Monday, December 14, 2009

East German Film and Art Under Communism

There has been a phenomenon which has occurred since German reunification started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 in which East Germans express the sentiment that not all was bad under communism. Frequently cited is the austere certainty that all would eat and have a roof over their heads, no matter how austere such security might be and with airbrushed memories of the price in fear and loss of freedom.

There were some cultural treasures created under the communist regime in East Germany. The Puhdys, the entire East German rock scene is no where near adequately appreciated.

Another facet of East German cultural life was the films of DEFA, also known as the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, which was the state run film studio of the communist regime. Some of its films were spectacularly awful, such as "Heisse Sommer" (Hot Summer), which was a campy, awful film about a traveling group of women and another group of men who kept inadvertantly crossing paths on a summer vacation.

Far better was "Die Legende von Paul und Paula", (The story of Paul and Paula), a hip sort of romance that became a cult classic even out of East Germany. The Puhdys increased their recognition through the sound track of the movie.

One of the best films in the history of East Germany was actually banned when it was made in 1973. "Bear Ye One Another's Burden" ( Einer trage des anderen Last) was not actually permitted to be seen until 1988. Set in the early 1950's in East Germany, it is the story of a Lutheran pastor and a fervent communist who ended up as roommates in a tubercular sanatorium. Each was firm and vocal in his own convictions, and portrayed in a nuanced and sympathetic manner. What was most subversive to the communist regime was the search for a common denominator between true believers of vastly different persuasions. Eric Hoffer explored such questions in his work. But questions of such nature were banished from polite circles in communist society. It is possible to get the film in its entirety for free on line. Unfortunately it is without subtitles. To view East German films with subtitles is possible , by purchasing them from the DEFA Film Library in Amherst Massachusetts.

There are insights to be gained from studying art under totalitarian regimes. There is brilliance that comes out under a repressive regime. Ismail Kadare of Albania stayed out of jail and true to himself by writing about Albania in the past and through making implicit and allegorical commentary on the present through some of his works. It could be argued that it is not only freedom that gives birth to art but conventions, restrictions and outright censorship.

I do not view the people of East Germany as different from myself. It was the Germans of the Weimar Republic who voted their own freedoms out of existence in the 1932 elections. I can not help wondering if Americans are capable of making such choices in an incremental manner.

History is most properly studied when one feels the allure and the pull of now discredited ideas that once shaped history. Studying and enjoying the art of totalitarian regimes is a useful tool in such a quest. I hope my readers will explore this fascinating field of study.

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