In the 40 years of its existence, from 1949 to 1990, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was widely perceived as "the other German state", the drab and dreary one, the poor relative. This perception was shared - if unacknowledged - by GDR officials whose constant self-praise of the "world class" of everything in the GDR just showed the size of the chip on their shoulders.
In hindsight, there were very few fields where the GDR could compete with West Germany, but one of these was the arts. Fine art, literature and film, in spite of having to deal with the censorship of a mistrustful bureaucracy, produced not only the mass of escapist kitsch and mandatory ideology that could be expected, but also many works of solid quality and a substantial number that reached international standing.
As a medium with mass appeal, the cinema played a special role in the art landscape of the GDR. Geography and politics gave it a running start: The Babelsberg studios of UFA, founded in 1917, former workplace of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder and later the hub of cinematic propaganda in Nazi Germany, were situated in Potsdam in the Soviet occupation zone that would become the GDR in 1949. It was at these studios in 1946, three years before the separate states were founded, that the first German feature film after World War II was shot (Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers are Among Us). The UFA's successor, the GDR monopolist DEFA, went on to produce around 700 full-length features, around 750 animated films and more than 2000 shorts and documentaries before German reunification in 1990.
ACMI's Focus on East German Cinema gives a broad panorama spanning the time from Wolfgang Staudte's mentioned The Murderers are Amongs Us, shot in the stark landscape of post-war Berlin, to Helke Misselwitz's documentary After Winter Comes Spring (1988), which gave voice to the overwhelming atmosphere of stagnation and the hope for change in the dying years of the GDR. Between these extremes of the anti-fascist and humanist ambitions that marked the ideological and hopeful beginnings of the state that understood itself to be the "better" Germany, and the weariness and resignation of people living under a fossilized regime, the ACMI retrospective shows many different facets of GDR cinema. It is this diversity that makes the retrospective so attractive.
While many of the films in this program have found international acclaim, ACMI wisely refrains from showcasing only the most internationally successful films and also avoids the cringeworthy output of Stalin-era GDR propaganda. So while Solo Sunny (1980), Konrad Wolf's film about a young woman's struggle for autonomy in a rigid and boring society, represents the top level of GDR films, others of the same standing, such as Frank Beyer's Traces of Stones (1966), are not part of the retrospective, and neither are embarrassing communist hagiographies such as Kurt Maetzig's two films on Ernst Thälmann from 1954 and 1955.
A great variety of genres is represented in Focus on East German Cinema. While After Winter Comes Spring is the only example of the rich documentary tradition in the GDR, Frank Beyer's Naked Among Wolves (1963), set in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Konrad Wolf's autobiographical I was 19 (1968), dealing with his return to Germany as a Red Army soldier in 1945, join The Murderers are Among Us as examples of anti-fascist films. And just as Wolf's Solo Sunny observes the struggle of a young woman to find her place in a rigid society in the year 1980, so does Herrmann Zschoche's Carla in 1965.
Kurt Maetzig's The Silent Star (1960) and Gottfried Kolditz's In the Dust of the Stars (1976) showcase the unique GDR take on science fiction. The former, adapted from a novel by Stanislav Lem, paints a bleak picture of a planet devastated by nuclear war - a prospect not entirely improbable at the height of the nuclear brinkmanship in the Cold War - while the latter is most remarkable for the ABBA-style clothing and hairstyles on show. Richard Groschopp's Chingachgook - The Great Snake (1967), based on James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Deerslayer, is representative of the GDR's considerable output of westerns, while Konrad Wolf's Sun Seekers (1958) deals with the Soviet uranium mining in Saxony after WWII - a chaotic period that has been described as the GDR's own "Wild West".
For the artists, producing films in a dictatorship often meant testing the limits of varying (and sometimes suddenly tightened) censorship. Sun Seekers appeared to question the leading role of the Communist Party and was not released until 1972, 14 years after it was made. Karla, along with almost all of the DEFA productions of 1965, fell victim to a sudden rollback in cultural policy after a short period of liberalization inspired by Khrushchev's Post-Stalin reforms in the USSR, and was not released until after the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years later. Even in 1988, the documentary After Winter Comes Spring, enthusiastically received and awarded a prize at the Festival of Documentary Film at Leipzig that year, was not released for broadcast by GDR TV.
For audiences, watching films in the GDR often meant reading between the lines for things the censors might have overlooked. So while we might enjoy the involuntarily comical futurist costumes and sets of In the Dust of the Stars, a GDR audience would be aware of its ambiguous ending, which does not conform to the rules of socialist heroism. The fact that in I was 19 a young German woman seeks the protection of the protagonist out of fear of being raped by Soviet soldiers was a daring breach of a taboo subject. Even the teenage musical Hot Summer (1968) owed its phenomenal success not only to the leading couple, played by the most popular singers at the time, and the fiction of a spontaneous group holiday on the Baltic coast (unheard of in the strictly regulated and rationed system of distribution of holiday accommodation in the GDR). The film was also a welcome relief from the dark reality outside the cinema: in the summer of 1968, the armies of "socialist brother countries," including the GDR, crushed the short phase of liberalization in Czechoslovakia known as "Prague Spring."
Although some East Germans tend to compensate for their problems in getting along in the competitive world of unified Germany by looking back at the GDR through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, there is not much this 'other' German state produced that will stand the test of time. However, most of the art produced in the 40 years of the GDR's existence will remain valid and valued; including it's rich legacy of film.
Heinz Leo Kretzenbacher was born in Graz, Austria, and grew up in Munich, where he completed his PhD in German, English and Portuguese Studies. He is currently a senior lecturer and convener of the German Studies Program at the University of Melbourne.
Kretzenbacher, H.L. (2009) East German Cinema. [Online]
Acmi  Focus on East German Cinema. [Online]