Academic journal article German Quarterly

East German Cinema, 1946-1992

Academic journal article German Quarterly

East German Cinema, 1946-1992

Article excerpt

Allan, Sean, and John Sandford, eds. DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. New York: Berghahn, 1999. 328 pp. $25.00 paperback.

This book provides an introduction to the history of Defa, the film company founded in 1946 in the Soviet sector of Berlin that would become the state film company of the GDR. Defa was thus a film company that antedated the GDR, and one that, when it was dissolved in 1992, had also outlived the GDR. Given that this is one of the first books in English to attempt to cover Defa's history, it is obviously very welcome to scholars and students of German cinema. Containing essays based for the most part on papers given at a conference on East German cinema organized by the Centre for East German Studies at the University of Reading, England, this volume approaches that history in a variety of ways: historical overviews, comparative contextualization, interviews with artists involved in Defa, and articles devoted to the study of individual directors and films, related groups of films, the history of one East German film journal, literary adaptations and the use of Germany's literary heritage in Defa films, the representation ofwomen in Defa films, and the role of state censorship for East German cinema, most famously with regard to all the banned or "shelved films," the Regalfilme, of 1965-66. While there is inevitably some overlap in an anthology of this sort--historical topics, specific films, and other issues that one encounters in more than one of the volume's chapters-this is for the most part not annoying, but rather enriching, in that the repeated emphasis on certain phenomena illuminates them from a variety of perspectives.

Sean Allan provides a helpful historical overview of Defa that opens the book, covering Defa's early years in the immediate postwar period, in which it produced classic films like Wolfgang Staudte's Die Murder sind unter uns (1946) and Kurt Maetzig's Ehe im Schatten (1947). The 1950s began with the state's increasing insistence on a dogmatically construed "socialist realism" that made collaboration with Western directors like Staudte more difficult and eventually impossible. It was modified more than once over the decade with the occasional "thaw." In the 1960s the Berlin Wall paradoxically inspired a liberal period of experimentation in the cinema. The Eleventh Plenum in December 1965 put an abrupt end to this, resulting in the shelving of a major portion of the Defa films produced in 1965-1966. The "thaw" ofthe 1970s, this time ushered in by Honecker's accession to power, was cut short by the events that culminated with the expulsion of Wolf Biermann in 1976 and the exile and/or punishment of those who protested. In the promising early 1980s, filmmaking also suffered when Konrad Wolf died in 1982, and more stagnation followed, relieved only at the very end of the decade when some taboos were broken with films like Helke Misselwitz's Winter Add and Heiner Carow's Coming Out, evidence of some liberalization that obviously came too late to stop the demise of the GDR.

Barton Byg attempts to contextualize East German cinema in terms of its affinity with international trends in the cinema, in order to end the Cold-War isolation that has kept East German cinema largely inaccessible to the West. Byg demonstrates that Defa produced far more than "socialist realism," and he does this by foregrounding Defa's roots in the cinema of Germany's Weimar Republic, that is, in Expressionism, New Objectivity, and other avantgarde tendencies of that era (but also in Weimar melodrama-and Nazi melodrama, too), and by showing the parallels between East German cinema and other cinematic traditions-not just the Soviet and Eastern European avantgarde, but American film noir and melodrama; not just Italian neo-realism, but the French New Wave. Rosemarie Stott focuses on the history of the GDR journal Film and Fernsehen, a journal founded in 1973 and disbanded in 1988, thus spanning most of the Honecker era. …

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