Cinema Across the Wall: East Germany Makes a Comeback at the Berlinale

By David Gordon Smith

In the beginning, films from the communist bloc were spurned by the Berlin International Film Festival. But as the Cold War thawed, movies from East Germany's legendary DEFA studio gained recognition. This year, the Berlinale is honoring the importance of East German film, even if they remain largely unknown to western Germans.

Screening the best films from around the world. That was the lofty goal the Berlin International Film Festival set for itself from its very inception in 1951.

But even then, it was clear that the festival would fall short. Indeed, the Berlin blockade was still a fresh memory and the Cold War was just entering its most frigid years. Initially, in fact, the Berlinale, as the festival is known, wasn't even able to screen the best films from the city's surroundings. Just a few kilometers away, in the East German film studio in Babelsberg, the Deutsche Film AG produced dozens of films each year. And they would not find their way into the festival for more than two decades.

Now, DEFA's role in the Berlinale festival is being reexamined as part of celebrations marking the 60th edition of the festival, which also coincides with 20 years of German reunification. Several East German films are being screened and the festival is paying tribute to a legendary DEFA screenwriter.

"It's recognition of the fact that DEFA helped to write 15 years of Berlinale history," Rudolf Jürschik, who was the studio's head dramaturge from 1977 to 1991, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I see it as a sign of the normality that we have struggled to achieve."

'Good Traditions'

The 2010 Berlinale is honoring the 78-year-old screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who wrote the scripts for such classic DEFA films as the 1957 drama "Berlin -- Ecke Schönhauser" ("Berlin -- Schoenhauser Corner"), in its Homage section, which pays tribute to outstanding filmmakers. Several of his films are being screened and Kohlhaase was also presented with an honorary Golden Bear on Wednesday in recognition of his contribution to the German film industry.

The relationship between the studio and the festival is also the focus of a new book: "Zwischen uns die Mauer: DEFA-Filme auf der Berlinale" ("Between Us The Wall: DEFA Films at the Berlinale"). In the foreword, Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick writes of "the good traditions from East German cinema which have influenced film in today's reunified German: a sensibility for social processes, a sense of friendliness with which we regard the people next to us and a calm, unforced investigation of reality."

Rainer Simon's 1985 World War I drama "Die Frau und Der Fremde" ("The Woman and the Stranger") -- the only East German film ever to win the festival's coveted Golden Bear -- is also part of the festival's Retrospective section, which this year is highlighting the most important films from the Berlinale's 60-year history under the curatorship of renowned film critic David Thomson.

"I was very happy that my film was chosen by an independent curator, especially as my greatest role models, like (Italian directors) Michelangelo Antonioni and Francesco Rosi, are also featured," says Simon, who took part in a panel discussion on the Berlinale's relationship with DEFA on Thursday evening.

East and West Propaganda

In the early years of the Berlinale, it was unthinkable that East German films could form part of the program. The festival was conceived by Oscar Martay, a film officer with the US military administration in Berlin, who intended it to be the "showcase of the free world." When the filmfest began in 1951, Berlin marked the front line between the West and communist Eastern Europe -- and the West German government was determined that the festival not be used as a platform for communist propaganda.

It took a cue from the Soviet Union to thaw the ice. In 1974, when tensions between West Germany and the Communist states had lessened as a result of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik strategy of rapprochement, the Soviets sent a film to take part in the festival's competition. East Germany took part the following year with Frank Beyer's film "Jakob der Lügner" ("Jacob the Liar). The DEFA entry even won a Silver Bear for its leading actor Vlastimil Brodsky, who plays a Jew living in an Eastern European ghetto during the Nazi occupation.

Boycotts and Withdrawals

But East-West politics were never far away and on occasion hampered the efforts of East German filmmakers to take part in the festival. In 1979, almost all the delegations from Communist countries decided to boycott the Berlinale in protest against the representation of the North Vietnamese Viet Cong in Michael Cimino's Vietnam War drama "The Deer Hunter." As a result, the East German entry that year, Günter Reisch's "Anton der Zauberer" ("Anton the Magician"), did not get shown.

In 1983, it was tension between two Socialist states that threw a spanner in the works. The Warsaw government objected to Beyer's new film, a World War II feature called "Der Aufenthalt" (named "The Turning Point" in English) because of how Poles were depicted in the film. The film had to be withdrawn from the festival at short notice as a result of high-level Polish pressure.

But for director Rainer Simon, the best thing about being allowed to take part in the festival was not his award or the recognition, but simply the opportunity to be inspired by a wide range of movies. "I went there mainly to see films," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Films that normally never came to our theaters, unusual films that were far away from the mainstream."

Rudolf Jürschik, the former DEFA head dramaturge, says that the Berlinale was a chance to get valuable feedback on his art. "We looked to see what went down well with the international audience and to see how they perceived our films." Movies about ordinary people were particularly successful at the festival, he recalls. "People in the West liked to get a glimpse of life in East Germany, which they knew little about."

The Censorship of Money

Jürschik regrets how things turned out after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the studio's creative departments were wound down within just a year and a half. "We all lost our livelihoods," he recalls. "The collapse -- destruction would be a better word -- of DEFA belongs to the greatest acts of political insanity that happened after the fall of the Wall. And it was done deliberately." He is also critical of the fact that it took eight years to set up the DEFA Foundation, which now owns the rights to the DEFA films.

Indeed, DEFA films, which are still virtually unknown in western Germany, have found an unlikely sanctuary at the University of Massachusetts. The DEFA Film Library preserves and promotes the cinematic achievements of East Germany.

"I have the feeling that East German films are better known today in the US than in western Germany because of the fantastic work of the DEFA Film Library," says Simon, who went on a 10-week tour of US universities in 2008 organized by the DEFA Film Library.

Did his 1985 Golden Bear actually help his career? "The prize definitely helped me in East Germany, as it meant I could make even more important and ambitious films," he recalls. "But unfortunately after reunification the prize did not help me at all."

Like many other East German directors who wanted to make challenging films, Simon struggled to find funding for his projects in the years after 1989. "We managed to escape the censorship of ideology only to face the censorship of money."

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East Germany's DEFA Studio
The East German film studio Deutsche Film AG, better known as DEFA, produced around 950 full-length and short feature films during its 46 years of existence, including contemporary social dramas, historical dramas, westerns, science fiction movies and children's films. It also produced over 800 animated films and around 5,800 documentaries and newsreels.

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