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Activating an archive of inner perspectives – political education with DEFA films Rede von Thomas Krüger auf dem Symposium "Making History Revisible: East German Cinema after Unification" am 24. April 2010 in Indiana, USA

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Rede von Thomas Krüger auf dem Symposium "Making History Revisible: East German Cinema after Unification" am 24. April 2010 in Indiana, USA

Only recently the filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff triggered a heated debate about the artistic value of the DEFA films. In an Interview for a German regional paper he stated that: "The DEFA Films were terrible. They were shown in Paris when I studied there, but only in the cinemas of the communist party. We went in there and had a laugh". This, of course, created an uproar from various directors, authors, editors and actors and lead to a long debate. Regardless of who said what and why in this debate, it shows the prevailing legacy of these films. How to appreciate them today?

As a film enthusiast I have no doubt that these films are tremendously valuable – whether for their aesthetic quality or their merits as historical, social and political documents. Even more so, I understand their value from my professional perspective as President of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education: These films are very suitable to combine two of the major tasks our institution is involved in. Firstly, our work centers on promoting awareness for democracy and social participation. We do so by taking up topical and historical subjects and issuing publications, organizing seminars, events, study trips, exhibitions and competitions, offering films and on-line products. To cut it short: We want to motivate people and enable them to critical thought about political and social issues and play an active part in our civil society. Secondly we have a multi-media and film-department which promotes for children and young adults to get an understanding of how media works, how a film uses aesthetic means, how it communicates contents. We believe that one cannot do one without the other. To understand how certain political changes come and came about, one has to understand how they are represented, whether on the radio, television, the internet or in cinema. It is here where two of our interests intersect with DEFA films and where our work on the DEFA archive began.

In 2005 our institution started an initiative to select some of the DEFA Films and together with the "Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek", the "DEFA foundation" and "the National Archive" we put them in a DVD Box which was published in 2006 as "PARALLELWELT FILM: EIN EINBLICK IN DIE DEFA". Our goal was not to publish a "Best-of" selection but rather to allow for a first acquaintance with the various facets of DEFA productions. It brings together films like "Wer die Erde liebt" and "Ich war neunzehn". The first one: A film that shows how the tenth World Festival of Youth and Students, taking place in East Berlin in the summer of 1973, was staged as a communist Woodstock, without ever mentioning that the real East German hippies (yes, there were quite a few!) at that time were not even allowed to enter Berlin and had to deliver their passports for four weeks. The second one is an artistic masterpiece by an auteur, enriched with a complex ambivalence that deals with the main themes of GDR ideology: Anti-Fascism, the rivalry with West Germany immediately starting after the end of the Second World War and the GDR´s self-esteem as "the better Germany".

In doing so, we approached an archive – one that was closed and which contained more than 12 000 films produced between 1946 and 1993. An archive that was vast and well-kept, that held all the films and would grow no more. In respect to this archive held by the DEFA foundation, our task was not to support its preservation but rather to activate it, to make it accessible.

Activation then, meant two things for us. First of all, by producing the DVD and distributing it through our media-stores, the internet and partners we made these films available again to a wider public (DEFA films are hardly ever shown on German TV channels!). And maybe not only the films, but also a part of the GDR history, its cultural context, a point to which I will come back a little later. Secondly, we tried to enhance the effect of activation by embedding the films into a historical context and combining them according to thematic similarities. We chose "women and emancipation", "beginning and end", "work and daily life", "children and youth" and "history and representation". To ham it up just a little bit, one could maybe call this an act of keywording the archive. This allows for a structured examination of the films and alleviates a comparison of the DEFA film-culture with other film-cultures, for example the one of the late West Germany. We additionally supplied the DVD Box with a booklet that contained background information on the film and its political context and another booklet that offers spreadsheets and exercises for working with the films in an academic context ranging from school to university. Here again, both our objectives found their way into these materials. You can find tutorials on historical topics as well as aesthetic questions and thus learn not to think the one without the other. To approach the material in the archive and activate it thus meant to make a selection which tries to give an overview of the DEFA as a whole and provide a framework of topical approaches, context materials and exercises for the school.

Our audience, then, was clear. We wanted to reach younger people who have never gotten to know the GDR when it existed. We are aware, of course, that most of them probably have some sort of conception of what the GDR was. But this is ever so often dominated by a mass media discourse fluctuating somewhere between the image of the "secret police-state" and a nostalgia of simple, socialist times (where "not everything was good", as an ironical saying goes in the East). The film critic Ralf Schenk, for example, described the image of the GDR portrayed by such films as "Sonnenallee" (Leander Haußmann, 1999) as following: "Member of the people´s police and secret-police men appear as sappy fairy-tale figures, who were easily outsmarted. Even the Wall lost some of its terror". Even in more ambitious films such as "Das Versprechen" by filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta he discovers a "collection of comforting clichés", "where the GDR witnessed its reincarnation as a dark, grey country devoid of joy, in which suppression and espionage dominated daily life." (Just think about how the East was portrayed in Hitchcock´s "The Torn Curtain" in the 1960s) Without discussing the cinematic or historical approach of such films, one nevertheless feels that a certain every-day reality, whether social, historical, political or otherwise, is missing in these representations. It is in this blank space of the majority´s conception of the GDR today – largely a black box - that the DEFA box should find its audience. We felt that it could complement a visual archive of what exactly the GDR was by adding an inner perspective to the existing discourse. Currently we are distributing an average of about 60 film boxes per month all over the country; the fee is 25 Euros.

After having briefly outlined in which fashion we approached the DEFA as an archive and how we perceive our audience, I now want to say something about the function of the DEFA films as an archive. In other words, I want to respond to the idea which knowledge and information has been activated and in how far this may help to enhance critical thought to political and social issues by giving examples from the films themselves. Just like films such as "Sonnenallee" are a mirror of a society´s positioning towards their own past at the moment of its production, the DEFA films are an invaluable signifier of different viewpoints on societal questions from inside the GDR. They – so it seems - add representations from "inside the GDR" to those films which have been produced since 1989 and which often develop a visual archive of representations from an outside perspective.

The DVD section called "history and representation" for example contains the films "Ich war neunzehn" by Konrad Wolf and the propagandistic "Einheit SPD-KPD" by Kurt Maetzig. In both films, the GDR tradition of anti-fascism – which strongly coined the self-concept of the GDR - is represented in the form of a biographically inspired artwork and from the obvious standpoint of the SED. Thus, one can gain an understanding, that the GDR was not a society that in its totality regarded every German from the other side of the wall as fascist. As we can see in "Ich war neunzehn" Konrad Wolf painted a highly differentiated picture of the last days of the war. Ralf Schenk points to the importance of the film when he notes that its narrative openness has not really had any predecessors within the history of German films and concludes that this allowed for "a correspondence of tragic, lyrical and funny elements as well as a variety of characters who carry a variety of mind-sets." A notion that the propagandistic film "Einheit SPD-KPD" does not suggest. By comparing these two films one understands the discrepancy between the official self-concept which a state would like to promote and an individualistic view on the same matter from people within that state, in this case the artist Konrad Wolf. At the same time, these films prove just how many-sided the DEFA and the GDR were and thus add another aspect to the later films on the GDR. "Ich war neunzehn" in particular is an excellent example of how complex the best DEFA films really were: On the one hand its aesthetic qualities are radical, and its position on ideological questions is extremely ambivalent. On the other hand the film was appointed to be an obligatory part of "Staatsbürgerkunde" (civics lessons) in the GDR schools.

A film like "Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser" is an archive of glimpses into a lively and authentic youth culture and its problems when being confronted with the image of an ideal socialist adolescent. At the same time the film is also a reminder of the artistic vibrancy of the DEFA films and the ones involved. One can clearly detect influences of Italian Neorealism, as one might be surprised to see obvious borrowings from the US-Western genre in "Spur der Steine". This is not to imply that the GDR was not such a bad place after all, but rather that it was a society as many-sided as any other and thus produced a film culture where artists tested their artistic boundaries inside a rigid system.

While these films stand for an interesting accumulation of creative energy within a system whose main task was to define history and the present according to its own ideology, a film like "Sabine Kleist, 7 Jahre" by Helmut Dziuba shows just how subversive some of these films were. Here, Lewis Carroll´s story of "Alice in Wonderland" is transformed into Sabine Kleist, a 7 year old girl, walking through the GDR. Originally conceptualized for children, the film takes the viewer on a tour through the GDR seen with the eyes of a child. These images provoke a curiosity that could hardly be achieved by reading history books which describe the day to day life of 1982.

Last but not least, a film like "Die Architekten" stores in its archive a feeling that no history book could ever capture. When watched with young people and contextualized by, for example, a teacher, it allows for a deep understanding of how it feels to live and work inside a repressive system which is so concerned with its own legitimization and even survival that it suppresses anything out of the ordinary, anything new and ultimately anything vibrant. One can read about the SED´s ideas of culture, one can look at the photos of house after house in the GDR looking alike. But watching "Die Architekten" also opens up the archive of an emotional state: As the film´s author Thomas Knauf describes it: "What I broached upon in ‘Die Architekten´ I would describe as my generation´s experience: namely the deep-rooted distrust of the country´s fathers towards their sons". As Thomas Brasch once put it: "Vor den Vätern sterben die Söhne", the sons die before their fathers. I would argue, that it thus allows young people to not only intellectually understand the conditions within the GDR but in some ways share the experience and thus develop a sort of empathy and deeper understanding. The film, in the end, finds a most powerful image for what must ultimately happen inside a suppressive system – just as its protagonist Daniel Brenner in the end - it has to collapse.

To sum it up one could say that the DEFA films function as an archive of an inner view on the GDR, on its daily life and routines, its self-concept and its failings, its ideology and its people – plain and simple: on its ambivalence. Apart from films being very often a much more intimate medium to young people nowadays than, for example, books, they also show us "real", visual material of the world it is talking about. Through the choice of the director, we do not only see these facts but we see a variety of perspectives on these facts which allows us to get a more differentiated and hopefully realistic view from inside the GDR.

I would like to give you one more example, this time not from our film box. One of the most successful GDR TV series, the "Whodunit" "Polizeiruf 110" (emergency call 110) was also produced in the DEFA studios. If you watch this crime series today you can learn a lot about how the GDR changed over the years until it collapsed. When the series started in the early 1970s (as an answer to West German television which was dominating the GDR sitting rooms) it hardly ever showed capital crimes – if at all, they were narrated as "influences from the West". In the 1980ies, however, it was entirely different: Very openly the series was dealing with social evils every citizen in the GDR was fully aware of: drinking, social rehabilitation of prisoners, fraud, child molesting – even murder was shown to have "internal" GDR reasons. Even the omnipresent portrait of Erich Honecker vanished from the police offices...

This search for an internal view has also led us to publish a book called "Die Spur der Filme: Zeitzeugen über die DEFA". Its title referring to the DEFA Film "Spur der Steine", the book brings together a variety of interviews and quotations from different contemporary protagonists of the DEFA. Here again our task was to activate an archive by making it accessible and to contextualize it.

Our involvement in approaching the GDR through visual means is an ongoing-process. Apart from these large projects we publish dossiers on the question how the GDR is represented in films after '89 or articles with background information on recent films such as "Friendship". We do this because we believe that our task is to keep activating the archives that tell us more about the GDR – may these be from the outside or the inside. In this context, the DVD Box "Parallelwelt Film" stands for a much wider issue that we as an institution stand for: In contrast to traditional archive-policies, which are oriented towards conservation we want to activate these archives. And we want to raise awareness for a common, perhaps unified, view of German post war history in which the 40-year-period of two independent states is the shared heritage of West and East Germans alike. The Leipzig historian Günther Heydemann recently wrote a very instructive text on "Integrated German Post-War History", published in our weekly "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte": "In spite of their diametrical double German Post-War history always belonged to all Germans. Regarding the example and learning from our recent history the supremacy of a constitutional state and democratic power over one-party rule should become too obvious." The films of the DEFA thus also belong to all Germans.

Education, learning and literacy can only take place in a field where the initially preserved is opened up and thus becomes the basis of a collective memory. Far away from questions of political correctness this allows for a more ambivalent, at times unsettling glimpse at "the real life within the false".

I thank you for your attention!

- Es gilt das gesprochene Wort -