaganda during the Third Reich years. Although Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal), which Mr. Wagner filmed, was released by DEFA, The Bridge is the only film Wagner worked on that was actually made by DEFA. He started working in the west as soon as possible. In 1958, Mr. Wagner died when he fell from a camera car while filming Ohne Mutter geht es nicht (It Doesn’t Work Without a Mother).

The evil, chain-smoking pub owner Therese is played by Ilse Steppat, who, two years earlier, was much more sympathetic as the persecuted Jewish wife in Kurt Maetzig’s Marriage in the Shadows. After the restrictions on filmmaking in West Germany were removed in 1950, Ms. Steppat, a West German by birth, spent the rest of her career working in the west. She is best known to English-speaking audiences as the evil Irma Bunt in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Two days after that film premiered in Germany, Ms. Steppat died of a heart attack in West Berlin.

bridge1

Arno Paulsen, who plays the town’s mayor will be immediately recognizable to any fan of early DEFA films. The rotund actor got his start as an opera singer. While working at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, he met Wolfgang Staudte, who cast him as the profiteering villain in The Murderers Are Among Us. From there he went on to appear in eleven DEFA films between 1946 and 1950, including Razzia, Chemistry and Love, Street Acquaintances, and Girls in Gingham. Due to his short and portly appearance, he was often cast as either the villain or the buffoon in films on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His last film for DEFA was Bürgermeister Anna (Mayor Anna), a comedy based on a play by Friedrich Wolf. After that he appeared exclusively in West German films and is well remembered for his role in Das Mädchen Rosemarie (Rosemary)—one of the better films to come out of West Germany during the fifties.

To a modern audience, the film’s socialist heroics will probably seem over the top. Like the man who uses his body to channel the irrigation water in King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, modern audiences laugh that anyone would do anything that selfless. It is impossible today to reflect on this film’s message about the importance of eliminating borders between German factions without thinking about the events of August 13, 1961. In The Bridge, people bravely cross a river to help people on the other side, creating unity between the two factions. Replace the river with a wall and the film takes on a whole different meaning.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (German only; no subtitles).

Street Acquaintances

Films about sexual hygiene and the dangers of promiscuity have a grand old tradition in cinema history, going back at least a century with D. W. Griffith’s 1914 film, The Escape (currently lost). Most of the feature films on the subject—at least in America—were made for the exploitation market. The subject afforded a neat way to get around the strict moral codes of the times by pretending to be intended for educational purposes. Some of these films, such as Because of Eve and Kroger Babb’s infamous Mom and Dad, contain graphic footage, while others, such as No Greater Sin and Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness, are relatively tame. Road agents would travel from town to town with these films stuck in the trunks of their cars, arranging screenings and doing double duty as a medical sex experts selling pamphlets between the films.

While Street Acquaintances1 (Straßenbekanntschaft) certainly is a commercial release, its discussions of the dangers of venereal disease in post-war Berlin are not there to titillate or for exploitation purposes. V.D. was a real problem in Germany at the time, brought on, mainly, by the combination of a sudden liberation from a repressive regime and huge influx of randy, sex-deprived soldiers from both sides. To combat the problem, the military governments regularly rounded up women for testing. Yes, it was sexist, and Street Acquaintances addresses this fact, which is unusual for a film made in 1948. At a time when American films had the “heroes” saying things like: “Don’t worry your pretty little head,” Street Acquaintances was showing just how difficult life in post-war Berlin was for women.

Street Acquaintances stands at an interesting crossroads in German film history. It is categorized as a “rubble” film because it deals with the emotional wreckage of the German psyche after the war, but unlike The Murderers Are Among Us, Somewhere in Berlin, and Germany Year Zero, it happens after the streets have been cleared and the streetcars are running again. Stylistically, it harkens back to the films of Weimar era and the Third Reich, but with touches of the dramatic realism and the themes that would become the hallmark of DEFA films.

Street Acquaintances

The story follows the misadventures of Erika, a young woman who is tired of the privation brought by the war’s end, and is ready to kick off her shoes and have some fun. In terms of plot, there is nothing new here. It’s the same basic concept used in practically every sex education film ever made: X decides to live a little; X has sex; X lives to regret it and learns a valuable lesson (or dies, as the case may be). Intertwined with Erika’s story are the stories of other women in Berlin that show just how tough it was for women after the war. As with Slatan Dudow’s Destinies of Women, and Evelyn Schmidt’s The Bicycle, the sympathies here are with the women. If their choices are sometimes bad, it’s because good choices are so few and far between.

Street Acquaintances is directed by Peter Pewas—a talented filmmaker who has only recently started receiving the attention he deserves. Like Saul Bass, Mr. Pewas’ entry into filmmaking came through the graphic arts. Unlike Mr. Bass, he did not design title sequences, but did create many classic movie posters during his lifetime, and is considered an important innovator in German film poster design.

His interest in film extended beyond posters however. One of his first attempts to make a documentary about Alexanderplatz in 1934 ended badly when the film was confiscated by the Nazis and Mr. Pewas held on suspicion of treason. In 1938, he attended the Babelsberg Film Academy and started working as an assistant director under Wolfgang Liebeneiner, a director who did as much to promote the Nazi philosophy as Veit Harlan, but got a lot less grief for it. As Liebeneiner’s AD, Mr. Pewas had the dubious distinction of working on I Accuse (Ich klage an), a film that was made to promote Aktion T4—Hitler’s euthanasia program for the disabled.

