Inevitably, certain terms and subjects come up repeatedly in any discussion of East German movies. To avoid too much redundancy, and to help you keep on top of things, here is a short list of common names, words, and phrases.
11th Plenum: A general assembly of the SED that was held in 1965. It was originally intended to be a discussion of the economic policies of the GDR, but when that topic became to sensitive, it turned instead into an attack on the arts, which some East German officials felt had become too lax and anti-socialist. 12 films were banned at this time. More on the subject here.
Altnazi: In the East German press, this term usually referred to a person who was all too eager to join the Nazi Party when Hitler came along, then all too eager to denounce it after the war. A prime example is Hans Globke who had been a judge under the Nazis and the director of the West German Chancellery after the war. Because of his anti-communist stance, the west was eager to keep him in control of things, and tried to hide his past from the general public. An even more heinous example of the west’s willingness to embrace ex-Nazis is Theodor Oberländer, who had been a supporter of Hitler since the Beer Hall Putsch, and was instrumental in developing the Third Reich’s strategies for dealing with ethnic minorities in Poland. After the war, in a gesture of supremely ironic absurdity, Adenauer made him Minister for Refugees and Expellees. Eventually his past caught up with him and he was forced to resign. In spite of his reprehensible past, the state of Bavaria awarded him with the Bavarian Order of Merit in 1986. Altnazis pop up from time to time in East German films, most notably in Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers are Among Us, and Joachim Hasler’s Chronik eines Mordes (The Story of a Murder) starring Angelica Dömrose.
Besserwessi: A person from the former West German state that thinks he or she is better than anyone from the former East German state (See also Ossi and Wessi). Highly derogatory.
Wolf Biermann: A singer/songwriter who was very popular in East Germany for many years. Biermann, an ardent communist, was known for his outspokenness, so it was just a matter of time before he found himself on the wrong side of the East German authorities. While performing in Cologne in West Germany, his citizenship was revoked, an action that caused many protests in East Germany and led to several of their leading actors, writers and intellectuals to leave for the west. He is the father of Nina Hagen.
Binnenschifferfilm: Literally, “barge film.” A movie that sets its action on a barge. Virtually unknown in the Untied States, barge films were made by many European countries, including Germany (Unter den Brücken), France (L’Atalante), and especially England (Beauty and the Barge, Young Adam, and many others).
Bundesrepublik: West Germany. In English: Federal Republic.
DDR: The German abbreviation of Deutsches Demokratik Republik. In English: the GDR.
DEFA: The abbreviation of Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft—the state-run film studio in East Germany. DEFA was started in 1946 in the Soviet sector of post-war Germany, three years before the German Democratic Republic was established. Most of the films listed on this blog came from DEFA, the exceptions being made-for-TV movies, which were the products of Deutscher Fernsehfunk (DFF).
DFF: The abbreviation of Deutscher Fernsehfunk, East Germany’s state-owned television broadcaster.
Dramaturg: The person in charge of defining a film or theater company’s approach and thematic continuity; sometimes for a season, and sometimes as part of a company’s identity. In the west we normally only see this title (usually spelled in English as dramaturge) as part of a theater troupe. On IMDB, it is sometimes translated to script editor, but this doesn’t really do justice to the importance of the job. At DEFA, it was the Dramaturg who made sure that the scripts didn’t contravene party politics, and that they represented East German values. Even this job was not without its perils. After the 11th Plenum, Chefdramaturg Klaus Wischenski was relieved of his duties thanks to the sudden shift in political climate in the GDR. The Dramaturg often appears as the first credit in a movie.
GDR: The East German government (German Democratic Republic).
Heimatfilm: Literally, “Homeland film.” (plural: Heimatfilme) A genre that became popular in West Germany, Switzerland, and Austria after WWII. It is characterized by vivid cinematography, excessively emotional music, and storylines that trumpet the joys of the natural countryside. Most of these films focus in Bavarian or other alpine regions. This style of filmmaking pervaded West German films of the fifties; even ones that are not technically considered Heimatfilme (e.g., Sissi).
Indianerfilm: An East Germany western. (plural: Indianerfilme) Unlike the American westerns, the East German Indianerfilme are almost always told from the perspective of the Native Americans. In an Indianerfilm, the cowboys are the villains, while the Indians are the heroes.
Kahlschlag: Literally “clear cutting,” this term refers to the approach the East German government took to the films of 1966, banning nearly movie that was made that year.
Märchenfilm: A fantasy film usually based on a popular fairytale. (plural: Märchenfilme)
Mauerfall: The fall of the Berlin Wall.
Mitarbeiter: In essence, a blue-collar worker. In a communist society, the very idea that there might be different classes was an anathema. Nonetheless, scientists and engineers had a different status from the people on the work brigades. To solve this problem, the words Mitarbeiter (co-worker) and Kollege (colleague) were used to indicate where people were positioned on the job scene. Mitarbeiters were the people who, in the west, would be referred to as subordinates (Untergebenen). You worked with them (the literal meaning of the word), but they weren’t colleagues.
Ossi: A person from what used to be East Germany. Slightly derogatory.
Plattenbau: A type of building that is made using large, flat slabs of concrete. These buildings (known in plural as Plattenbauen) have a distinctive look that is often associated with East German housing projects, such as the ones in Marzahn.
Plenum: A plenary meeting, which just means a meeting that everyone involved must attend. You see this word a lot when reading about East German politics. Most of their meetings were Plenums. Unanimity was extremely important in the socialist countries, sometimes to the point of absurdity. The most famous example of the principle in action occurred when the cabinet voted to replace Ulbricht with Honecker. After everyone raised there hands, Ulbricht looked around and raised his hand as well. There is also a funny representation of this in The Death of Stalin.
Republikflucht: The flight of East Germans to the west to escape SED and Soviet rule. Prior to the building of the wall, over three million people fled the GDR. It is one of the primary reasons cited (by both sides) for the building of the wall.
SED: Socialist Unity Party of Germany (abbreviation for Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands). The governing party in East Germany. The party was formed after the war as a coalition between the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Shortly thereafter, the social democrats were forced from the party. It governed in a virtual monopoly for the entire existence of East Germany.
Stasi: The East German secret police from the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit). At the height of their power, the Stasi had one agent for every 166 people in East Germany, more than any country ever, including Russia’s KGB and the Nazi Gestapo.
Volkspolizei: The East German police. Closer to a military force than what we would call police in the west. Also referred to as VP, VoPo, and die Grünen.
Wende: It literally means the change, or turning point. It covers the time span from the protests in Leipzig to the vote to reunify Germany. It is usually used in conjunction with the fall of the wall.
Wessi: A person from what used to be West Germany. Slightly derogatory.
© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2010–2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.