East German Cinema Guide

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By Robert Horton

Put them together, and the terms "East Germany" and "cinema" conjure up bleak associations: a gray Berlin, barbed wire, and the soul-frying bitterness of a Hollywood Cold War picture along the lines of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or a post-reunification lookback such as The Lives of Others.

But for "East German cinema" itself? There's a fair amount of barbed wire and bitterness in the films of the German Democratic Republic, but there's much more: the subject is ripe for re-discovery, a process helped along in the US by a 2005 Museum of Modern Art series and a steady stream of DVD releases from First Run Features. In preparing a lecture on Cold War cinema for the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, I had the chance to delve into the world of GDR film and found it arresting in many ways - an island unto itself, yet connected to the greater flow of movie history in unexpected flashes. Here's a bit of background, followed by a collection of films from this strange era.

It was an accident of history, probably, that Berlin's key filmmaking centers - including the location of the legendary Ufa studios, the Metropolis playground itself - were occupied by Russian forces in the latter days of World War II. Not an accident is the fact that the Soviets set up a filmmaking apparatus much more quickly than the West did; a collective of filmmakers, Filmaktiv, formed in October 1945, documentary films were in production as early as January 1946, and the state-operated film studio, DEFA (for Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) established itself shortly thereafter. The history of East German film is fundamentally the history of DEFA, which hit the ground running with Germany's first postwar feature, Wolfgang Staudte's Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers are Among Us, 1946).

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