Posts Tagged ‘Rabbit Films’

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.

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A few years stand out in East German history. 1961, when the wall was built, and 1989, when the wall fell, are the most obvious examples, but coming in a close third is 1965. This was year of the 11th Plenum of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED), East Germany’s ruling party. What had started as an economic summit, suddenly turned into a cultural purge, relegating some of the best films that DEFA had to offer to the vaults, and pushing some filmmakers and writers away from their chosen professions.

After the wall went up, East Germany was faced with a dilemma. The economy was stagnating, the Five Year Plan model wasn’t working, and the West was making political hay of it. General Secretary Walter Ulbricht decided to follow Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s lead and move the GDR away from the centralized communism of Stalin to a more localized model. Starting in 1963, 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 he was on vacation in 1964, Brezhnev made his move and Khrushchev returned to Russia to find himself out of a job. This left Ulbricht in a sticky position. He had hitched his star to Khrushchev’s, but suddenly that star had fallen from the heavens. The NÖS was successful, but it rubbed a lot of people at the top the wrong way, and the new powers in Russia didn’t like it at all.

By the time the 11th Plenum was scheduled to take place, it was clear to almost everyone that the NÖS was a non-starter. Less than two weeks before he was scheduled to present his work on the NÖS at the 11th Plenum, Erich Apel, one of the plan’s chief architects, committed suicide. Suddenly the NÖS wasn’t just disliked, it was too hot to handle. No one wanted to bring it up at the meeting, so—like U.S. politicians, when they are afraid of addressing real issues—they turned instead to the entertainment industry. Films were getting too liberal, they complained. Why, some were downright anti-socialist.

Twelve films were banned at the 11th Plenum, none was more notorious than The Rabbit is Me (Das Kaninchen bin ich), directed by Kurt Maetzig. The Rabbit is Me is based on Maria Morzeck oder Das Kaninchen bin ich, a book by Manfred Bieler that was already banned when Maetzig decided to make the movie. It is a first person account of Maria, a young woman whose brother is sent to prison for breaking the GDR civil agitation laws (staatsgefährdender Hetze). Maria is never entirely clear as to what her brother did. Quite coincidentally, a man she meets at the opera turns out to be Paul Deiter, the judge who sentenced her brother. While pursuing the release of her brother, she falls in love with the judge (who is married) and soon becomes his mistress. Through her eyes we see that the judge is as bourgeois and status-oriented as his western counterparts. Worse, he is so dogmatic in his approach to the law that he can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong. Bieler had intended his book to be a warning to the GDR, but the warning came too late. The book was promptly banned. It is one of life’s mysteries how the film ever got made at all.

In the film, Maria is played by the beautiful Angelika Waller in her first starring role. She brings just the right mixture of innocence and sexuality to the part. Paul Deiter is played by Alfred Müller, who had already made a splash in For Eyes Only—a popular East German spy thriller. Although other people come in and out of the story, everything revolves around these two. Since the story is told from the narrated perspective of Maria, Ms. Waller does most of the heavy lifting here, but she is helped admirably by cinematographer Erich Gusko’s moody gray camerawork  and director Kurt Maetzig nearly flawless mise en scène.

The Rabbit is Me opened in October, two months before the SED’s general assembly, but it was quickly pulled from theaters. Reportedly the government sent people to these screenings to boo and hiss and give the appearance that the audience was displeased with the film. It was held up as a prime example of what the conservatives felt was wrong with modern cinema. For this reason, films banned for their socio-political content were referred to derisively as “Rabbit Films” (Kanninchenfilme).* The film was shelved until 1990, when it, along with several other banned films, was screened in Berlin.

Although The Rabbit is Me was the flash-point for the cultural purge, its director, Kurt Maetzig, managed to avoid the penalties that some of his comrades experienced. This was partly due to his public “apology,” in which he accepted the blame for the sins of The Rabbit is Me without ever actually saying that he shouldn’t have made the movie; but it was also, no doubt, due to his status as a filmmaker. He was, after all, the man who made the Ernst Thälmann films, which were by then being shown regularly in classrooms all over the country (Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German Communist party during the pre-WWII years, was a folk hero in East Germany akin to George Washington here. He was surreptitiously executed by Hitler who claimed that allied bombers were responsible for his death). Their participation in The Rabbit is Me apparently had no ill effects on the rest of the cast either. They all went on to make many more movies in the east, with the exception of Manfred Bieler, the author of the screenplay and the original book. Bieler moved to Czechoslovakia shortly after the SED’s decision, and then, after the Warsaw Pact invasion, fled to West Germany.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

*Horst Sindermann, the man responsible for coining the term Kanninchenfilme is the same man who christened the Berlin Wall: “antifaschistischer Schutzwall” (anti-fascist protective wall).