'Re-reading East Germany’: The Literature and Film of the GDR


Seán Allan (University of Warwick)

DEFA’s Anti-fascist Myths and the Construction of National Identity in East German Cinema

Throughout the existence of the GDR, myths of anti-fascism have played a key role in defining a unique sense of East German national identity. Although the topos of anti-fascism informs many aspects of GDR culture, it plays a particularly important role – both thematically and aesthetically – in East German Cinema. Entrusted by the Soviet cultural officers Dymschitz and Tulpanov with the task of cultural re-education and the eradication of the legacy of fascism, DEFA sought to create a new film aesthetic in the early 1940s and 1950s. Yet as a closer analysis of films such as Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us, 1946) and Maetzig’s monumentalist Thälmann project of the 1950s reveals, breaking with the past proved much more difficult than the studio rhetoric would suggest. Nonetheless, Falk Harnack’s Das Beil von Wandsbek (The Axe of Wandsbek, 1951) – the first DEFA production ever to be banned – stands out as an early work in which the complexities of fascist collaboration and anti-fascist resistance were explored to the full.

Although it has been suggested that ‘East German Cinema provides a relatively one-dimensional commentary on the fascist past that reflects the GDR’s official historiography’ (Daniela Berghahn) this is a view that will be challenged in the course of this chapter. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new generation of film makers (one that included such major figures as Gerhard Klein, Konrad Wolf, Frank Beyer, and Heiner Carow) would exploit the potential of the anti-fascist genre to unravel some of the more contradictory aspects of the state’s relationship to the fascist past and thereby to question its self-understanding as the locus of anti-fascist traditions in the present. The most important films made by this generation can be grouped into three thematic clusters: films about the Holocaust; films about the Spanish Civil war; and films dealing with German-Soviet relationships. Accordingly, while Frank Beyer’s Nackt unter Wölfen (Naked Among Wolves, 1963) was instrumental in promoting the founding myth of the Buchenwald child, the much later Jakob der Lügner (Jacob the Liar, 1975) highlights both the contradictions of, and subsequent shifts in, the GDR’s attitude to the Holocaust. DEFA’s desire to internationalise the scope of the anti-fascist genre – and thereby enhance the international standing of the GDR – by depicting conflicts outside Germany is evident in both Karl Paryla’s Mich Dürstet (I’m Thirsty, 1956) and Frank Beyer’s Fünf Patronenhülsen (Five Cartridges, 1960). Finally, the uneasy relationship between Soviets and Germans both in wartime and in the post-war period – one of the most contentious subjects for East German filmmakers to tackle – is the subject of Konrad Wolf’s Sonnensucher (Sun Seekers, 1958) and his masterpiece Ich war 19 (I was 19, 1968).

The last part of the chapter will focus more closely on some of the key aesthetic debates surrounding the anti-fascist genre that started to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s. While Gerhard Klein’s Der Fall Gleiwitz (The Gleiwitz Affair, 1961) represents a key moment in the evolution of cinematic modernism in the GDR, it is not until the release of Konrad Wolf’s Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (The Naked Man on the Playing Field, 1974) that we encounter a sustained discussion on the relationship between modernist aesthetics, gender, and the representation of the fascist past. The impact of these discussion for the future development of the anti-fascist genre will be considered in the context of Ulli Weiß’s reworking of the anti-fascist genre, Dein unbekannter Bruder (Your Unknown Brother, 1982), a film in which the anti-fascist genre is used to launch a critique of totalitarian regimes generally.