Street Acquaintances

In 1944, Mr. Pewas was allowed to direct his own feature film, and he once again found himself running afoul of the Nazis. The film, Der verzauberte Tag (The Enchanted Day), was the story of a young woman not dissimilar to Erika, who wanted something more from life and was frustrated with the limitations put on women. Like the neorealists, Pewas wanted to show the lives of ordinary people in a realistic fashion. As one might imagine, Goebbels and his compadres weren’t too keen on this approach and while it was never officially banned the film was not released either.

After the war, Pewas was one of the directors in attendance at the famous Filmaktiv meeting at the Adlon Hotel on November 22, 1945. It was from this meeting that the roots of DEFA took hold, starting with Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us. Pewas had been trying to expand cinema’s vocabulary with Der verzauberte Tag, so the things discussed at this meeting must have struck a chord with him. He went on to make Wohin Johanna? (Which way Johanna?), a short documentary intended to promote the SED party. As with both Der verzauberte Tag and Street Acquaintances, the story takes a feminist perspective.

Sadly, Mr. Pewas’ affinity for the SED was not long lived. By 1950, he had moved to West Germany. This did little for his career. While his former mentor, Wolfgang Liebeneiner, thrived in West Germany’s Nazi-tolerant environment, Mr. Pewas’ leftist proclivities were less acceptable. Aside from one feature film (Viele kamen vorbeiMany Passed By), Mr. Pewas’ directorial efforts were restricted to a few short films. As it got harder and harder to find work making movies, Mr. Pewas relied primarily on revenue from designing film posters—his one skill that the Nazis also had no problems with. He died penniless in Hamburg; a fate that certainly wouldn’t have befallen him had he stayed in East Germany. Happily (although not for him), his films resurfaced recently in the form of a DVD set, which includes Der verzauberte Tag, Street Acquaintances and Wohin Johanna.

Gisela Trowe

Playing Erika is Gisela Trowe. That same year, she appeared in three more films, including a short but memorable turn as the killer’s girlfriend in The Blum Affair. Her fourth film in 1948 was a West German film, and thereafter she worked in the west. She continued her film career, often appearing in the films of her father-in-law, Erich Engel (director of The Blum Affair). One of her earliest screen appearances in West Germany includes a short but memorable turn as a prostitute in Peter Lorre’s gloomy Die Verlorene (The Lost One). Ms. Trowe died in 2010 (for more on Ms. Trowe, see The Blum Affair).

As was the case with many of the early DEFA films, much of the film crew was made up of actors and technicians who either migrated or returned to West Germany once the heavy restrictions on filmmaking imposed by the U.S. military government (OMGUS) had ended. Composer Michael Jary was already a well-known composer when he wrote the music for this film and his songs, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter,” “La Paloma,” and “Roter Mohn” were very popular in Germany and regularly crop up in films about World War II. His song, “Wir wollen niemals auseinandergehen” was sung by Heidi Brühl as a possible entry in the 1960 Eurovision Song Contest, it did not make the cut, but has gone on to become a popular tune on with lovers of Schlagermusik. By the time he shot this film, Austrian cinematographer Georg Bruckbauer already had a long career as a cinematographer, stretching back to the Weimar days, but this was his only film for DEFA. Editor Johanna Meisel got her start as an editor during the Third Reich and worked on several films for DEFA during its early years, but she also went west in the 1950s, working on several films there before retiring from films in 1962.

As one might imagine, Street Acquaintances did well at the box office on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Sex always sells, even when the intentions aren’t prurient. This is a remarkable film and possibly the best film for showcasing the changing film styles during the early years at DEFA. It is equal parts UFA and DEFA, and should not be overlooked.

IMDB page for film.

Buy this film (part of DVD set).

NOTE: English subtitles are available from several sources, as are AVI files of the film. Some adjustment may be necessary for syncing.


1. This is a literal translation of the title as given by IMDB. The term refers to casual acquaintances. The kind of people you’d say “hi” to on the street but wouldn’t have over for dinner.

The Story of a Young Couple

If I were going to show somebody their first East German film, it would not be this one. One common misconception among Americans—and all westerners, for that matter—is that East German films are nothing but propaganda, intended to promote the state and nothing more. The misconception doesn’t come from any knowledge of the subject, or even selected examples. It’s more a case of formless and gormless prejudices thoroughly drummed into our brains during the Cold War. The Story of a Young Couple, however, would do nothing to disabuse people of this notion. It really is propaganda. It wears its politics on its sleeve, and its politics are those of Stalin. He is championed as a hero throughout this film, and his portrait hangs in public places. It is one of the sad legacies of East Germany that the leaders hitched their wagons to Stalin’s star instead of returning to the ideals of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. It was certainly inevitable, considering the Soviet Union’s part in the foundation of the GDR—a link going all the way back to Ernst Thälmann—but it meant that future failure was already in the cards before the ink was dry on the country’s constitution.

The film follows the story of Agnes Sailer and Jochen Karsten, two young actors who become involved the theater scene that springs up in Berlin after WWII. They are surrounded by idealistic people who see theater as a way to promote anti-fascist sentiments and ensure that nothing like the Third Reich ever happens again in Germany. Funding their efforts is Dr. Ulrich Plisch, an old-school capitalist who has less interest in politics than doing whatever’s profitable. Surrounding them are other actors and directors who run the political gamut from devoted socialists to amoral golddiggers. As the gulf between east and west becomes wider, Agnes and Jochen find themselves on opposite sides of the chasm. Agnes, a committed socialist, would rather starve than take a part in a play or film she found morally reprehensible, while Jochen starts letting his policies take a backseat to a steady paycheck.

The Story of a Young Couple was made in 1951, and came out in January of the following year. Up until this time there was a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on your outlook) infusion of West German filmmakers into the film studios at Babelsberg. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, most of that influx came from the fact that the U.S. military authorities did everything they could to discourage German film production. After West Germany became a sovereign state in May of 1949, the shackles on West German film production were removed and West Germans no longer needed to migrate eastward to make their movies. This made any West German directors who did go to DEFA immediately suspect. The Cold War had heated up and it wasn’t uncommon for the intelligence agencies from both sides of the border to use agents and sympathizers to commit acts of sabotage to erode the other country’s infrastructure. This was a prominent plot point in Castles and Cottages, and was also part of the justification for the building of the Berlin Wall (see Look at This City!).

By 1951, companies such as Real-Film, CCC-Film, and, Constantin-Film were in full swing and West German filmmakers were no longer welcomed with open arms into the DEFA ranks, but rather, were viewed with suspicion. Once the cross-pollination between east and west was effectively stemmed, both sides started to polarize. In the United States, movie such as The Red Menace, I Was Communist for the F.B.I., and Pickup on South Street were effectively pushing the notion that communist agents were everywhere. In East Germany, it meant more films directly attacking the United States, or, more accurately, the large corporations that controlled the U.S. governments agendas (and still do, truth be told).

To its credit, one rarely saw the level of viciousness exhibited in DEFA films that one saw in the Red Scare films from Hollywood, but the role of film as a tool for teaching socialistic values became as important as its entertainment value. Thus began one of the duller periods of filmmaking in the GDR. In charge of DEFA during these doldrums was Hans Rodenberg a talented theater director and occasional actor, but also a hardcore Stalinist. How much input Rodenberg had into this stricter approach is hard to say, but he was a loyal party man, and certainly did nothing to rock the boat. The Story of Young Couple was made before Mr. Rodenberg became the general director at DEFA—and, in fact, features a brief performance by him as the American film director shooting an anti-communist film in West Berlin—but this film is a sign of things to come.

The Story of a Young Couple wasn’t the first DEFA film to promote a socialist agenda, but it was the most strident about it. At least until the Ernst Thälmann films, made a few years later (also directed by Kurt Maetzig). The low point comes when Agnes recites an ode to the newly named Stalinallee and the gloriousness of Stalin by the East German poet, KuBa (Kurt Barthel)—a cinematic moment that would assign the film to the closet after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” in which Khrushchev denounced Stalin.

At times, the attacks on the west in this film resemble the he said/she said nature of a divorce dispute. In one scene a sad-looking girls choir is forced to perform because they’ve been tricked by West Berlin agents into coming to the west, only to find it wasn’t what they expected. At this time, western media were accusing “East German spies” of kidnapping people off the streets of Berlin and taking them back to the GDR. There are plenty of verified cases of people in West Berlin unwittingly going to the east, only to find themselves arrested and imprisoned—primarily by the Russians (for more on this, see Ursula Rumin’s story in Destinies of Women)—but the idea of people hopping out of cars and dragging people off to the other side of the border was more urban myth than reality, and is used here to take a poke fun at Hollywood’s propaganda machine.

Reportedly, The Story of a Young Couple was made as a response to Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Les Mains sales (Dirty Hands).1 Sartre was a Marxist, and had even defended Stalin from time to time, but he had little use for the political repression being carried out in the name of communism. As far as he could tell, it was the situation of “meet the new boss; same as the old boss,” Les Mains sales was his response. Fellow Marxists were not happy with Sartre. In East Germany, it hit a little too close to home. In the film, the play is mentioned by name and attacked by Agnes after she is given a copy to see about performing in it.

One of the more entertaining aspects of this film is that it is a roman à clef (or film à clef if you prefer). Many of the characters in the film are based on real people and are only thinly disguised. According to the German Wikipedia page for this movie, Möbius is based on Wolfgang Langhoff, and Burmeister is based on Boleslaw Barlog. From what I know of these men, I suspect that this is exactly backwards. Like Barlog, Möbius is a wild-haired theater director, while Burmeister, like Langhoff, is clean-cut and shows more support for the GDR. The thinnest disguise of all is that of the Nazi-sympathizing director Hartmann, who is unmistakably Veit Harlan—the man who directed Kolberg and Jud Süß. Although they changed the name of the director, they discuss his films under their actual titles. Alwin Lippisch’s performance as Hartmann is a wicked parody of Harlan, who never did acknowledge any culpability for what happened in Germany during the Third Reich, and was later allowed to start making films again in West Germany (for more on Veit Harlan, see Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss).

What elevates The Story of a Young Couple above mere propaganda is the skill of its director, Kurt Maetzig. Maetzig was born with film in his blood. Maetzig’s father ran a company that made copies of films, and young Kurt would hang around and learn everything he could about the technical side of film production and development. Later, he studied chemistry and engineering at the Technical University of Munich, where he graduated with a doctorate degree with a dissertation titled “Das Rechnungswesen einer Film-Kopieranstalt” (“Accountancy of a film printing lab”). After college, returned to his father’s company for more hands-on work in the film industry. While there, he began making his own short films, cartoons, and movie title sequences.

As mentioned in the article on Marriage in the Shadows, Kurt Maetzig’s mother was Jewish, which made Maetzig an undesirable person. During the war, he joined the KPD (the German Communist Party), which, at that point, was essentially an underground organization. After the war, Mr. Maetzig saw an opportunity to rebuild the German film industry and return it to its pre-Hitler glory. He met with a group of like-minded filmmakers—including Boleslaw Barlog—at the Adlon Hotel and founded Filmaktiv, which spawned DEFA.

Maetzig was still a young director at this point. In The Story of a Young Couple, we see him experimenting with different techniques of editing, frame composition, camera angles, and the use of music. It doesn’t hurt that his cinematographer here is Karl Plintzner. Plintzner would go on to become the absolute master of vivid Agfacolor/Orwocolor films (see The Golden Goose), but here he shows that the he is no slouch when it comes to black-and-white filming either.

Yvonne Merin

Playing the noble and unwavering Agnes Sailer, is Yvonne Merin, a striking actress who might have been one of the leading lights at DEFA, had she the stomach for it. At the time of this movie, she was married to Kurt Maetzig. She was discovered by Gerald Lamprecht and cast to star in Quartett zu fünft (From Quartet to Five). She caught the eye of Kurt Maetzig, who immediately cast her in his next two films, Girls in Gingham and The Council of the Gods. They were soon married, but by the time they made The Story of a Young Couple, the marriage was ending. Like the couple in the film, they were going in different directions. Ms. Merin was finding that acting wasn’t really her passion, and Mr. Maetzig already knew that filmmaking was his. They divorced and Ms. Merin dropped out of the film community, appearing only occasionally in films (she appeared briefly as the “lady with the dog” in A Lively Christmas Eve). She continued to work in theater, but found that her interesting in acting wasn’t as intense as the fire one needed to do a good job. She became an apprentice gardener at the Karl Foerster Garden in the Bornum borough of Potsdam. Although she continued to garden, the job paid poorly and she returned to DEFA as a dramaturge and occasional scriptwriter—primarily for educational films. It was during this time that she met Armin Georgi, a script editor at DEFA and also directed short films and documentaries for them. They were married and stayed married until her death in 2012. Kurt Maetzig died a month later.

You may recognize Willy A. Kleinau, who plays the opportunistic Dr. Plisch. He is one of the more memorable characters in The Council of the Gods. In that he played Mr. Lawson, the representative from Standard Oil who helps the Nazis fund their war effort. Mr. Kleinau seems custom-made to play capitalist pigs and he does it well. He manages to make Mr. Pitsch simultaneously reprehensible and likable, which is no small feat. He appeared in both West German and East German films, right up until his death in a car accident in 1957.

As one might expect, The Story of a Young Couple was thoroughly drubbed by the western press when it came out, but East German critics found it a bit too much to take. Like the overwrought dramatic style of the silent era, or the garish fashions off the seventies, this film’s main value today is as an historical document and a kitschy eyewitness to a different time. It is a testament to Maetzig’s talent as a director that it is still enjoyable and engaging almost sixty-five years later.

IMDB page for this film.

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1. Die anderen deutsch-französischen Beziehungen. Die DDR und Frankreich 1949 – 1990, Ulrich Pfeil, Böhlau, January 2004.

Heart of Stone
On December 8, 1950, DEFA, East Germany’s state-run movie studio, released its first color film. The film was shot in Agfacolor, which was developed for the Nazis to compete with Technicolor. After the war, there was enough color film stock at the AGFA plant in Wolfen to make a few movies, but the Soviets claimed it as compensation for the war. They took it Russia where it was used to make the first Russian color film, The Stone Flower (Каменный цветок). Meanwhile, back in Germany, the folks at DEFA were stuck with in a black-and-white world. Black-and-white worked great for the bleak, almost noir Rubble Films, but not so well for musicals and kids’ films, where they had to compete with the likes of Hollywood. Eventually, the Soviets were able to produce their own version of Agfacolor film (Sovcolor) and DEFA again had access to color stock.

In the west, the Allies—and especially the United States—continued to throw up roadblocks to keep the West Germans from making movies. Films were such an important part of Hitler’s war machine, they argued, that it was better if the Germans were just not allowed to make any more movies at all. Instead, Hollywood films were imported for screening in German cinemas, sometimes without subtitles. This lined the pockets of the Hollywood producers, but only served to infuriate the German public, many of whom spoke no English at all back then.

The Soviets had a very different take on the subject. They had already seen the power of film as a tool for proselytizing with movies such Battleship Potemkin and Mother. Rather than block film production in the Soviet sector, they encouraged it, and helped found DEFA. As a result, before the dust had settled from the war, DEFA was up and running, producing its first film in 1946 (The Murderers Are Among Us).

Because of the U.S. resistance to film production, ambitious German filmmakers in the Allied sectors headed east to get their movies made. This was, of course, a great publicity coup for the Soviets, but it also meant that some of the films made during this period were DEFA in name only. They looked and felt like West German films. In fact, some of them looked and felt like Third Reich-era UFA films—minus the anti-Semitism, of course.

