Friday, 25 September 2009

Focus On East German Cinema

The Murderers are Among us
The Murderers are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns)

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) takes a look back at 45 years of East German cinema.

At the conclusion of World War II the Soviet Military Administration granted the Deutsche Film Company (DEFA) a licence to produce films. From 1946 to 1992, filmmaking flourished and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) produced musicals, documentaries, animation and other genres creating an extensive library of over 7,500 productions.

ACMI will be screening eleven of these films in our 'Focus on East German Cinema' program, including a 'red' western, a documentary, two sci-fi films, a musical and a plethora of dramas including the historic The Murderers are Among Us, which became the first feature completed on either side of the Berlin wall.

"It's a very exciting season for ACMI, particularly as it coincides with the anniversary of the fall of the wall," says Film Curator James Nolen. "To think that during a time when East Germany was under a communist dictatorship, so much emphasis was placed on filmmaking, and not just straight propaganda films, but genre films, including sci-fi and westerns is just astounding. To be able to learn about this incredibly fascinating time in Germany's history through cinema and attempt to put together the pieces of an intriguing and complex puzzle is a real treat for Melbourne audiences."

Opening the season is East Germany's answer to Grease, a musical about teens hitchhiking to the Baltic Sea for the summer, starring pop sensations Chris Doerk and Frank Schöbel. Produced after a number of DEFA films about teenagers were banned, Joachim Hasler's Hot Summer (Heißer sommer) (1968) was a breakthrough in unrestrained entertainment, albeit one which still contained a state-approved ideological message. The blend of pop, rock and upbeat lyrics kept the soundtrack at the top of the charts for more than a year and made this one of the most popular films of 1968. It will screen in its original 16mm format.

For the opening night film, ACMI is screening Wolfgang Staudte's superb and haunting The Murderers are Among Us (Die mörder sind unter uns) (1946) in 16mm, now ranked by critics in the top ten of Germany's 100 most important films.  Made under the auspices of the newly created DEFA Studios, The Murderers are Among Us was the first East German feature film produced after the end of the Second World War. The film centres on a doctor tormented by the haunting memories of his role in the war. When he meets Susanne (Hildegard Knef), a concentration camp survivor, he begins the process of healing, but discovers that the shadow of his past cannot be avoided. 

Also screening in 16mm is Konrad Wolf's Sun Seekers (Sonnensucher) which was banned at Soviet insistence for 15 years after its release in 1958. The film centres around two women sent to work at a uranium mining company and is overtly anti-fascist in its message. It was finally released in 1972 and impresses even today with its political complexity, variety of characters and realistic portrayal of daily work in a forbidden zone of the industrial landscape. Releasing this film was one of the director's first priorities when a new regime took power in the GDR in 1972, and in 1989 the film was revived along with the banned films of 1965.

Director Konrad Wolf's most autobiographical film, I was 19 (Ich war neunzehn) (1969), is a poetic exploration of the postwar dilemmas of German identity and a powerful document of the search for a 'usable' German past after the debacle of film censorship in 1965. This uncompromising film is a true landmark of postwar German cinema, ranked by film critics among the top 100 Most Significant German Films of all time. Having fled Hitler for the Soviet Union with his parents as a child, soldier Gregor Hecker returns to Germany with the victorious Soviet troops. Suddenly he is different from his comrades in arms, for this defeated country is also his homeland.

Also directed by Konrad Wolf and co-directed by Wolfgang Kohlhaase, Solo Sunny became a 80s cult hit amongst the East German youth upon its release in 1980. Renate Krößner, who plays protagonist Sunny, won a Silver Bear for best actress at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival. Sunny is an ex-factory worker who fronts a band called The Tornadoes and dreams of being a pop star. This glimpse into East Berlin's underground scene was a box office hit at the time of its release, and its non-conformist heroine became a cult and fashion icon among the East German youth, with her bohemian lifestyle, tight jeans, high heels and glamorous makeup.

