ANCESTORS: Cinematic everyday life in Eastern Germany – A search for traces in the archives

Filmprogramm 1:
Friday, June 3rd | 19.00 h | Metropolis
Sunday, June 5th | 17.30 h | B-Movie

Filmprogramm 2:Saturday, June 4th | 17.00  h | MetropolisSonntag, June 5th | 19.30 h | B-Movie

»One of the most important tasks for our literature and art lies in conveying the soulful optimism of our worldview,« announced Kurt Hager, member of the politburo of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) during a consultation with political and artistic representatives of the GDR.

But what happens when the everyday life doesn’t instill as much optimism as the party would like it to do? And when film makers who are willing to follow the socialist utopia want to describe those things that shape societal realities?

Both programmes are dedicated to a country that doesn’t exist anymore and films that are still worth watching today. While delving into the archives of the former DEFA (Deutsche Film AG) and the Academy of Film and Television (HFF) in Potsdam and looking into experimental productions, you can make many exciting discoveries from different Eastern German living environments. There are surprises as well when it comes to the question what should and what shouldn’t be screened according to the leadership.

Meanwhile the works cover the whole range of cinematic variety. In their multitude they all show the fragile balance that film productions keep in order to prevent their films from being censored or black-listed. Thus the up and down of artistic freedom and censorship, which usually followed right away, mirrored the respective political mood in the country.

The DEFA was initially founded in 1946 as a Soviet-German stock company. It became a nationally owned enterprise in 1952. The founding history illustrates the socio-political task of Eastern German film productions. In the spirit of Lenin, film, as the ›most important art‹ was supposed to aid in the creation of a new society.

It initially started with antifascist productions. But after the foundation of the German Democratic Republic, film makers soon hit a metaphorical wall due to party doctrine. Contemporary subjects became marginal, and when they were tackled, it was done with a clear ideological bias.

In the early 60s Eastern German film productions declined due to the competition of television and the implementation of Stalinist Socialist Realism by the party. This was visible both in artistic quality and ticket sales. The multitudes of supervisory authorities make artistic work in films nearly impossible, which was frustrating for both film makers and audiences. The first film was banned in 1952.

After Stalin’s death in 1956, there was the hope that the political thaw would open up possibilities for different films. In his short film ›Being 18 Isn’t Enough‹ (1964-66), Kurt Tetzlaff (*1933) takes a look at young people’s aspirations and realities of life. Immediately he bit on granite: The depiction of young adults and their dreams, every day working life in the socialist command economy and artistic experiments with the filmic medium were unpopular and unwanted. Eventually, the film was cut by three minutes and screened as Hello, This Is Us‹. The uncensored version was first screened in 1990.

Something similar happened to Jürgen Böttcher (*1931), who began studying painting in Dresden in 1949 and went on studying directing in 1955 at the Deutsche Hochschule für Filmkunst Potsdam-Babelsberg (DHF), which had just been founded in the previous year and would eventually change its name to HFF. Working as an artist under the alias STRAWALDE, he began teaching painting to young workers at the adult education center. In 1961 he dedicated a filmic portrait to them with ›Three of Many‹. The film was banned in the same year and STRAWALDE was expelled from the artist association (VBK). In the year the Berlin Wall was erected, he took the idea of the worker and artist more seriously than the cultural bureaucrats ever did.

After many negative experiences, his approach to direct cinema, which allows his protagonists to express their utopias and longings, leads to a climax of speechlessness in 1984. Unlike in his previous homages to working men, they no longer get to talk about their lives in ›Shunters‹, and the audience is limited to just watching them at their work.

Ulrich Weiß(*1942) graduated from the DHF with a paper on Böttcher’s ›The Secretary‹ (1967). One of his graduation films in 1968 is ›Paragraph 14‹. The audience finds out about dysfunctional families and young people’s helplessness and disorientation through observations, direct quotes, letters from home and official documents. This is no didactic film about the beautifully working socialist society.

It may be surprising that he was able to make such a film, since in 1965 the 11th plenary assembly, the so called banning plenary assembly, implemented a full-scale ›eradication‹, which purged a multitude of works. While a cinematic realignment seemed possible after the erection of the Wall in 1961, the above mentioned plenary assembly finally crushed all hope for a fresh start.

In 1972 Ulrich Weiß took another idiosyncratic look at the reality of the unity of art and work in ›For the Eighth Time‹. The worker listening to the State Orchestra Leipzig is not only touched by Vivaldi’s music, he is also tired and thirsty.

After Wolf Biermann’s expatriation in 1976, artistic possibilities became even more confined, and many artists left Eastern Germany. Thus it is hardly surprising that Günter Jordan’s (*1941) film ›Yelling Once per Week about young adults in East-Berlin got banned. »Always asking for permission / is there nothing left to dare / who wants to walk on a leash / I’d rather see and think myself.« The line of a song by the Eastern German band Pankow probably finished of the leadership, especially since it speaks volume about the needs of a generation.

Helke Misselwitz (*1947) was one of the most important female directors of the GDR. Many of her films approach the living environments of art and work from a female perspective. ›Nude Photography - e.g. Gundula Schulze‹ questions the relation of a society, in which women are supposed to fully participate in all work and decision processes, towards physicality and beauty. In her cine films such as›Under White Sheets‹ (1983), Cornelia Schleime (*1953) approaches the relationships between genders and roles, incorporating it into a fundamental questioning of the position of the individual in a society that is shaped by governmental repression. She was prohibited from exhibitions in 1979 as a visual artist and eventually left the GDR.

Working with cine films enabled artists like Helge Leimberg (*1954) (›action situation‹, 1983) and Ramona Köppel-Welsh (*1964) (›Conrad! Cried His Mummy Dear...‹, 1989) to try out experiments in cinematic arts or gestures of resistance. An underground film scene developed in the GDR which produced subversive peak performances without following any role models, since international experimental films weren’t officially acknowledged and hence invisible. The film makers turned the shortcomings of their cameras into cinematic virtues. They take their liberty in artistic forms and thematically deal with the political and societal situation in the final years of the GDR. All that while they are being monitored by the Stasi and threatened by the censorship that their films will have to face once they are developed.

Lutz Dammbeck carves out his own personal space under different circumstances. While partially working officially for the DEFA and with friends like the cinematographer Thomas Plenert, he discovers a way to ›borrow‹ film equipment over the weekend from the studios without getting noticed by governmental authorities. This allows him to experiment freely, as in his ›Hommage á La Sarraz‹. With tenacity and skill he gets into the DEFA Studio for Animated Films in Dresden and his first film ›The Moon‹ manages to get into the competition in Annecy in 1976. In 1986 he leaves the GDR.

The animation artist Bruno Böttge manages to modernise the art form of silhouette-animation in his Dresden studio. But he doesn’t always succeed in fending off attacks against his work and has to accept changes in order to get the green light for his films. At times this is caused by delicate directions that don’t sit well with the authorities, while at other times it’s the suspicion of formalism. All that reveals the subversive potential of films such as ›Either nor‹ (1964).

Sieglinde Hamacher’sexperiences are similar. ›Vital Needs or: Work Is Fun‹ (1988) points out the meaningless circle of work machineries. Her film comes across as a reflexion on the absurdity of an apparatus of state that attempts to press its citizens into a regulated system in order to submit them to its control.

These programmes with cinematic experiments from the GDR show how (and maybe even why) this attempt ultimately failed.

Film selection Anja Ellenberger

Anja Ellenberger is currently working for the Hamburger Kunsthalle and as researcher at the University of Hamburg. She is a curator for artist run spaces in Hamburg and several international short film festivals.