A perfect example of this is Heart of Stone (Das kalte Herz). Anyone watching this film for the first time would logically assume that it was made in West Germany. It has all the characteristics we have come to expect of West German films—the handsome, über-blond hero, the affinity for traditional folk festivals and clothing, the scenes of nature accompanied by gushingly romantic music. It’s all there. A quick rundown of the cast shows that nearly everyone who worked on this film came from West Germany. A few worked on other DEFA films during the early years, but most did not. Nonetheless, it’s an important film in the history of East German cinema. It is not only the first color film made in the GDR, it is also the first in what would become a long line of East German Märchenfilme (fairytale films).

Heart of Stone tells the story of Peter, a young man who works as a collier—a meager existence if ever there was one. Fed up with his lot in life, and wishing to impress the beautiful Lisbeth, he goes into the forest to make a deal with the Glassman (Glasmännlein) a leprechaun-like character that can grant wishes for any children born on Sunday. There, Peter meets Dutch Michael (Holländer-Michel), an ominous giant who tells Peter that he can make him a rich man if Peter is willing to give up his heart. Dutch Michael keeps the hearts of local rich men pinned to a wall like a butterfly collection. He tells Peter he will replace his heart with one made of stone. At first, Peter balks at this suggestion, preferring instead to continue looking for the Glassman. He eventually meets the Glassman and gets his three wishes, but the frivolity of his wishes come back to bite him, so Peter rethinks his strategy and goes looking for the evil Dutchman to broker a new deal.

This film is based on a fairytale by Wilhelm Hauff. Hauff wrote three books of fairytales, and this story appeared in two parts in the last of these books. It was translated into English and published under its literal title translation—The Cold Heart—as the second of two stories, along with The Marvellous History of the Shadowless Man by Louis Adelbert von Chamisso. This edition is now available at the Project Gutenberg website as a free download. The movie follows the story the fairytale closely, although in the fairytale, Lisbeth does not show up until late in the story, and the scene where Peter uses a glass cross to stop Dutch Michael is removed entirely from the film—no real surprise there, considering Marxist philosophy’s antipathy toward religion.

Hauff’s stories are still popular in Germany and many have been turned into feature films and cartoons. Heart of Stone has been filmed at least three times; two of his other fairy tales, The Story of Little Mook and Zwerg Nase (Little Longnose), have been filmed five times each. Hauff also wrote the notorious Jud Süß, which was the basis of the virulently anti-Semitic film made by Veit Harlan for the Nazis, although, it must be said, the Nazis took many liberties with Hauff’s story, with the most notable one being the fact that Hauff’s character discovers he is not a Jew at all.

Director Paul Verhoeven was already an established actor and director when he came to DEFA to film this project. He got his start in films during the Third Reich, when he both acted and starred in several motion pictures. After the war he managed the Bavarian State Theater until 1948, when he returned to cinema to film his play, Das kleine Hofkonzert (Palace Scandal). Thereafter he continued his career as an actor/director until the early seventies.

Oddly, Paul Verhoeven died of heart failure while giving a eulogy on the stage at the Munich Kammerspiele during a tribute for the famous Munich actress Therese Giehse (best known to U.S. audiences as the headmistress in Mädchen in Uniform). Verhoeven stood up, began the obituary, and keeled over dead.

Verhoeven’s son, Michael Verhoeven became a filmmaker in his own right, directing the excellent films, The Nasty Girl and The White Rose. Michael is married to the beautiful Senta Berger. Paul Verhoeven’s daughter, Lis Verhoeven, became an actress and has appeared in many German films. She was briefly married to the great German actor, Mario Adorf, and their daughter, Stella Adorf is now also an actress. Paul Verhoeven is not related to the Dutch director of the same name.

Lutz Moik

Lutz Moik plays Peter the collier. He does an admirable—if somewhat melodramatic—job of portraying the young man and the changes he goes through. His transformation from the naive, warm-hearted proletarian to the greedy, cold-hearted capitalist is a Jekyll-and-Hyde performance. He doesn’t even look like the same person. Mr. Moik was born in Berlin, and began his acting career during the waning days of the Third Reich, working at first on radio, and later appearing in movies. He was in a few early DEFA films including Und wenn’s nur einer wär’… (And If Only…) and 1-2-3- Corona. Eventually, he settled on the western side of the wall where he continued work as an actor and a dubber for many years. He died in 2002 in his hometown of Berlin.

Playing Lisbeth,was the lovely Munich-based actress, Hanna Rucker. Ms. Rucker began her career as a theater actress, appearing in several productions in the Munich Kammerspiele. A year before appearing in Heart of Stone, she made her film debut in the West German Rubble Film, Wohin die Züge fahren (Wherever the Trains Travel). Throughout the fifties, she starred in several West German films, including Unter den tausend Laternen (Under a Thousand Lanterns), San Salvatore, and Heiße Ernte (literally, Hot Harvest). She retired from films in 1956 at the age of 33, when she married producer Mo Rothman and moved to England with him. Although they later divorced, Ms. Rucker stayed in England until the end of her life and never made another motion picture.

