1945–1989 East Germany
East German cinema initially profited from the fact that much of the country’s film infrastructure, notably the former UFA studios, lay in the Soviet occupation zone which enabled film production to get off the ground more quickly than in the Western sectors. The authorities in the Soviet Zone were keen to re-establish the film industry in their sector and an order was issued to re-open cinemas in Berlin in May 1945 within three weeks of German capitulation. The film production company Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft or DEFA was founded on May 17, 1946, and took control of the film production facilities in the Soviet Zone which had been confiscated by order of the Soviet Military Administration in Germany in October 1945. Theoretically a joint-stock company, the majority interest in DEFA was actually held by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) which became the ruling party of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) after 1949, formally placing DEFA as the state-owned monopoly for film production in East Germany. A sister “company”, Progress Filmverleih, had also been established as a similar monopoly for domestic film distribution, its principal “competition” being Sovexportfilm, which handled distribution of Soviet films.
In total DEFA produced some 900 feature films during its existence as well as around 800 animated films and over 3000 documentaries and short films. In its early years, production was limited due to strict controls imposed by the authorities which restricted the subject-matter of films to topics that directly contributed to the Communist project of the state. Excluding newsreels and educational films, only 50 films were produced between 1948 and 1953. However, in later years numerous films were produced on a variety of themes. DEFA had particular strengths in children’s films, notably fairy tale adaptations such as Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel (Three Nuts for Cinderella) (1973), but it also attempted other genre works: science-fiction, for example Der schweigende Stern (The Silent Star) (1960), an adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel, or “red westerns” such as The Sons of the Great Mother Bear (1966) in which, in contrast to the typical American western, the heroes tended to be Native Americans. Many of these genre films were co-productions with other Warsaw Pact countries.
Notable non-genre films produced by DEFA include Wolfgang Staudte’s adaptation of Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan (1951); Konrad Wolf’s Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven) (1964), an adaptation of Christa Wolf’s novel; Frank Beyer’s adaptation of Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar (1975), the only East German film to be nominated for an Oscar; The Legend Of Paul And Paula (1973), directed by Heiner Carow fromUlrich Plenzdorf’s novel; and Solo Sunny (1980), again the work of Konrad Wolf.
However, film-making in the GDR was always constrained and oriented by the political situation in the country at any given time. Ernst Thälmann, the communist leader in the Weimar period, was the subject of several hagiographical films in the 1950s and although East German filmmaking moved away from this overtly Stalinist approach in the 1960s, filmmakers were still subject to the changing political positions, and indeed the whims, of the SED leadership. For example, DEFA’s full slate of contemporary films from 1966 were denied distribution, among them Frank Beyer’s Traces of Stones (1966) which was pulled from distribution after three days, not because it was antipathetic to communist principles, but because it showed that such principles, which it fostered, were not put into practice at all times in East Germany. The huge box-office hit The Legend of Paul and Paula was initially threatened with a distribution ban because of its satirical elements and supposedly only allowed a release on the say-so of Party General Secretary Erich Honecker.
In the late 1970s numerous film-makers left the GDR for the West as a result of restrictions on their work, among them director Egon Günther and actors Angelica Domröse, Eva-Maria Hagen, Katharina Thalbach, Hilmar Thate, Manfred Krug and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Many had been signatories of a 1976 petition opposing the expatriation of socially critical singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann and had had their ability to work restricted as a result.
In the final years of the GDR, the availability of television and the programming and films on television broadcasts reaching into the GDR via the uncontrollable airwaves, DEFA’s productions’ importance was reduced, although its continuing role in producing shows for East German television channel remained. Following the Wende, DEFA had ceased production altogether, and its studios and equipment was sold off by the Treuhand in 1992, but its intellectual property rights were handed to the charitable DEFA-Stiftung (DEFA Foundation) which exploits these rights in conjunction with a series of private companies, especially the quickly privatized Progress Film GmbH, which has issued several East German films with English subtitles since the mid-1990s.