Glück für alle! Wirklichkeit in DEFA-Filmen der fünfziger Jahre (Gestaltung: h neun, Berlin)
Glück für alle! Wirklichkeit in DEFA-Filmen der fünfziger Jahre (Gestaltung: h neun, Berlin)

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Happiness for all! Real life in DEFA films of the 1950s

Real life in DEFA films of the 1950s
Exhibition and films 10.07.2009 - 7.3.2010

Picture puzzle
Young people today think of the 1950s in Germany as a decade of new beginnings: the "economic miracle", feel-good Heimat films and design icons like the kidney-shaped table, symbolise the end of post-war hardship. Modern pop culture regularly alludes to Fifties’ fashion, music and interior design. Yet these images exclude a particular part of Germany: the East.
The 1950s in the GDR appear outlandish. Images of red flags and crowds of fervent supporters of the state and government have puzzled later generations. What appears to be lacking is carefree diversity and non-conformism.
This is due not least to the most important witness of the time - the media. Magazines, radio, films and television influence the public’s perception of a certain era. As was usual in dictatorships, the GDR media was controlled by the state. The idea was to use the media as an educational tool that would encourage people to follow higher ideals and thereby become better human beings.

Dreams, beliefs, utopia?
Following the existential experiences of war and fascism, one half of Germany engaged in a social experiment. The Soviet victors and German communists returning from exile brought with them the dream of communism - the oldest rival and alleged destroyer of capitalism.
So they dreamed:
of a future, in which people would be free and emancipated, collective owners of the means of production - each according to his skills, each according to his requirements! Or as Karl Marx put it: "An association, wherein the free development of every individual is the condition for the free development of all."
Who could possibly have something against this paradisiacal dream?

Happiness for all!
After 1949, the year of the founding of the GDR, one half of the Germans took the path of communism. The path was called socialism and would involve struggle, dictatorship and sacrifice. Yet, just as the bible promises heavenly bliss for earthly anguish, it was believed that communism would ultimately reward deprivation and lack of freedom. The socialist path was the collective promise of happiness. Many, in particular the younger generation, embraced this new world-view wholeheartedly. But can an entire people be forced to live for a notion of happiness in a far-off future?


Everyday life 1949 - 1955


With the division of Germany in 1948/49, East and West had become enemies and the Cold War began. The preferred weapon was called propaganda, with the media as its major battleground. Inevitably, East German cinema joined in the skirmish and became politically loaded. Magic and lightheartedness were things of the past.

The state and the SED, the leading socialist party, controlled film production, and exhorted authors and directors to incorporate current political subjects in their work. The number of new film releases reveals just how difficult it was to fulfil these abstract requirements: twelve premieres in 1949 sank to just six in 1952 - the lowest ever output in the history of DEFA. The number slowly rose again to 14 premieres in 1955. The state decided on style as well as content: in line with socialist realism, films shouldn’t bemoan everyday reality; instead, they should portray optimistic solutions to "yet unsolved difficulties".
Thus the representation of East German reality in DEFA films is like a reflection in a distorting mirror: some events and projects, like the building of the imposing showcase road Stalinallee in Berlin, became the focus of attention as soon as they were officially endorsed. Other events, such as the uprising on 17 June 1953, disappeared behind the mirror. It took some time before this uprising was tentatively hinted at ("Schlösser und Katen" / "Castles and Cottages", 1957) and also before the strained German/Soviet relations in the mining of uranium in Wismut at the beginning of the 1950s were addressed in a film ("Sonnensucher" / "Sunseekers", 1958).

Films dealing with everyday life in East Germany focused on the division of Germany and the creation of the new socialist state. The audience was supposed to draw the right conclusions from the protagonists’ attitudes and lives. Art was to be "the bright torch on the foggy paths into the future" and not "will-o-wisps luring people to the swamp" ("Roman einer jungen Ehe" / "Story of a Young Couple", 1952). Films were no longer just about entertainment.

Espionage sabotage


The open borders of divided Germany were a political and economic disaster for the East. People who were not interested in social experiments and preferred freedom and prosperity were taking off. Between 1949 and 1961 some 2.7 million citizens left the GDR. Industrial spying and acts of sabotage were very common. At the same time, the state’s mistrust and control-freakery grew - both within the GDR and in its foreign relations.

