Sunday, February 21, 2010

East German Films Getting Respect and Recognition

More than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the popular culture of communist East Germany is getting a second, more appreciative look from critics. Back in the 1970's an East German version of Jacob the Liar circulated in American movie theatres. I found it to be preferable to the American version starring Robin Williams, which came out later. The East German version of Jacob the Liar is actually available on You Tube in its entirety with subtitles. In the movie, a man pretends to have a short wave radio, and tells stories of the impending defeat of the Nazis which were of his own fabrication. It raised questions that would be certainly be interesting in a controlled society such as East Germany.

My favourite film from East Germany is "Bear Ye One Another's burdens. Set in the 1950's, the film portrays a Lutheran pastor and a communist true believer who find themselves room mates in a tuberculosis sanitarium. It is quite daring in exploring the psychology of faith refracted through vastly different ideologies. It was considered far too daring for East Germany, and was banned soon after it came out.

There is a series of children's fairy tales rendered into film that can be found on You Tube, although without English subtitles. I enjoyed watching Der Froschkonig", (The Frog King), a story of a girl who promises a frog that she would marry him after he fished her ball out of a well. The series of fairy tales are a reminder of a common cultural framework that existed in Germany before the Wall divided the country for 40 years.

A renowned Berlin film festival the Berlin International Film Festival is on its 60th anniversary honoring East German films. Der Spiegel reports as follows.

"In the beginning, films from the communist bloc were spurned by the Berlin International Film Festival. But as the Cold War thawed, movies from East Germany's legendary DEFA studio gained recognition. This year, the Berlinale is honoring the importance of East German film, even if they remain largely unknown to western Germans.

The article reports as follows on belated recognition being accorded to a renowned East German director.

"The 2010 Berlinale is honoring the 78-year-old screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase, who wrote the scripts for such classic DEFA films as the 1957 drama "Berlin -- Ecke Sch├Ânhauser" ("Berlin -- Schoenhauser Corner"), in its Homage section, which pays tribute to outstanding filmmakers. Several of his films are being screened and Kohlhaase was also presented with an honorary Golden Bear on Wednesday in recognition of his contribution to the German film." industry."

Even in times of conflict, it is good for some cultural bridges to remain open. Iranian films, for instance can be found in the United States and ordered on line. With the internet, it is far easier to cross barriers between nations than it ever was before.

It is possible to purchase East German films in the US. The DEFA Film Library of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst offers DVDs of East German films with subtitles for sale. They can be accessed at their web site. With a bit of effort, it is possible to get a fair number of East German films.

The East Bloc may have been far behind in technology, but there was an interesting cultural life behind the iron curtain. One of my treasures is a song by Ruth Brandin and the Sputniks titled

"Mich hat noch keiner beim Twist gek├╝sst" (No one ever kissed me while doing the twist), a song that was a hit in East Germany in 1964. The song was recorded at a time when the East Germans were fearful of cultural inroads from the West.

For years, West Germans knew little of East German culture. Movies and music from the communist east were impossible to find in West German theatres and shops. In economic affairs, West Germany was dominant during the process of reunification. It is an encouraging sign that East German film and music are getting belated recognition. I look forward to watching the process unfold. I look forward to watching it continue.

No comments: