In the wake of September 1989 and the exultant toppling of the Wall, banned films were revived and screened across Germany; in 1992 DEFA was sold to a French conglomerate, which is either a sad end or some kind of ironic justice, depending on your point of view. We'll catch up on some more DEFA history along the way, but let's consider a sampling of important East German titles, all currently available on DVD.
Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are Among Us), 1946. Here's the Birth of a Nation of East German films, the first feature made in Germany after the end of World War II. It's a knockout on almost every level, an example of the so-called Trümmerfilm, or "Rubble Film," shot in the debris of Berlin. Ernst Wilhelm Borchert plays a disillusioned doctor who discovers that his wartime commander, a ruthless executioner, is now a comfortable bourgeois; future star Hildegard Knef is the woman who lets the doctor stay in her disintegrating apartment. The old German Expressionist style is alive here, but the film is also a companion piece to Open City and the Italian Neorealism flourishing at the time.
Der Rat der Götter (Council of the Gods), 1950. This astonishing film from key DEFA director Kurt Maetzig is a whistle-blowing chronicle of the development of poison gas during the Nazi regime, and the ass-covering that followed the end of the war. The movie tracks one naive scientist (Paul Bildt) as he develops products that will eventually be shipped to Auschwitz, but it also shows the machinations of the business cabal that first brought Hitler to power and later ran for cover during the Nuremberg trials (which are depicted here). The film is based on various Nuremberg documents, and goes out of its way to argue that German industry needed Standard Oil, and vice versa, to keep the German and American war machines humming.
Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers), 1958. Konrad Wolf directed this bleak story of lost souls at work in a remote uranium mining village, a place with some of the wide-open feel of a Western gold rush town. The delicate mixing of rough, cynical East German characters with Russian authority figures proved a bit much for the Soviet censors, and the film was banned until 1972. Wolf remained an important figure whose subsequent films include Professor Mamlock (1961) and Ich war 19 (I Was Nineteen, 1968).
Der schweigende Stern (Silent Star), 1960. An East German-Polish sci-fi extravaganza, directed by Maetzig from a Stanislaw Lem novel. Some great vintage visual effects and anti-American propaganda make this both a ditzy campfest and a respectable variation on the conventional voyage-to-the-stars picture (the crew is an impeccable melting pot of races and nationalities, including a sympathetic US scientist who bucks the concerns of his Commie-hating associates). It was cut and dubbed and released in the US as First Spaceship on Venus.
Der Fall Gleiwitz (The Gleiwitz Case), 1961. World War II was a handy subject in the postwar years after the end of the war, a way for East Germany to lay down its antifascist cred. Gerhard Klein and Wolfgang Kohlhaase's The Gleiwitz Case tells the real story behind the incident at a radio station that touched off the German invasion of Poland in 1939, showing how the incident was planned by the Germans to imply that the Poles had provoked at attack. Stylistically, this is one of the most intriguing GDR films: on the one hand, Gleiwitz Case takes a near-documentary-like tack, with a clipped style that presents the events as they might have happened; on the other hand, it has a visual approach that arcs back to the forced angles, dramatic compositions, and bold lighting of German Expressionism. That style was considered by East German and Soviet authorities to be dangerously close to the aesthetic of Nazi-cozy filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (some have argued that the film deliberately uses these techniques for parodistic purposes). Either way, The Gleiwitz Case was not actually banned, but was withdrawn from a Moscow film festival and given a short release.
Das zweite Gleis (The Second Track), 1962. If The Gleiwitz Case was a history lesson, The Second Track made WWII a living presence in contemporary Germany. Two men meet by chance on the job at a railroad track, thus jogging the shameful memory of an incident involving a Jewish man hiding in someone's home during the war. It spins its wheels a little too long before homing in on its subject, but The Second Track creates a genuinely suspenseful moral problem (reminiscent of the central dilemma in The Murderers are Among Us), brought to nervy life by a young director, Joachim Kunert, and a creepy musical score.
Karbid und Sauerampfer (Carbide and Sorrel), 1963. Although it was difficult for screenwriters and directors to critically address the issues of the day, ingenious methods could be used for cultural observation. For Carbide and Sorrel director Frank Beyer, the solution was to cannily employ slapstick comedy to satirize the occupation of Germany in the divided years after World War II. The film is set in 1950, and concerns the efforts of an unemployed cigarette factory worker as he tries to transport seven barrels of carbide from Wittenberg to Dresden, despite having no transportation and no money. His picaresque adventures are hilarious by any standard, and they use the postwar scene as a delicious platform for jibes at Russians and Americans (and, absolutely, Germans). The long-suffering hero is brilliantly played by Erwin Geschonneck, one of East Germany's most popular actors - sort of a Walter Matthau Every-mensch.
Das Kaninchen bin ich (The Rabbit is Me), 1965. In an interview on this film's DVD [not currently available, alas - ed.], director Kurt Maetzig talks about its genesis: When Nikita Khrushchev came to Berlin for a meeting, presumably in 1962 or '63, Maetzig summoned up his nerve and asked Khrushchev about the limits on expression in films, at which point Khrushchev told him that the arts were stagnant in the Soviet bloc, that filmmakers should indeed be more provocative, and to go ahead and make those kinds of films. So Maetzig turned around and adapted a novel that had had censorship problems, which became The Rabbit is Me.
In the interim, Khrushchev was relieved of his duties and Leonid Brezhnev lumbered into power. The new Soviet regime mounted the notorious Eleventh Plenary, and The Rabbit is Me (plus a roster of others) was swiftly shelved in the repressive new era. The film is clearly influenced by the New Wave cinema going on in other parts of the world in the 1960s, especially in France. But it was the film's story that probably got it in trouble: it tells of a young Berlin woman whose brother is jailed for maddeningly undefined counterrevolutionary actions; she then has an affair with the married judge who sentenced the brother. The film functions both as soap opera and as critique of the social system (maybe too much of the former), and its style feels fresh - saucy voiceover narration, sarcastic humor, and a fluid camera that seems unshackled from the heavier Teutonic approach of many DEFA films.
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