Especially in Berlin, with its open sector boundary, the East German security forces were hardly able to stop minor or major criminality: from a normal West Berlin resident buying subsidised foodstuffs in the East to anti-communist gangs blowing up bridges, to the mass circulation of fake ration stamps; from DEFA prop masters transferring curios to the West or the American intelligence service digging an eavesdropping tunnel. There was certainly no shortage of material for thrilling film productions and the DEFA did not hesitate to use it. Filmmakers began experimenting with the entertaining crime-thriller genre. In this case they did not have to fear much political interference - after all, there could be no doubt about good and evil in a story in which, for example, the lives of many innocent people are endangered by the sabotaging of public transport.

There were also cases in which stories verged on the fantastical. A supervising expert complained about a film proposal, "that leaves nothing out: the East-West conflict, drug trafficking, black marketeers, the Stalinallee, the founding of the GDR, pimping, shady cellar bars, night clubs [...] all of it, ‘according to the opinion of experts’, very suitable as film material."* The desire for entertainment was obviously just as strong among film-makers as it was among the general public. (* SAPMO DR 1/4440)

Many sabotage thrillers were set in East Berlin and were shot at original locations. They include some beautiful historic footage, such as the pan shots over the banks of the river Spree and a ride on the S-Bahn to Alexanderplatz ("Zugverkehr unregelmäßig" / "Train Service Irregular", 1951) or a night-time chase through the Stalinallee to Brandenburg Gate ("Ware für Katalonien" / "Goods for Catalonia", 1959).

Work leisure


Making real human beings and the conflicts of their everyday working lives the subject of films was intrinsic to socialist art. The working class, as the most powerful social group, should feel like they were being taken seriously. As early as 1951, dramatic advisors travelled throughout the country to meet their audience and discuss future film projects "that reflect real life and fill us with joy and optimism"*. (* Helmut Spiess: Unsere Filmdramaturgie greift nach dem Leben, Neue Filmwelt 12/1951)

Hardly any subject matter was analysed as critically by the audience as the workplace. Most people wanted to relax and enjoy some good entertainment after a long day at work. However, if films were to feature working environments, then they should at least be authentic. But despite being thoroughly researched, the films rarely reflected reality.

Audiences were just as demanding when it came to the rendering of leisure time, because people expected good entertainment. After work, time was often spent collectively - among colleagues or in the factory-owned sports clubs or official trade-union holiday facilities. In contrast to depictions of working environments, the portrayal of personal and private issues enabled audiences to identify with the on-screen characters. Yet audiences frequently complained that these characters lacked authenticity.

In 1953, filmmakers got in very close touch with the real working class: anger at a new law forcing people to accept more work for less pay led to strikes and demonstrations all over the country. The DEFA was no exception and on 17/18 June employees assembled to voice their frustration.

The uprising was repressed, but the shocked political leaders announced a change of policy. They promised a greater variety of fun and entertaining films along with greater freedom for filmmakers. The promise was kept for some time, although the reasons for the events on 17 June never became the subject of a DEFA film.

Collectivisation LPGs


The party secretary Kalle reacts to the hardships and vexations of the farmers of his home village in the North with complete confidence: in one, two, maybe three years, everything will be much better. ("Schlösser und Katen" / "Castles and Cottages", 1957). His faith in a bright and successful future, in which all the farmers’ chattels will be "thrown together" in an agricultural production cooperative (LPG), is wryly seen as nothing but a dream by the protagonists of the film.
Two years later, the farmers of the LPG simply plough under the fields of the last remaining farmer who refuses to become a member of the cooperative ("Eine alte Liebe" / "An Old Love", 1959).

The truth of the matter was that from around 1952 onwards, collectivisation seldom took place voluntarily. In the beginning, officials had pinned their hopes on the persuasive power of argumentation: collective economic activity, they argued, would not only free farmers and their families from centuries of drudgery, but also guarantee a secure income and provide the luxury of a working day with free time in the evening. These arguments would have made sense to all city people and wageworkers. Many farmers, especially smallholders, followed the call for collectivisation. But many self-employed farmers took it exactly for what it was: expropriation. Those who didn’t take the escape route to the West experienced bankruptcy due to increased taxes and levies and ultimately saw their farm taken over by the LPG.