East Germany's first sci-fi film featuring special effects by Ernst Kunstmann (Metropolis), Kurt Maetzig's The Silent Star (Der schweigende stern) (1960) will also screen at ACMI as part of this very special season. Shot on 35mm, The Silent Star is based on The Astronaughts by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, best known for the sci-fi classic Solaris (1961) later made into a critically acclaimed film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsyky in 1972 and then again in 2002 by Steven Soderbergh. The film coincides with the great space race and warns of the dangers of nuclear warfare. When a mysterious object from space is discovered in the Gobi Desert, an expedition is dispatched to Venus to decipher the message it contains. What they discover is a declaration of war on Earth.

To compliment this sci-fi gem is Gottfried Kolditz's fun and amusing In the Dust of the Stars (Im staub der sterne) (1976) which is often described as East Germany's answer to Barbarella. This groovy film is a tribute to seventies style in all its bright, lurid glory, complete with space-age fashion statements, liberal social mores and a socialist utopian undercurrent.  When a mysterious distress call is placed to the spaceship Cyrno which has been travelling for an unknown length of time in a different solar system, they are forced to land on the planet TEM 4. What they discover is that something very fishy is going on beneath the planet's surface. Despite the deeper message, it is hard to look past the groovy dancing, gratuitous nudity and sparkly veneer. With music by Karl-Ernst Sasse.

In case audiences were thinking that the only genre the DEFA did was sci-fi, ACMI has also programmed an East German Western, Chingachgook: The Great Snake (Chingachgook, die grosse schlange) (1967), which stars Serbian super star Gojko Mitic. Richard Groschopp's unique take on the genre is based on James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Deerslayer in which Native American tribes become embroiled in the conflict between French and English colonies in the pre-revolutionary days of the American frontier. Wahtawah, the daughter of the Delawarean Indian chief, is promised to Chingachgook (Gojko Mitic), but before the nuptials can take place, she is snatched by the Huron tribe. With his friend Deerslayer, Chingachgook sets out to free his intended bride from her captors.

Another film that was banned during the 60s in East Germany, but this time for 25 years was written by renowned author Ulrich Plenzdorf. Herrmann Zschoche's Carla (1965) was only one of a dozen East German films banned that year. Originally labelled nihilistic by officials, it was finally screened after the reunification of Germany in 1990 and won a FIPRESCI Honorable Mention at the Berlin Film Festival. Carla is an idealistic teacher who encourages her students to openly discuss taboo topics in an attempt to break down walls of suspicion, much to the chagrin of her superiors. The cast includes Jutta Hoffmann (Carla), Jürgen Hentsch and Hans-Hardt-Hardtloff. 

The first feature about the Holocaust to be made behind the Iron Curtain, Frank Beyer's Naked Among Wolves (Nackt unter wölfen) (1963) was actually filmed on location at Buchenwald and features many actors who were former Nazi prisoners. As quoted by Variety Magazine, "Although there has been an abundance of films on the subject of concentration camps, there are few to match this production for sincerity and production quality. It is a powerful narrative of the last weeks of Buchenwald." This powerful film, adapted from the novel by Bruno Apitz, centres on a group of Polish prisoners in a concentration camp and their efforts to hide a small boy from their Nazi captors. Naked Among Wolves stars Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine) in his first major role.

Finally, Helke Misselwitz's After Winter Comes Spring (Winter adé) (1989) is the only documentary in the season. Produced just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, director Helke Misselwitz probes the lives of ordinary women - from punks to workers, from intellectuals to mothers - struggling under severe economic hardship, yet hopeful about the changing social and political landscape in which they live. Misselwitz broke with the party line to produce this film, in which the female subjects contradict the official image of workers in a progressive socialist society. After Winter Comes Spring won the Silver Dove at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1989.

For a short time in October, get your dose of Deutschland with this collection of eleven cinematic rarities on offer spanning teen musicals, red westerns, psychedelic sci-fi and socialist dramas from behind the iron curtain.

Focus on East German Cinema runs at ACMI from Thursday 22 October - Tuesday 3 November 2009.

For more information or to purchase tickets online click here

Further information

Lior Opat
Communications Coordinator
Australian Centre for the Moving Image
[direct phone] 61 3 8663 2475 [fax] 61 3 8663 2498 [mobile] 0434 603 655
[postal address] PO Box 14, Flinders Lane VIC 8009, Australia
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