The two spirits of the woodlands—the Glassman and Dutch Michael—are played by Paul Bildt and Erwin Geschonneck respectively. Paul Bildt was already a well-respected actor by the time this film came out. He had been acting in films since 1910, and also appeared in a few DEFA films during the forties. But Heart of Stone was his last film for DEFA. After this, he moved to West Germany, where he continued to appear in movies until shortly before his death in 1957 (for more on Paul Bildt, see Razzia). Erwin Geschonneck, on the other hand, was a relative newcomer in 1950, but he steals every scene he’s in. By the end of the GDR’s existence, Geschonneck had become the most beloved actor in East Germany (for more on Erwin Geschonneck, see Carbide and Sorrel).

The cinematography was by two of the best technicians working in East Germany at the time—Ernst Kunstmann and Bruno Mondi. Mr. Kunstmann was primarily known for his special effects, and was most likely the man behind the camera in the scenes the featured Dutch Michael. Like Paul Bildt, Mr. Kunstmann’s career stretches back to the silent days, where he worked with special effects pioneer Eugen Schüfftan on Metropolis to help create the ground-breaking special effects for that film. During the thirties Mr. Kunstmann worked with Leni Riefenstahl on Triumph of the Will and Josef von Báky on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. After the war, he decided to settle in East Germany, where he contributed special effects for many classic DEFA films, including Chemistry and Love, The Story of Little Mook, The Singing, Ringing Tree, and The Silent Star.

Bruno Mondi also got his start during the silent era, beginning with Fritz Lang’s Destiny. He worked on many films during the Third Reich years, including Veit Harlan’s notorious Jud Süß. He was the man in charge of the color photography on Kolberg—Veit Harlan’s hugely over-budget spectacle, which cost the Nazis dearly. After the war, Mondi worked on a few East German films, but he was a West German at heart. Heart of Stone would be his last East German film. He found his calling in the mid-fifties with the über-schmaltzy Sissi films, which virtually defined the Heilmatfilm.

Heart of Stone was one of the last of the West German-led DEFA productions. A little over a year earlier, both the east and the west declared themselves as to be sovereign states. This is what finally ended the U.S. resistance to West German filmmaking. Prior to that, American film moguls had already been protesting the distribution of DEFA films overseas and were trying to get them to stop. But once the Allied sectors and the Soviet sector became separate and opposing states, any potential negotiations over whether DEFA had the right to distribute its film in South America were off the table. By this time, America was so rabidly anti-communist that the very mention of the word could make some senators start foaming at the mouth. The U.S., they argued, had to do everything it could to make sure that the Bundesrepublik outperformed the GDR.

The U.S. dropped its restrictions and did everything it could to promote economic growth in every sector of the West German economy. The result was the Wirtschaftswunder—a period of economic growth that pulled West Germany out of the rubble and back into the twentieth century. West Germany began to thrive while the enforced stagnation of the SED began to takes its toll on East Germany.

While Heart of Stone certainly falls into the category of DEFA in name only, its importance to film production in the GDR cannot be underestimated. It was released right before Christmas and was huge hit on both sides of the borders. DEFA had, quite by accident, stumbled on the perfect genre for making films that the west wouldn’t find objectionable, but still had a socialist moral to them, and were suitable for the whole family—the Märchenfilme. After all, the rich were usually the bad guys in fairy tales, while the poor were often the heroes. Before the Wall fell, East Germany made dozens of these Märchenfilme, which were distributed throughout the world and translated into many other languages, including some in English for the British and American markets (see The Singing, Ringing Tree and The Golden Goose).

IMDB page for this film.

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YouTube version of the film.

Separate English subtitles.1


1. Whenever possible, I try to provide those readers who don’t speak German with links to subtitled versions of the films. The main source for these in America is, of course, the DEFA Library at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Sadly, Heart of Stone is not one of the films that is currently available. In the meantime,I have created subtitles for this film that are currently only available here. For more information on how to use these subtitles to enjoy the film, visit Pop Void.

The Central Committee of the SED

The Central Committee of the SED of the GDR

NOTE: Readers of this blog may have noticed how often the term “11th Plenum” crops up in these film reviews. Although I define the term in the glossary, a quick definition can only scratch the surface. For those who want to learn more, I offer this article. It’s more of a history lesson than a film essay, so readers, whose interest in such things is limited, can safely skip this article and simply take it on face value that the 11th Plenum was a bad, bad thing.

There are moments in the history of any country that stand out as turning points, for better or worse, during which times a country, its politics, and its people are all changed irrevocably, and every action taken after that point is measured by the event. Revolutions and attacks are the obvious examples, but some important events take place behind closed doors in meeting rooms and auditoriums. Some attacks occur without a single shot being fired. Well chosen words can do as much damage as a billyclubs and bullets.

In the history of the German Democratic Republic, a few events stand out: the founding of the GDR, the July 17th revolts, the building and destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the 11th Plenum are milestones in the story of East Germany. For the people in the film industry, it was the last event that was the most important. Only the creation of DEFA was more important to the story of filmmaking in the GDR. The 11th Plenum changed everything, and it is often cited as the death knell for creativity in East German films. This isn’t true by a long shot, but it did constitute a major blow to the country’s artistic community, and changed the way the creative community interacted with and responded to the government for the rest of the country’s brief existence.

