DEFA East German Cinema, 1946-1992, edited by Seán Allan and John Sandford

DEFA East German Cinema, 1946-1992 retraces the unique achievements and continued relevance of the East German national film studio, Deutsche Film-AG (DEFA), from its origins as a Soviet-assembled group of experienced postwar filmmakers called filmaktiv tasked to draft a plan to revive the German film industry, to the sale of the studio to the French conglomerate, Compagnie Général des Eaux (CGE) in 1992 after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Among DEFA’s earliest missions were to expose and reconcile with Germany’s fascist legacy. The first DEFA feature film, Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers are Among Us, provides a compelling and poignant exploration of culpability for the atrocities committed by ordinary citizens during World War II. DEFA would also prove to be an international film studio when it provided assistance to Roberto Rossellini for the filming of Germany: Year Zero, the third installment of Rossellini’s Trilogy of War.

In Discussion With Kurt Maetzig, Martin Brady documents a fascinating transcript of a Question and Answer session with Kurt Maetzig, a founding member of filmaktiv and one of the most prominent DEFA filmmakers as he provides an honest reflection of his experiences during fascist Germany, his commitment to create social realist films (Gegenwartsfilme, or contemporary screen drama), and his determination to work within the state run DEFA studio. Maetzig’s The Council of the Gods examines the moral crime of economic opportunism, and is based on real-life accounts documented after the Neuremberg trials. In 1947, Maetzig’s deeply personal film, Marriage in the Shadow, became the first German film to broach the subject of Jewish persecution. The film was based on the true account of a popular, Weimar era actor named Joachim Gottschalk, who committed suicide with his family in 1942, unable to prevent the deportation of his Jewish wife and twelve year old son during fascist Germany.

The egalitarian status of women in the Germany Democratic Republic as socialist workers manifested in the Frauenfilme dramas of the DEFA studios and presented a realistic image of the female worker that proved to be antithetical to the idealized archetypal heroines of Hollywood and Western European films. Andrea Rinke’s essay, From Models to Misfits: Women in DEFA Films of the 1970s and 1980s examines the distinctively independent and “feminist” characterization of contemporary women in DEFA films. However, in examining the responsibilities and gender relations of the modern working woman, the inevitable consequence was often to expose the marital discord and social alienation that resulted from the dichotomy between the traditional domestic roles of women and their advancement in social class.

DEFA East German Cinema, 1946-1992 provides a fascinating and comprehensive insight into the state sponsored film industry of East Germany during the Cold War. Inspired by idealistic goals to remove the vestiges of fascist ideology and restore democracy in Germany, the DEFA filmmakers sought to reeducate the public through humanist films that examine the social issues of contemporary life in postwar Germany and, in the process, help to rebuild the country’s tarnished cinematic legacy after World War II.

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