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.