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DDR Deluxe
by Rose Finlay

The year 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so it is fitting that the Hamburg Film Fest created a section dedicated to films created in the Deutsche Demockratische Republik (DDR). In a time where much of the focus is on the West’s triumph over the Cold War, it is interesting to see a cultural program celebrating the artistic works that came from East Germany. The East during this time is often painted as some sort of totalitarian wasteland where people suffered and creativity ceased to exist under strict censorship. While there is some truth to this claim, it is important to show that people continued to live, people continued to create, and that there is a wide range of wonderful examples of film that came out of this period and should not be forgotten. 

The DDR Deluxe section was compiled by the East German director Andreas Dresen. As he mentions poignantly in the program, “There are thousands of films originating in the DDR, good and bad. They are worth watching. Films remain. They tell you about the reality of a country which doesn’t exist anymore. Or, to quote the saying of the old DEFA (Deutsche Film Corporation) eyewitnesses: “See it yourself. Hear it yourself. Judge it yourself.”

Some highlights:

Der Fall Gleiwitz (1961) – Based on a true story, this is a reenactment of the secret conspiracy ordered by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland. A group of SS soldiers raided the relay station Gleiwitz disguised as Polish partisans and read out a declaration of war against Germany. In black and white with beautiful use of shadows and primarily filmed with stationary shots, it is a fascinating example of anti-fascism in the Soviet-controlled East Germany. This is a beautifully made film which could truly be considered a classic both due to its superior cinematography and its fascinating political commentary.

Chingachgook, Die Grosse Schlange (1967) – A classic B-Movie made at the same time that West German audiences were enjoying the tales of Winnetou. Chingachgook is a character from the stories by James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans). It has cheesy dialogue, second-rate special effects, and incredibly unintentionally hilarious (and perhaps racist?) depictions of Native Americans. Despite this, there was extensive research done for authenticity before the film was made and it had 100,000 views in its first week, a resounding success. Despite not aging well, it brings forth as much nostalgia for East Germans as the Winnetou films do for those in the West.

Anton der Zauberer (1977) – A comedy about a mechanic whose trickiness gets him out of a lot of tough spots. In 1945 he manages to avoid a Soviet POW camp and goes back to Brandenburg where he gets into a lot of lady trouble and slowly manages to become a millionaire through his black market business. Superior acting and a quick dialogue made this a popular choice among East German audiences and the lead actor Ulrich Thein won Best Actor at the 11th Moscow International Film Festival. This is a film that continues to show well even today and had the audience howling with laughter throughout.

Die Beunruhigung (1981) – A slow-paced and artistic film about a woman with a teenage son who is having an affair with a married man. When she discovers that she has breast cancer and needs an operation the next day to save her life, she takes stock of her life. It was filmed on a very small budget with amateur actors and this seems blaringly obvious nearly 35 years after the fact. However, at the time of its release it was exceedingly popular and received much critical praise.