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Socialism Today 108 - April 2007

Raising the curtain

East German film

Released by Network DVD

£14.99 each

Reviewed by

Manny Thain

COLD WAR propaganda reduced the world to absurd simplifications. So it is interesting to get a view from the Stalinist side. Network DVD has issued six films from the German Democratic Republic (or Great Demolition Race in the film, The Architects), most of them previously unavailable in the west.

They are products of state-run DEFA film studios, two from 1957, one each from 1961, 1963, 1989 and 1990. There are big gaps, therefore, which make it impossible to gauge whether these films are representative of East German filmmaking in general.

All films had to pass rigorous bureaucratic censor. But art, music, film, emotion and thought can never be totally controlled. There is always a living struggle between freedom of expression and societal constraints – true in all societies, not only totalitarian regimes. Artists vary, some more willing than others to toe the party/state line. Nonetheless, however distorted the mirror might be, in one way or another, reality has a habit of being reflected.

There is a certain logic in starting with the most recent film, The Architects (1990 – 97 mins). Made on the eve of Stalinism’s collapse, it was freer to express the situation and mood that the other films reflect more obscurely. As Czech-born director, Peter Kahane, says in an interview, although many at DEFA opposed making the film, "power had begun to shift".

He chose the subject for important reasons. Kahane says that construction was such an essential part of East Germany it was almost an ideology: the state had been totally destroyed in the second world war, and rebuilding became part of the "myth of East German independence" as it "rose from the ruins".

Kahane wanted to push the limits, dealing with power, constraints on innovation, compromise and emigration. The result is a portrait of a system in its death throes, imbued with a choking end-of-era atmosphere as the regime implodes, utterly demoralised, suffocated by its own inertia. The film won the Special Prize at the GDR’s National Feature Film Festival in 1990 – the last time the event was held.

It is set on the outskirts of Berlin, where Daniel and Wanda live with their young daughter, Johanna. There is no theatre, cinema or bars, they have no phone and no one visits. Wanda, who had quit medical school, is stifled. Daniel is asked to head a project for a new housing and shopping development. His team immediately encounters bureaucratic obstacles. Personal relationships break down. Wanda wants a divorce, and to take Johanna to Switzerland.

Team discussions also reflect developments in society: "I became an architect to build cities for living people. Not cemeteries… We must fight to be seen as a ‘socialist labour collective’, but what they fear most is us working collectively". Daniel drives alongside the Berlin wall. On the soundtrack, children sing: Our New Homeland – about cities and towns, trees and fields, rivers and the sea. The backdrop is the drab cityscape. The promise broken.

Separated by nearly a generation is Carbide and Sorrel (1963 – 80 mins), in which director Frank Beyer dishes up a large dose of escapism. In bombed out Dresden in 1945 the cigarette factory has been destroyed. Kalle has to go to Wittenberg to get carbide so the machines can be welded.

The gentle comedy follows Kalle, a non-smoking vegetarian, as he tries to bring back seven barrels of carbide, with no means of transport and no transportation permit. Mild fun is poked at Soviet troops and red tape. He gets caught by the Russians. He gets the better of a dim US sailor. He meets flirtatious women, shifty men. He falls in love. Lack of food and images of wartime destruction recur, reminders that, however bad things might be today, they were once a lot worse. It is a tale of triumph over adversity.

An occupational hazard, Beyer had frequent run-ins with the censors and was dismissed from DEFA in 1966 after one of his films was banned. He returned in 1969 after three years working in state theatres.

The next two films were directed by Gerhard Klein, a self-educated cartoonist and documentary maker who began directing in 1953. He was born in Berlin in 1920 and was a member of the Spartacist League youth before joining the Communist Party in 1933. He was imprisoned twice by the Nazis.

Berlin Schönhauser Corner (1957 – 79 mins) starts with a young man, Dieter, running from west Berlin (pre-wall) into the Stalinist ‘Democratic sector’ and a police station: "Kohle’s dead", he says to the police chief. What follows is the story leading to that dramatic entrance. It is a cautionary tale, part Romeo and Juliet (Dieter and Angela).

A gang of bored youth hang around Schönhauser Corner in East Berlin. Dieter acts the rebel but is a good guy, really, despite refusing to join the Free German Youth. Karl-Heinz, the villain, is from a wealthy family. He steals ID cards to sell in the west. After a series of incidents, Dieter and Kohle are compelled to flee, ending up in an unsympathetic refuge in the west. They are victimised by wealthy reactionaries angry at being expropriated. Dieter escapes – the prodigal son returning – running back to where the film began.

The regime criticised this portrayal of young people, fearing it would set a bad example. Given that the message is decidedly pro-east, that maybe indicates the depths of state paranoia. Having said that, this beautifully shot, well-made film shows up generational tensions and the privations of everyday life. Kohle is frequently beaten by his mother’s drunken partner. Angela’s mother has a fraught relationship with a married man. Dieter’s parents died in the war. These youth want to move on. They look west for music and style.

Despite (or because of?) the regime’s misgivings, it was a box-office hit, 1.5 million watching it in the first three months. This was the third of Klein’s ‘Berlin films’. The fourth, Berlin Around the Corner (1965), fell foul of the censors and was not released.

The Gleiwitz Case (1961 – 64 mins) is anti-Nazi propaganda. It concentrates on the pretext the Nazis engineered to invade Poland in 1939: the seizure of the Gleiwitz radio station by ‘Polish fighters’ – really SS troops. It does not concern itself with the big picture – no inconvenient issues such as the Stalin-Hitler pact (which opened the door for Hitler’s occupation of Poland) of the same year, for example.

But how was it viewed by people in the GDR? Did they take it at face value? Did they see unnerving parallels between Nazi and Stalinist oppression? Was Klein merely dramatising a key incident? Was he being subversive?

The film starts with newsreels showing Hitler kissing babies, Göring at a folklore festival and the National Socialist Motoring team winning the German grand prix. The leader of the operation is on a train. Officers and women eat, drink and sing loudly. Out of focus, the camera sways. It is an unsavoury, sickening caricature. The detail inside the radio station is excellent, the music sublime. Extended sequences with no dialogue ratchet up the tension.

A prisoner is blindfolded, handcuffed and driven away. The journey is long, a low-lying camera angle accentuating the speed. The view switches to close-ups of the prisoner’s tense face, fear in his handcuffed hands. The officer reminisces about rounding up Jews and Reds.

The radio announces the peaceful intentions of the German state. The station is seized and the bogus ‘Polish Insurrection Force’ broadcasts its message. The drugged prisoner is laid out in front of the station, material evidence of the Polish plot. With the second shot he dies. Deutschland Über Alles rings out.

Technically superb, Klein showcases his trademark use of clear lighting and contrast, innovative camera work and minimalist style. He was frequently attacked by the regime for his ‘fascistic aesthetic’. He certainly likes straight lines and order. But it is ironic criticism from a Stalinist regime, to say the least. One thing the two systems shared were similar methods of clinical, systematic repression.

Unfortunately, two films were unavailable for review. One of them, the classic fairytale, The Singing Ringing Tree, was shown on BBC television in the 1960s. The other, Coming Out, was the first and only DEFA film to deal with homosexuality. It premiered on 9 November 1989, as the Berlin wall was coming down.

In many ways, these films parallel those produced on the other side of the ‘iron curtain’. The themes are universal. They offer escape and distraction. Sometimes, they hint at more sinister themes. Criticism and artistic expression are extremely difficult under totalitarian regimes for obvious reasons. What can be caught from these films are glimpses of society, seen in rooms, clothes, language, streets and landscapes. It is an intriguing view.


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