Screening art. Modernism and the socialist imaginary in East German cinema

It is tempting to dismiss the cinema of the former German Democratic Republic as nothing more than a minor episode in the history of European film production. However, during the 40 or so years of its existence, the DEFA studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg produced some 700 feature films and a huge quantity of newsreels, documentaries and films for children. Although most Britons would be hard pressed to name an East German film, almost every adult over 50 in the UK has probably seen one without realising it, as films such as the Singing, Ringing Tree (Francesco Stefani, 1957) and The Tinderbox (Siegfried Hartmann, 1959) were broadcast on the BBC during the late 1960s as part of the children’s TV series Tales from Europe.

Adaptations of classic fairy-tales made up an important part of DEFA’s output; but the studio also released a large number of films about art and artists including Tilman Riemenschneider, Goya, and Käthe Kollwitz. These films (which span the genres of newsreel, documentary and feature film) were much more than conventional ‘biopics’. Precisely because of their internationalist aspirations and wide-ranging historical perspective they became hotly contested spaces in which filmmakers looked beyond the GDR and debated the impact of contemporary cultural policy on the reception of Germany’s pre-war cultural heritage, and the development of new paradigms of socialist art in post-war Europe. While the legacy of German classical humanism was increasingly challenged by the ‘Sovietisation’ of the East German film industry in the 1950s (and the corresponding dominance of socialist realism), during the 1960s and 1970s many East German directors looked to precursors of modernist aesthetics in the Classical and Romantic periods of European art in an attempt to open up GDR film-making to more contemporary developments in modernist aesthetics (in both East and West). 

My project ‘Screening Art’ will argue that it is precisely the attempt to re-visualise existing political agendas in terms of new concept of modernist aesthetics that makes DEFA’s distinctive contribution to the socialist imaginary a genuinely transnational phenomenon. Instead of approaching DEFA as a self-contained national cinema in isolation from other cinemas, my project seeks to integrate the film culture of the form GDR into a much broader context of transnational film production, and to explore the continuities between DEFA and international trends in cinema both before 1946, the year the studio was founded, and after its demise in 1990.

Dr Seán Allan 
University of Warwick