Films from Germany (1945 1989)

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Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby A » Thu Aug 31, 2006 11:46 am

Quo Vadis, Germany?

Soon after the complete surrender of the german army in May 1945 and the end of the second World War in Europe, efforts began to rebuild a new german film industry, primarily as a means of counter-propaganda from the four political sections that occupied the remaining parts of Germany. In the Soviet sector, the DEFA was established as soon as 1946. It would have the exclusive right to producing films in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. On the western side, things took a bit longer, as the british, french, and americans hadnt yet united their efforts regarding the filmindustry. Films were of course nevertheless made, as they had been even in the last months before the surrender, and various new production companies were set up in the following years.

The first German film after WWII is said to be Wolfgang Staudtes Die Moerder sind unter uns Murderers among us, which came out in 1946 and would start a trend of rather bleak post-war films in both parts. Such a tendency was already apparent in another important german film from 1944, Helmut Kuntners Unter den Brcken Under the Bridges, which had been banned by the Nazis.

From 1949 onwards, when the Federal Republic of Germany was officially declared an independent state, the two filmindustries developed in different ways. While in the west, as consumerism slowly took over, the american way of life began to be idolized, the primary rule in films from East Germany became the communist education and the glorification of socialist values. This tendency could be exemplary observed in war movies dealing with everyday life during WWII, which had already become popular on both sides, but respectively shifted their emphasis to fit the differing ideologies. But the most popular national movies remained escapist comedies and melodramas which took the viewers into another world and were for the most part meant as mere entertainment.

In West Germany the first huge wave of financial success came with the Heimatfilm which was to dominate the 1950s. In these films, set in a german landscape with green meadows and magnificent forrests, which were usually peppered with annoying dance and song numbers, continually smiling men and women in traditional costumes were to restore a sense of home and belonging in a (west-)german public which tried to come to terms with its loss of a historic continuity after the Third Reich and even the Weimar Republic were being mostly repressed as an actual part of personal history. In the Heimatfilm genre a false sense of history was established, which recurred to familiar themes of fascist blood and soil policy, but twisted them in a way which placed them in a fantasy netherworld where traditional values were put above everything else, modernity and progress being regarded as a threat to the stabilities of german life as it had existed before WWI.
During the 1960s these tendencies had to be connected with a german public which had finally adapted their old ideology to the new capitalist ways. This was achieved in a number of european co-productions which offered a more varied scale of possible escape from reality. One of the most popular film-series of that time were for example the Dr. Mabuse films, which dealt with a mysterious and dangerous world through the application of contrived conspiracy theories, which beared a strong resemblance to a lot of extremely popular german dime-novels of that time. Another series-production concerned the adaptation of novels by german writer Karl May thrioughout the 60s, which can be in many ways regarded as a continuation of the Heimatfilm.
In the 70s, the New German Cinema - which had already been designed as a counterdraft to the dominant mainstream production during the early 60s finally came more dominantly to the scene, and for a short time the dream of an independent and creative film-movement that could compete with the industrial mass-production of the filmindustry seemed a possibility. But already during the next decade this illusion ceased to exist, as conservative tendencies began to manifest themselves once more.

Of course, this is only a compressed illustration of a broader reality, and has necessarily to be taken with a grain of salt, although many parallels can be drawn from this description to other european cinematographies of that time, and similarities to film-history in the US become apparent. East Germany and its films on the other hand, were closer to the social and political reality of the Soviet Union and other communist countries, where you had a state-controlled production which included documentary films and films aimed at children. So if I would write a short outline of their cinematic history, it would bear huge similarities to the ongoings in countries like Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia, and even the Soviet Union itself, and couldnt help in revealing the specific reaility of life in the GDR which would help to discern it from the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Hopefully, the understanding of an East- and West German cinematography will come through the reviews and analyses which will be presented in this thread. Although before we move on, I want to stress out one significant factor which has been adressed in the text above but merits further attention.

Even if you are aware of the fact which films were made in a specific country, and of the sociopolitical climate which would produce them, the question why exactly certain tendencies came to dominate the culture, while others seemed to be ignored still remains. What I want to say, is that in every time and country there were limits set to the freedom of artistic expression, and as the medium of film has suffered from censorship since its beginnings it is very impostant to find out what films could be actually made? Although this was a question which posed itselfs on both sides of the Berlin Wall, the two industries had to face different restrictions.

In the East, the problem wasnt so much how far you could go in order to get a film done, but how far you could go in order that the film wasnt going to be banned. In the West, you could of course try do almost anything you wanted, but who would give you the money? Here, the problems faced came from commercial restrictions. How far could you go artistically, in order to get your film produced, and subsequently to have even a marginal chance at the box-office, so that you could continue making films in the future. While the film in East Germany was in the hands of the party, in the first decades it wasnt a real problem getting the opportunity to make your film that is if you were officially aknowledged as a filmmaker. In the West on the other hand, a continuos career was only possible if your films made some money. Thus we can speak of two primary restrictions which were reglementing the respective output of each country. The dictate of ideology on one side, versus the dictate of money on the other.

