Academic journal article Film & History

The Struggle over Audiences in Postwar East German Film

Academic journal article Film & History

The Struggle over Audiences in Postwar East German Film

Article excerpt

The rise in interest in East German cinema since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of Germany in 1990 has, over the last decade, generated considerable interest in continuities between the old Ufa traditions of the Nazi and pre-Nazi periods and the postwar cinema of the Soviet occupation zone and German Democratic Republic (GDR). Such continuities existed in both personnel and style. What has gone relatively unnoticed in contemporary analysis of these continuities, however, is the debate immediately after 1945. Prefiguring current scholarly fascination with the relationship between Ufa (established on December 18, 1917) and the East German film company DEFA (established on May 17, 1946), the debate among East German film intellectuals raised the stakes to a relatively high level directly after the war. DEFA wanted to appeal to German film-going audiences in a style that would also re-educate them, but, in the aftermath of World War Two, intellectuals in the Soviet zone agreed that the cinema of the Hitler dictatorship should be rejected and that a new kind of film should take its place. There was also, however, a consensus that the actual nature of German film audiences tended to militate against any radical changes in film aesthetics. The Ufa production style was appealing and marketable, but it came with an ideological price. This debate climaxed in discussions about Kurt Maetzig's popular Ehe im Schatten (Marriage in the Shadows, 1947), a film that dealt with the problem of Nazi antiSemitism.

Film and Re-education

Unsurprisingly, film intellectuals in the Soviet zone were convinced of the importance of cinema for ideological re-education. Kurt Maetzig, one of the founders of DEFA, argued in February 1946 that because film tended to address large numbers of people-far more than theater or books-it had the potential to exert more influence on ordinary Germans' ways of thinking and feeling. For this reason, Maetzig believed, filmmakers bore a particular responsibility for ideological re-education. If the art of film "plays the right notes," he argued, "then it may succeed in melting the icy armor that still encloses so many hearts and shake them out of a lethargy that cannot be broken through intellectual means." According to Maetzig, "the art of film is...suited like no other art form for ushering in this first decisive encounter of the human being with himself in the realm of feeling."1 In Maetzig's view, film had the potential to be particularly effective in addressing the catastrophic situation of the German population, and it could appeal not just to the intellect but, more significantly, to the emotions. Maetzig's first feature film, Ehe im Schatten, appeared a year later, and the subject matter of that film did, as Maetzig had suggested, connect to the real experiences of its viewers, since it dealt directly with Nazi anti-Semitism and its consequences, attempting to melt "the icy armor that still encloses so many hearts" by getting German audiences to sympathize with Jewish victims of the Nazis. And yet precisely Ehe im Schatten, because of its huge popularity and politically sensitive subject matter, became part of the ongoing postwar debate about the best filmic means to achieve ideological re-education.

In 1947, Maetzig attributed the re-educative power of Ehe im Schatten to the visual impressions it produced among viewers. Maetzig believed that these impressions, particularly if they resembled the previous lived experiences of ordinary movie-goers, could help them to restructure their own memories according to a framework laid down by the film. For this reason Maetzig asserted that films dealing with recent history-such as the Nazi dictatorship and World War Two, which almost all contemporary German viewers would have experienced themselves-had the potential to make audiences reconceptualize their own attitudes to recent German history. Maetzig insisted that a contemporary film about the immediate past connects viewers to their own experiences in a new way: "They are 'eyewitnesses,' i. …

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