Towards a Better Germany: Friends and Foes in Films from East Germany

co-curated by Tobias Hering and Elizabeth Ward

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After the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989 and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was integrated into unified Germany less than a year later, the liquidated GDR quickly fell prey to wholesale delegitimization. While today the project of “the first socialist German state” is increasingly considered a curious whim of history, for many the GDR’s anti-fascist, socially progressive agenda did at some point represent “the better Germany” on the post-WWII map. Founded in 1949 in the Soviet-controlled Eastern part of a war-torn country, the new state´s first two decades were heavily marked by the struggle for international recognition – both as a reliable ally for socialist “brother countries” and as a sovereign counterpart to US-allied West Germany. An important asset in this struggle for recognition was the GDR’s credibility as that part of Germany which had ideologically and economically broken all ties with the fascist past. Significantly, the insistence on this “zero hour” narrative resulted in the GDR’s stubborn rejection of any moral and criminal responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism, which in turn was placed firmly at the door of West Germany. While many of the high-offices in the new state were indeed staffed by former members of the anti-fascist resistance, the general claim that in a socialist Germany, by definition, the evils of fascism “had been eradicated by their roots” remained wishful thinking. This is where the output of the state film studio DEFA became instrumental, both in providing cohesive narratives for the politics of “collective memory” as well as in propagating anti-fascism as a cornerstone of the new state to the outside world.

How did East German filmmakers negotiate the ideological narratives of the state? How was the anti-fascist agenda expressed in film narration and aesthetics?

A special double bill co-curated by Berlin-based researchers Tobias Hering and Elizabeth Ward takes a look at some outstanding films coming from the GDR in the 1950s and 1960s.

Part 1                                                                      

Erinnerung im Herzen (Memory in the Heart)                        (Stefan Jerzy Zweig, GDR, 1965, 8 min., b&w, no dialogue)

o.k.                                                                                                          (Walter Heynowski, GDR, 1965, 31 min., b&w)                                  In German with English subtitles

Denkt an mein Land (Think of my Country)                               (Peter Ulbrich, GDR, 1966, 19 min., b&w)                                              In German with English subtitles

Part 2

Sterne (Stars)                                                                                     (Konrad Wolf, GDR / Bulgaria, 1959, 89 min., b&w)                        In German with English subtitles

Tobias Hering is an independent film curator living in Berlin and Mecklenburg. His work focuses on thematic film programs that deal with questions of image politics and the role of archives. Recent projects include, Tell It to the Stones - exhibition, program series and retrospective on the work of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub at the Akademie der Künste Berlin, 2017 (together with Annett Busch), The gatekeepers exist to be overthrown, a three-part homage to New York film curator Amos Vogel at the Arsenal cinema in Berlin (2021-2022), and the lumbung film program GDR International for documenta fifteen in Kassel. At the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Tobias Hering is head of the archive-based program section re-selected. He is currently conducting research in US archives for a future project on film relations between East Germany and the United States.

Elizabeth Ward is a film historian specializing in German cinema. She is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the University of London and teaches at the Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder. Her research specialisms include East German cinema, Cold War German cinema and contemporary historical film. Her monograph, East German Cinema and the Holocaust was published in 2021 with Berghahn Books. Her recent and forthcoming publications explore film and television stardom in the GDR, East German Holocaust documentaries and constructions of childhood in Trümmerfilme as well as the twenty-first century hit series, Deutschland 83. Alongside her research, she is also closely involved in developing inclusive practice at universities, as well as promoting German cinema through events and collaborations with museums, cinemas, and public organizations.

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