Of course there existed films and filmmakers on both sides who tried to make films according to their own vision. But they were in an extreme minority, with their films being either constantly banned or not completed at all, or in the West, doomed to oblivion if they didnt find enough critical acclaim abroad. After the Reunification some have resurfaced, but a lot have also been lost or are still awaiting their discovery. It is both entirely wrong and extremely lazy to throw all of eastern german cinema into one basket, or to disregard films from the Federal Republic which were made before Fassbinder and his colleagues came along a misconception which can to this day be encountered among professional critics. Usually this stems from taking basic information at face value, and an an eagerness to accept established filmhistory as a God-given factand, paired with a laziness to dig deeper into a difficult topic where you may have to form your own opinion.

I hope that this thread will work as a counter balance to this kind of criticism and offer a platform to re-think german filmhistory, maybe to the point were films from the GDR and the FRG will despite their differences be regarded as two sides of the same coin. Thus, I will try to present neglected films with artistic aspirations and some of the above mentioned commercial products alongside already established works, in an attempt to judge each film on its own, while putting it into a broader context. Maybe you will find enough stimulation to dig deeper on your own, and if you already have, feel free to share your thoughts.

Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby A » Thu Aug 31, 2006 11:47 am


Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby arsaib4 » Thu Aug 31, 2006 8:53 pm

Very informative article, A. Were you inspired by reading other pieces through your research, or was this simply the result of the knowledge you've gathered over the years?

Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby A » Thu Aug 31, 2006 9:07 pm

Thanks for the nice words.
It was part personal knowledge, part inspiration. I was inspired by the stuff I had read in previous years, as I have even some literature at home. I'm quite knowledgable when it comes to german cinema, as I've lived hear for almost two decades. Nevertheless I have read far more about german filmhistory than I have actually seen myself.
I wrote this piece yesterday and today without research, (though I think it's accurate) and my problem was actually limiting myself, when I began to write much more as I had intended. When I noticed this, I cut down several passages (I think this can be negatively felt while reading the text...). I mean, this is meant as an appetizer, and a short introduction to the period. If somebody wants to know more, there is enough literature to choose from. And the reviews which I'll try to write over the next months will hopefully provide further information. And maybe there are others who also watch some films from that period
Anything by Fassbinder would qualify

Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby arsaib4 » Thu Aug 31, 2006 9:20 pm

Great! Looking forward to your reviews.

Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby collectedsoul » Fri Sep 01, 2006 12:42 pm

This is such a brilliant forum.
Am looking forward to your reviews.

Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby arsaib4 » Sat Oct 07, 2006 3:22 am

BORN IN '45 (East Germany / 1966/90)

The period of DEFA ("Deutsche Filmaktiengesellschaft"), the state-run studios of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR; East Germany), ended up lasting from 1946 to 1992, a few years more than GDR itself. Perhaps theres some irony there because so have some of the nearly 750 films that were produced during the time-frame (many of them at Studio Babelsberg, with which the likes of Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and Marlene Dietrich are famously associated), even though the cultural authorities did their very best to make certain that they wouldnt be seen again. (The "11th Plenum" of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party introduced new laws in the mid-60s which, alongside other key works of art, caused many DEFA films to be banned.) It wasnt until the late-80s when late German critic and historian Rolf Richter began to discover and restore the films with support from the new regime and the affected filmmakers. Some films were then showcased at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival, and subsequently traveled to other sites around the globe. (Not surprisingly, 14 DEFA films were recently named among the "100 Most Important German Films of all time.")

Born in '45 (Jahrgang 45), the only narrative-based feature directed by renowned painter and documentarian Jrgen Bttcher, was banned even before it was released. The authorities considered the rough-cut of the film to be "indifferent and insignificant." But those adjectives are better suited to be attached to the films male protagonist, Alfred (Rolf Rmer), a 23-year-old car mechanic who lives in a tiny apartment in Berlins Prenzlauer Berg district with his beautiful, newly-wed wife, Lisa (Monika Hildebrand), a maternity-ward nurse. It becomes clear early on that this marriage isnt a happy one, and thats largely due to Alfreds nonchalant nature -- perhaps the result of him being regretful about losing his independence at such an early age. (Both Alfred and Rita could be seen as the younger versions of the married protagonists from Bla Tarr's The Prefab People [1982], carrying a brighter outlook towards the future at this point in their lives, yet facing many of the same dilemmas in their monotonous existences under the suffocating political climate.) Rita starts the divorce proceedings; Alfred eventually moves back to his mothers place and starts spending most of his time with his old crew.

While the film isnt overtly political, its title symbolically refers to the post-war generation whose uncertain childhoods have left a mark on their current state. Also, with the conversations Alfred shares with his old neighbor and his grandfather, it becomes apparent that the differing ideologies have insinuated a new set of values that are constantly being negotiated. If the exquisitely poetic b&w camerawork of Roland Grf showcases the youth being dwarfed by the historical structures in the beginning, ultimately its the new generation who are atop the rapidly changing landscape of the city. Grf has acknowledged the influence the Italian neo-realists and Czech New Wavers had on him and Bttcher, and rightfully so, but the film largely unfolds via a breezy, nouvelle vague ambiance pregnant with wonderment and discovery. But Mr. Richter deserves the final word: "[Born in '45] is like a kind of ballet, expressing what cannot be said with words. There are the most beautiful arrangements. The naive nature of the performance and the beauty of the camera movements and angles are stunning. Every-day life is shown as both powerful and trivial - as space for movement in which we can study and develop ourselves and in which we define ourselves by means of endless repetitions and attempts to break out. The director's tools are sensitive feelers. He does not flaunt his professionalism; rather, he displays an excellent sense of timing."


*Now available on DVD in the U.S. (First Run). Simply put: this DVD is a pleasure all-around.

*Extra Features:
-Interview with director of photography Roland Grf
-Doc/Discussion: "Forbidden Films in Retrospect," with Professors Frank Hornigk (Humboldt University) and Peter Rabenalt (Potsdam-Babelsberg Film and Television Academy)
-Newsreels about the film
-Essay: "Personal Reflection" by film historian Rolf Richter

Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby A » Thu Oct 12, 2006 9:36 pm

Thanks for opening the thread with your review arsaib. I have so many things to do lately, that I find it hard to relax and write a few hours.
Haven't seen this film yet, but I believe it was part of the 11th plenum you mention, which banned around a dozen films in '66. And it is a rough-cut I believe, because Bttcher didn't get the opportunity to finish it.
Cinematographer Roland Grf whom you mention, became a director himself later in his career, and a remarkable one, judging by some recent articles I've read on his life and work.

A lot of Defa-films that were banned and sent to the vaults, resurfaced and were even re-constructed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There have really been great efforts to re-evaluate and explore the cinema of the GDR, thanks in large parts to the excellent work of the DEFA Foundation.

Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby arsaib4 » Fri Oct 13, 2006 4:08 am

You're welcome, A. I was fortunate enough to attend a retrospective of East-German films last year which also included a few lectures on the pertinent issues surrounding the films. Born in '45 wasn't one of the films I watched, but director Bttcher did attend the event. Perhaps the best film I got to see was Egon Gnther's Der Dritte, which was introduced by its stars Jutta Hoffmann and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Since it's now available on DVD I'll try to write something about it soon

Thanks for the info regarding Grf.

Re: Films from Germany (1945 1989)

Postby arsaib4 » Thu Oct 26, 2006 10:19 pm

HER THIRD (East Germany / 1971)

Directed by Egon Gnther, who has been described as an "avant-gardist" of East German cinema, Her Third (Der Dritte) is an intimate and absorbing drama about a woman attempting to grasp the kaleidoscopic social values in the early-70s GDR.

Jutta Hoffmann plays Margit Flieer, a thirtysomething mathematician working at a chemical plant who is a single mother of two and is seeking a male companion. She starts eyeing a co-worker but isnt sure how to approach him. Through a series of flashbacks, we gradually discover Margits past which largely defines her present state. After being orphaned at a young age, she sought comfort in a religious upbringing which she ultimately found to be too restrictive, and decided to pursue higher education on her own while being employed. Margit's first husband was her handsome chemistry professor who resented her youthful idealism; her second, a middle-aged author and musician (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who eventually succumbed to alcoholism due to his lacks. Both being responsible for a child each.

But Margit has found a way to survive the tribulations thus far, and wants to starts anew in a society which mightve been striving to provide equal status to women both professionally and otherwise, but their submissiveness was still considered a virtue in domestic matters. Hoffmann -- winner of the Best Actress award at the 1972 Venice Film Festival -- is truly a revelation here; shes tested in an array of emotionally complex situations by the taut screenplay (adopted from a short story by screenwriter Gnther Rcker) which covers nearly two decades of her character's life, but she comes through with flying colors.

When the film was submitted to the authorities for approval, they didnt find anything problematic with how the turbulent life of this GDR woman was depicted (the truth was hard to refute, I guess), but an issue was raised with a brief yet intimate moment Margit shares with her spry best friend and colleague, Lucie (Barbara Dittus), according to whom "socialism cant handle two things: fresh rolls and large busts." But Gnther was eventually able to get the film certified. Not surprisingly, Her Third became a box office success upon its release, and is now considered as one of the key DEFA films of the 70's.


*Now available on DVD in the U.S. (First Run).

*Extra Features include:

- Biographies & filmographies
- Interview with screenwriter Gnther Rcker.
- Essay: "A Woman and GDR Society" by Erika Richter (who I'm assuming is related to critic/historian Rolf Richter.)
- A DEFA short documentary, Sylvia (1983), which serves as an excellent companion piece to the feature.


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