Ironically, the 11th Plenum—or, the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, as its official title translates into English—was never meant to be a referendum on the arts in the German Democratic Republic. It was supposed to be about the country’s economic recovery plan, but unexpected events, coupled with an unwillingness to address the real problems the country was facing, threw a spanner in the works. To understand exactly what happened, we have to go back a few years.

Immediately after WWII, it was apparent that the socialist model was working better than the capitalist one in Germany. The Allied sectors of Germany were struggling to get back on their feet while the Soviet Sector was going strong—and this in spite of the fact that the USSR was still busy pilfering the East German resources for its own needs. During the forties, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cross the border to get work in the GDR because the West still had nothing to offer. Some of this was by design. The Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS) was in no hurry for Germany to get back on its feet. Prior to the Marshall Plan, OMGUS was working off JCS 1067, a renamed version of the infamous Morgenthau Plan that was designed to drag Germany back to the eighteenth century. Fortunately for West Germany, America’s fear of communism was greater than its fear of Nazis. At the start of the fifties, when it looked like East Germany was in danger of winning the hearts and minds of the German people, OMGUS backed away from Morgenthau’s anti-industrial foolishness and started promoting economic growth in the Bundesrepublik.

Americans blamed for potato bug invasion

Propaganda booklet claiming the potato beetle invasion was an American plot. (See http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/amikafer.htm)

What happened next was the Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), during which time West Germany’s economy grew so fast that they had to import workers from other countries to keep up with production.1 Suddenly the East German economy started looking anemic. This was compounded by agricultural problems in the form of an invasion of potato bugs that the authorities were quick to blame on the United States. The West German government, under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer, along with West German mayor, Willy Brandt, decided to push things to the limit by introducing the West D-Mark in West Berlin, A move that severely unbalanced the economies between the two halves of the city and started the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall (for more on this, see Look At This City!).

One of the claims made by the East German authorities after the building of the wall was that by restricting the ability of the west to disrupt East German society, the artistic community would have greater freedom to be creative. To demonstrate this, the movie technicians at DEFA were given greater freedom to push the boundaries of style and content.2 What followed was a burst of imaginative filmmaking. New camera techniques were used and stories became visually and structurally more experimental and interesting. From 1962 to 1966, East German filmmakers made some of the best films to come out of Germany since the Weimar days.

The wall was intended to eliminate the inequities between east and west. But the East German economy continued to deteriorate, Stalin’s Five Year Plan model wasn’t working any better in East Germany that it had in Russia, and the West was making political hay of it. In the USSR, Khrushchev decided to move away from Stalin’s centralized model to a more localized one. A decision that was met with a great deal of grumbling from the hard-liners in the politburo. East Germany’s General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Khrushchev’s lead.

Starting in 1963, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht, economic advisor Wolfgang Berger, and Planning Commissioner Erich Apel, came up with the New Economic System (initially dubbed Neuen Ökonomischen System der Planung und Leitung (NÖSPL) , but later shortened to Neues Ökonomisches System (NÖS)). It was a good plan, and history shows that it might have worked, but Ulbricht didn’t count on the conservative groundswell that was rising in the upper echelons of the USSR. Some Russian politicians—particularly the head of the Supreme Soviet, Leonid Brezhnev—felt that Khrushchev was moving their country away from the government’s core principles. While Khrushchev was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job.

East German Power Play

This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his wagon to Khrushchev’s star, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. To make matters worse, Brezhnev did not like Ulbricht. He felt that the East German leader had been given far too much slack in his dealings with the USSR and had put that country in some awkward situations. The NÖS may have been working, but Brezhnev made it clear that the Soviets did not support it. Ulbricht was hanging on to his job by a thread at this point.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, no one in the SED’s Central Committee wanted to touch the subject of economic reforms. Never mind that this was the reason for the meeting in the first place. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his report on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just a touchy subject, it was toxic. Like all politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues, they turned their criticism to the entertainment industry instead. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist! Presented with this safe target, the pols went to town. They started seeing threats to their way of life behind every movie, and the blossoming film movement in East Germany—which up to that point was making the cinema of West Germany look downright anemic—was nipped in the bud.

Amazingly, the film that was held up as the prime example of this trend was The Rabbit is Me, a film with as strong a socialist pedigree as anyone could ask for. Its director, after all, was Kurt Maetzig—one of the people responsible for the founding of DEFA and the man who gave us The Council of the Gods, the Ernst Thalmann films, and Das Lied der Matrosen (The Song of the Sailors). Accusing Maetzig of being anti-socialist was a bit like accusing Che Guevara of being a capitalist. It was stunning in its absurdity and a horrible warning sign that the SED had lost its bearings. Nonetheless, The Rabbit is Me became the poster child for the films banned by the SED. Thereafter, the films banned during the 11th Plenum became known as “Rabbit Films” (Kannichenfilme). Other names for these films include Kellarfilme (Cellar Films) and Giftschrankfilme (Poison Cabinet Films).

Eleven features films were banned in the wake of the 11th Plenum. Some of these, such as The Rabbit is Me and Trace of Stones, were finished films that had screenings in cinemas, while others, such as Fräulein Schmetterling (Mademoiselle Butterfly) and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam (When You Grow Up, Dear Adam) were scuttled while still in production. Also added to the Giftschrank was Egon Schlegel’s student film, Ritter des Regens (Knights of the Rain). Two more projects were shut down before any filming began—Die Beteiligten (The Parties Involved) and Die Moral der Banditen (Outlaw Morality), both of which were later made into movies by DEFA.

