Les États généraux du film documentaire 2018 Doc History: German Democratic Republic

Doc History: German Democratic Republic


Is it possible to retrace the history of a country that no longer appears on the map through its documentary production? The German Democratic Republic existed for forty-one years (1949-1990), the State Film Studio (DEFA) lasted even longer (1946-1992). We will attempt to explore this production, so complex and still so little known, by combining formal and historical approaches.
On May 17, 1946, the Soviet Military Administration gave a license over to German filmmakers for the production of new films. With it, the DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) was created as the first German film enterprise after World War II. Some months earlier, Kurt Maetzig had already begun shooting the newsreel Der Augenzeuge. This periodic film programme continued until December 1980, when it was stopped. DEFA produced thousands of documentaries and popular scientific films for the cinema, including newsreels. As in the case of feature films, DEFA almost had a monopoly in the production of documentary films in the GDR. The first DEFA documentary film was made in 1946: Kurt Maetzig’s Einheit SPD-KPD was a quite objective reportage about the unity of the two German labour parties in the Soviet zone. The SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands), other political parties, the Soviet Military Administration, the Metal Industrial Union, the Union of the Persecuted by the Nazi Regime, and the Red Cross were among the early clients of DEFA’s documentary films. Enterprises and authorities also commissioned many documentaries.
In 1948-1949, after a period of relative freedom, the DEFA documentary production started to suffer from stronger political oppression. The cinema produced in the GDR, a State which was founded in October 1949, had the main objective of persuading German society to choose socialism, in order to create new men and women for the future socialist paradise on earth. At the beginning of 1950, the SED’s leaders decided to closely link DEFA documentary film production to the party and its Stalinist ideology and political objectives. Besides short films, cinemas presented feature-length productions, whose main purpose was to deliver an uninterrupted chronicle of successes. Expressing doubts about the course of things, mentioning questionable aspects of the social development in Soviet occupation zones and the GDR was not allowed in these films. They represented German history and its present situation exclusively following the official propaganda model. The SED made sure that tickets were distributed in schools, institutions, and businesses, and that hundreds of thousands of spectators would give the impression that attending film shows was a daily activity for the perfect citizens of the GDR.
It was not until the mid-1950s, after Stalin’s death and the institution of the “New Course”, that the production diversified. The commitment of Joris Ivens, who produced the international feature Lied der Ströme (1954), brought a new impulse to DEFA documentary films. Annelie and Andrew Thorndike made several compilation films based on international archive material, which considered the course of German history during the twentieth century, the emergence of the two world wars and the career of former Nazis in the Federal Republic in line with the orthodox “Marxism-Leninism” of that time. Being great propaganda filmmakers, the Thorndikes often showed incontrovertible facts through an innovative montage, but they also suggested that mere suspicions were the truth…
In 1962, just one year after the construction of the Berlin Wall, DEFA produced Schaut auf diese Stadt, by Karl Gass: this great Cold War film showed radical aversion toward Western development and asserted the historical superiority of the GDR and the socialist system. With great formal virtuosity, Gass depicted West Berlin as a horrible city full of spies, old Nazi industrialists, warmongers and CIA saboteurs: the same issues that were raised in the streets of Berlin by Western students in 1968…
The separation of the GDR often gave DEFA documentary directors the groundless illusion, and sometimes solid hope, that they could work in a more open system. A young generation of directors educated at the Babelsberg University and sincerely committed to their country’s life and reality, started working at DEFA. Karl Gass became their spiritual master: his film Feierabend (1964), which depicts workers critically for the first time and shows them drinking and celebrating, became a legendary symbol of freedom, far from the Stakhanovist heroism of the fifties. Gass, who was head of the documentary film class at the university and from 1961 led his own artistic workgroup for documentary film at DEFA, encouraged Winfried Junge to produce a film series about children from the village of Golzow. Like Junge, other important directors of his generation were also interested in contributing to the democratization of East-German society by showing the new lifestyles, difficulties and hopes of its citizens. Notable films were made by the mid-sixties by a new wave of filmmakers whose most famous members are Jürgen Böttcher, Gitta Nickel, Karlheinz Mund, Kurt Tetzlaff, and Volker Koepp. Direct cinema and the refusal of ideological voice-overs became their common strategies. In these films, often made in long series and shot over many years, directors let people talk directly into the camera about work, free time, love and dreams: dangerous topics, such as the lack of democracy in a socialist country, became quite common, even if some of the films were censored. The quality of the best DEFA documentary films was mainly due to exceptional cameramen: Thomas Plenert, Wolfgang Dietzel, Christian Lehmann and Hans Eberhard Leupold, among others, always worked masterfully and sensitively.
Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann gained a privileged position in the documentary film production of the GDR. Between 1969 and 1982, they managed their “Studio H&S”, which was financed by the State but was officially independent from DEFA. The studio was considered an independent artistic workshop, and mainly produced anti-imperialistic and anti-colonialist works. Many H&S films dealt with the war and peace cycles in Vietnam, the coup in Chile, the genocide in Cambodia, the Nazi roots of the FRG. These radical essay films attracted great international attention in the seventies and early eighties: most of them are greatly crafted propaganda, directly inspired by the soviet avant-garde.
In the autumn of 1976, Wolf Biermann was stripped of his citizenship by SED leaders. This event, together with the government’s attempt to impose a stronger discipline on GDR artists also hit DEFA documentary production. Jürgen Böttcher, Richard Cohn-Vossen and Heinz Brinkmann protested against these measures and had to deal with tremendous political pressure. During the eighties, DEFA documentaries showed the reality of the GDR in a more critical way. Films integrated old taboo subjects, resulting in a paradoxical situation : productions financed by DEFA were struggling to show the facts between the lines, despite the resistance of the State and the Party bureaucrats.
After the collapse of the SED and the fall of the Wall in 1989, the experimental works by the no wave, punk and feminist generation – Thomas Heise, Gerd Kroske, Andreas Voigt, Eduard Schreiber, Petra Tschörtner, Sybille Schönemann, Helke Misselwitz – described the mood of GDR citizens as both desperate and touching, and analysed the new difficulties caused by capitalist violence following the unification of Germany.
In 1990, the DEFA documentary film studio became a limited corporation and was put up for sale by the privatization agency. To obey the privatization conditions, the studio dismissed most of its employees until mid-1991. The quality of DEFA documentary films survived in the new productions by East-German directors. Even though many directors, authors, and cameramen retired, lost their jobs, or changed professions, the works of many former GDR directors are still associated with the most important German documentaries of today.

Federico Rossin


Screenings introduced by Federico Rossin.

With support from the DEFA-Filmverleih, the Archives Françaises du Film and the Goethe-Institut.
Special thanks to Mirko Wiermann, Filmuniversität Babelsburg Konrad Wolf, and Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv.