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Before and After the Wall – Re-Imagining DEFA: East German Cinema in Its National and Transnational Contexts

Gojko Mitic in White Wolves (1969)

Gojko Mitic in White Wolves (1969)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Berghahn is known for its publication of excellent books on German Cinema within its catalog. This recent work proves no exception to the rule. Including fifteen essays by well-known scholars in the field aware of the changing complexities of subject matter and well-versed in necessary archive research, Re-Imagining DEFA (edited by Sean Allan and Sebastian Heiduschke; Berghahn Books, 2016) presents a fine collection exploring a cinema that is very little known to most Western viewers. It’s also one that suffered from misunderstanding and deliberate misrepresentation both during and after its lifetime. I must admit that I requested a copy due to my interest in an article by co-editor Sean Allan on Dean Reed (1938-1986), the so-called American “Red Elvis” whose persona and work have suffered from similar distortions. But exploring the entire contents of this collection revealed to me a wealth of new information and exciting scholarly interpretations by all its contributors. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone wishing to begin exploring this often marginalized former national cinema.

In the 1980s SIUC Professor Emeritus Herbert Marshall told me that in the 30s and 40s it was possible to claim expertize in what was then defined as World Cinema. This is impossible today with access to a wealth of material hitherto unknown, both past and present. Yet, even though access to East German Cinema was possible in its lifetime, many films never reached the West and those that did were stereotyped as propaganda works of little aesthetic and lasting interest. Work by scholars in this field has long undermined this axiom but the aura of disapproval remains especially on the part of West German directors, such as Volker Schlöndorff. In the early 90s, the newly appointed Artistic Director at the recently privatized DEFA Studio Babelsberg rubbed his hands with glee at the prospect of seeing an alternative aesthetic and political rival disappear (313) in the same way as West German academics purged the post-Wall University of Humboldt of their rivals, thus making it one of the most reactionary institutions in the new Germany (see http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/06/20/humb-j20.html). Significantly, many former East German actors and directors find it difficult to seek work in today’s neoliberal privatized United Germany and this may not be entirely due to supposed lack of talent or presumed Stasi connections.

re-imaginingMost viewers misunderstand the nature of the former East Germany from images in Das Leben der Anderen (2006), directed by the West German Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. But the final essay in this collection by Daniela Berghahn notes the a-historical elements used in this suspiciously celebrated film, such as Hollywood narrative devices and other non-cultural features, that make it ”an apt example of a multidirectional memory texts in which heterogeneous emanations of burdened pasts (the Holocaust and the GDR’s totalitarian regime) form the layers of a palimpsest” (322). In this fine essay that also analyzes another post-Wall production Barbara (2012), Berghan uses theory in the service of film, like other contributors, rather than vice-versa as is the case in most film departments today, to show how concepts such as Michael Rothberg’s “multidirectional memory” and Alison Landberg’s “prosthetic memory” can aid viewers in both interrogating and understanding the hidden meanings of certain films before them. Rather than von Donnersmark’s recasting and fictionalizing of the GDR’s traumatic past to make Anderen “subservient to the demands of the global entertainment industry” (332), Petzold’s Barbara takes a different direction. That film

challenges the ossified visual clichés of an austere GDR that have colonized the media and our imagination. By applying the aesthetic principles of the Berlin School to a period film about the GDR Petzold constructs an afterimage that reveals the rich sensory texture of ordinary life, in which glimpses of breath-taking beauty and moments of breathtaking fear exist side by side. Just as von Donnersmarck boldly rewrites the master narrative of the surveillance state, Petzold infuses the visual memory of the GDR with colour, light, even a haunting beauty that compels us to look – and to look again. (332)

I quote this lengthy passage not to show the author’s superiority to the rest of the contributors but rather to highlight the complexity of interpretation that exists in all the articles in one degree or another. All writers examine selected examples of a past national cinema not for the purposes of any form of “Ostalgie”, a term derogatively applied to certain post-Wall films such as Goodbye Lenin (2003) or to claim any supposed superior aesthetic and political qualities for the works themselves. The authors instead engage in revealing how acute sensitive readings alert to the distinctive nuances of each text can align with the most relevant examples of certain theories that can result in new revelatory concepts applicable to other examples of cinema. For example, in his excellent analysis “The DEFA Indianerfilm: Narrating the Postcolonial through Gojko Mitic”, Evan Torner applies Tamar Szabo Gendler’s 2008 concept of “Alief in Action and (Reaction)” (Mind and Language 23.5, pp. 552-585) to explain East German audience reaction to political westerns that were deliberately oppositional to their Hollywood and West German (the Karl May-derived Winnetou series) counterparts. As state sponsored ideological narratives relevant to contemporary Third World struggles such as the Vietnam War, as well as containing the subversiveness necessary to any narrative, they can be seen in different ways. Torner believes that “alief” defines a specific affective investment in a film that can also be applied (in my opinion) to other areas of cinema. Gendler defined “alief’ as “the subconscious feeling that something may be true even if we do not really believe it” (233).

Viewers of Indianerfilme may or may not for a second “believe” that the film portrays the indigenous struggles in a historically accurate fashion and resonant with the 1960s and 1970s postcolonial struggles. Fiction proposes a truth, and we “alieve” it with almost no skepticism. The act of partaking in a century-old tradition of “playing Indian” can thus be cinematically mobilized to achieve political objectives, namely the vilification of the United States (and the moral exaltation of the Eastern Bloc). Overall, one can see DEFA films for the affective responses they require, the truth claims they make and the specific subject positions they promote. It is from these that we can infer what “ideology” looks like, rather than fall into the trap of projecting our own idealized images of Marxism-Leninism, onto these films. (234)

The same can be said for competing claims of realistic, non-realistic, political correctness, and other ideas applied in arbitrary and monolithic ways. The DEFA’s Indianerfilme cycle declined after the Vietnam War but Torner concludes his article with an appropriate “alief” reading of this Yugoslavian star known for his Native American portrayals:

Mitic embodies – also in the media archive – a long-term, physical resistance to global systems of domination that more or less receive little pushback from film protagonists today. In that reading, we can view these films in a less cynical light, and see their potency for a certain future- orientated aesthetics of active resistance which, in some vain hope, will draw on the strategies and avoid some of the mistakes of its predecessors. (244)

Jean Gabin in Les Miserables (1958)

Jean Gabin in Les Miserables (1958)

Re-Imagining DEFA falls into four well-defined “Parts”. After the editorial introduction, it deals with Institutions and Ideology with well-researched articles on the state-owned cinema industry and its audience by Rosemary Stott, followed by Larson Powell’s investigation of the evolution of DEFA film music, and completed by Annette Dorgerloh’s rewarding study of modernist set design and the East-West divide in DEFA films of the 1950s and early 1960s. Part II surveys particular aspects of national and transnational contexts such as Mariana Ivanova’s detailed investigation of DEFA and the legacy of Film Europe. I did not know that Jean Gabin “had embraced communism”, something that “influenced his characterization of his role as Jean Valjean in Die Elenden” (100) – the German title of Les Miserables (1958) – but no documentation is supplied here. Stefan Soldovieri supplies an interesting analysis of a rare West-East co-production Casino-Affair (1957) followed by other fascinating studies on East German representations of the 1973 Chile Crisis and its aftermath, DEFA’s “Fictions of East Asia”, and Sean Allan’s examination of how DEFA managed the status of their American star Dean Reed in all its complex manifestations.

Part III explores Genre and Popular Cinema. In addition to the Gojko Mitic chapter, we have fascinating studies of the DEFA opera film by the prestigious German film scholar Sabine Hake, East Germany’s science fiction film The Silent Star (1960), and a revealing look at the very complex nature of DEFA Children’s Films from their beginning to end. Benita Blessing also significantly notes that they “were different from their Western counterparts insofar as they seldom resorted to scare tactics in the service of pedagogy” (263) but instead presented a much more complicated and less political vision of the child’s relation to the adult world that prejudices against this cinema (and examples critics never saw) never really acknowledged. Part IV: DEFA’s Legacy contains two fine contributions that complement the final essay by Daniela Berghan mentioned above. Nick Hodgin examines “DEFA’s Last Gasp, Melancholy and the End of East German Filmmaking” while co-editor Sebastian Heiduschke examines two contrasting cinematic ideological and political perspectives involving the real life historical so-called Red Orchestra, an oppositional anti-Nazi musical group.

This collection is a fine contribution to cinema studies by authors who know and respect each other’s work, attend conferences together, and diligently explore whatever archive resources are available. It is a sterling example of what a scholarly academic anthology should be, an excellent model in its own right that should stimulate others to investigate this former national cinema and not consign it to oblivion – in the same way that certain students dismiss black and white films, silent works, and anything not reflecting their vision of the contemporary world.

Tony Williams is a Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity, and co-editor with Esther Yau, of the forthcoming Hong Kong Neo-Noir.

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