The Rabbit is Me

A scene from Kurt Maetzig’s The Rabbit is Me.

Most of the films on the list were banned for promoting viewpoints that the SED considered contrary to the socialist perspective, but some films were banned for no better reason that that were frivolous. Producers, dramaturges, directors and technicians who were seen as the major “disruptive” forces at DEFA were either sent to work in television, or banned from films entirely. Günter Ost, one of the most talented and imaginative cameramen DEFA ever produced, never made another movie after the Plenum. Egon Schlegel, who was about to start a promising career as a feature film director was forced to spend the next few years working behind the scenes, eventually making a name for himself as a director children’s films (see The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs). Günter Stahnke never made another feature film, but spent the rest of his career making movies for television; a slightly ironic development considering that he first got in trouble with the authorities for a short television film titled Monolog für einen Taxifahrer (Monologue for a Taxi Driver). Some people, such as screenwriter Ulrich Plenzdorf and director Frank Beyer, eventually got back in DEFA’s good graces, but were walking on eggshells for the rest of their careers. Others, such as Jürgen Böttcher (Born in ’45), were never given the opportunity to make another feature film, relegated, instead, to the world of documentary shorts.

Eventually, the writers and filmmakers recovered, and started pushing the boundaries again, but there was always a sense of foreboding afterwards. In 1968, things appeared to be loosening up slightly. Egon Günther’s imaginative Abschied (Farewell) made it into theaters, although, just barely, and the unabashedly frivolous Hot Summer was big hit in the fall of 1968 (although it did include a message of the importance of comradeship under its beach antics).

Hot Summer

A scene from Joachim Hasler’s Hot Summer.

Then, in 1971, that sword of Damocles that had been hanging over Ulbricht’s head finally fell. Ulbricht was ousted from power and replaced with Erich Honecker, a conservative East German politician who had been in charge of the building of the Berlin Wall. Ironically, the hardline Honecker was the one who loosened thing up again for the DEFA filmmakers, declaring that “as long as a film proceeds from the strong position of socialism,” anything goes (actual quote: “Wenn man von den festen Positionen des Sozialismus ausgeht, kann es meines Erachtens auf dem Gebiet von Kunst und Literatur keine Tabus geben.”). Films became more imaginative and adventurous, but the spectre of the 11th Plenum never completely went away. Occasionally films were still banned, but the state never repeated the wholesale shelving of films that occurred after the 11th Plenum. Filmmakers became more wary of what the state censors might do and were often guilty of pre-emptively censoring their own ideas (Egon Günther notwithstanding, who managed to keep pricking the sensibilities of East German blue-stockings right up until the end).

Looking back on the event from an historical perspective, the 11th Plenum seems like the point at which the soul of the GDR died. Up until that point, even the most controversial decisions, such as the building of the wall or the use of the Soviet army to put down the June 17th revolts, could be argued as harsh but necessary moves to give socialist state’s a chance to reach its full potential. With the 11th Plenum, those dreams were dashed. The state went from its infancy to sclerosis in one fell swoop. Even after Honecker softened up the restrictions, and started to recognize the need to incorporate consumer requirements into the socialist model, this didn’t change. He was still part of the problem. The GDR was a young and growing country run by a rapidly aging panel of fossils. No new blood was being incorporated into the upper ranks, and the old men running the country had no concept of what was going on in the world around them.

For many of the films banned as a consequence of the 11th Plenum, their first screenings didn’t occur until the 1990 series at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Some, such as Fräulein Schmetterling and Wenn du groß bist, lieber Adam, had to be constructed from the unedited reels that were still on the shelves at DEFA headquarters in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

IMDB pages for the films banned by the 11th Plenum:
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Mademoiselle Butterfly
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hands Up or I’ll Shoot!

Where to buy (films listed with English names are available with English subtitles):
The Rabbit is Me
Spring Takes Time
Just Don’t Think I’ll Cry
Berlin Around the Corner
When You Grow Up, Dear Adam
Fräulein Schmetterling: Not currently available
Trace of Stones
The Lost Angel
Karla
Born in ‘45
Hände hoch oder ich schieße

Further reading:
DEFA: East German Cinema 1946-1992 [Paperback]
John Sandfordand Seán Allan (Editors)

East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History [Paperback]
Sebastian Heiduschke (Available October 2113)

Spur der Filme. Zeitzeugen über die DEFA [Paperback – in German]
Ingrid Possand and Peter Warnecke

Das zweite Leben der Filmstadt Babelsberg. DEFA- Spielfilme 1946 – 1992 [Hardcover – in German]
Christiane Mückenberger and Ralf Schenk

Special thanks to Seán Allan, Barton Byg, and Sebastian Heiduschke for their help with this blog post.
Archive photos are from Das Bundesarchive.


1. These were the famous Gastarbeiter that you’ll hear some Germans (mostly racist Germans) complain about even today. The idea was for these workers to come and work for a few years and then leave—only many didn’t leave, which is the reason you’ll find such strong foreign communities (especially Turkish, but not exclusively) living in Germany today. The GDR instituted a similar program for communist countries, such as Vietnam and Mozambique.

2. This is not to say that there were no longer restrictions. Konrad Petzold and Egon Günther managed to get in hot water with their film Das Kleid (The Dress), an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.