Whereas the farmer Krestan needed only twelve months before converting to the LPG in "52 Wochen sind ein Jahr" / "52 Weeks Make a Year" (1952), the real process took the state about nine years and considerable efforts by the police and judiciary. Thousands of farmers left their homes. The official film administration, as the highest censorship body, tried to keep this reality out of films. "Eine alte Liebe" / "An Old Love", for example, was taken out of the repertoire because the ploughing under of the fields provided "fertile ground for criticism". Reality was thus seen as "endangering the socialist consciousness".

Children youth


At the end of the 1950s, "Niethosen-Bande" (studded jeans gang) or "Lederjackenmeute" (leather jacket pack) were the names of choice for young people whose passion for jazz, boogie-woogie and rock ’n’ roll ran a lot deeper than for their paternalistic, authoritarian state.
The state’s pedagogical ideals were thus undermined by music and fashion from the West accompanied by a "nihilistic" mindset. The GDR’s secret police succeeded in breaking up the gangs but not in winning these young people’s hearts.
For many other adolescents, however, the young GDR was indeed a matter of the heart. Hardly any other generation in the GDR had better future prospects. Huge numbers of highly motivated young people from the remotest parts of the country came to the free workers’ and farmers’ faculties and universities in order to train for their dream job.

The state carried the cost and tried to educate the people according to its political ideals. Movies played an important role in this political education. There were many films about eager Young Pioneers (the socialist children’s organisation) trying to improve the achievements of their fellow students and to satisfy their teachers. Children who stepped out of line were told that freedom and subordination did not have to be at odds. Such films failed not only at the box office but also in bringing life to official educational theories.

It didn’t take long before many enthusiastic Pioneers turned into frustrated adolescents. In the long run, assimilation and fulfilling duties are not enough, and everything that is forbidden develops a magical appeal. In addition, with the still open borders to the West, an alternative seemed to be within reach. Whenever films addressed such
problems, young audiences rushed to the cinema. Officials, on the other hand, interpreted the accumulation of "negative occurrences" and the lack of positive heroes in these films as treason.

Yet the escalations of the conflict between East and West at the end of the decade were sometimes reflected in films: In "Das Leben beginnt" / "Life Begins" (1960), a student’s love for a girl who has escaped to the West leads to serious difficulties, but he dismisses the advice of well-meaning supervisors and stands by her. Due to its authenticity, readers of the youth magazine "Neues Leben" voted it Film of the Year.

Everyday life 1956 - 1961


"My boy, what has happened to your ideals?" is the question that Dr. Brenner is asked by his mother ("Der Arzt von Bothenow" / "The Doctor from Bothenow", 1961). Some people are ungrateful: the former motor mechanic, now a physician, has forgotten his roots. Instead of unselfishly serving the state, he only thinks about money and his private life.

In the second half of the 1950s there were enough reasons to become politically engaged. The oppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956 destroyed many hopes, and the worldwide nuclear arms race created an atmosphere of fear. In 1956, the government of the GDR - still very suspicious of enemies from without and within - literally brought out the artillery and founded its own National People’s Army (NVA). Countless young men who had come of age in the Second World War found themselves in the middle of a moral conflict. Films were supposed to help them make the right decisions: "Our films are neither made as ends in themselves nor for the satisfaction of individual artists’ ambitions. They are made to serve the construction of socialism."* (* Hermann Schauer: Zur schöpferischen Konferenz des Spielfilmstudios, Deutsche Filmkunst 6/1958)
After only two years, this unmistakable rebuke ended the short period in 1956 when the state acted with tolerance and generosity towards filmmakers.

Internal enemies of the state were kept under observation by the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. Founded in 1950, the new organisation soon began to spread the now familiar atmosphere of fear and terror. Its duties included the investigation of politically motivated crimes and the introduction of criminal procedures. Films of the late 1950s are very open with regard to the Stasi because they had solved numerous cases of sabotage and thus enjoyed a certain reputation. "Sie kannten sich alle" / "They all Knew One Another" (1958) and "Die Premiere fällt aus" / "The Premiere Is Cancelled" (1959), featured fatherly investigators fighting saboteurs, while in "Septemberliebe" / "September Love" (1961) the Stasi was represented as the highest authority in an existential moral conflict between East and West.

August 1961: the building of the wall changed the film stories, and the West as an alternative was gone. Freed from external distractions, East Germany’s filmmakers were supposed to promote socialist development.

The world became very small. The dream of "happiness for all" had not come true.