In August 2016, I presented a program devoted to the young Federal Republic of Germany in cinema at the Locarno International Film Festival. Commonly, this endeavor was understood as: A new look at the FRG’s production in the 1950s, one of the most vilified while least researched periods in all German film history. In reality, it was a bit more complicated, as I also screened quite a few films from the German Democratic Republic set in the Federal Republic of Germany – works all that painted a decidedly different image of life in the capitalist West. Put simple: If one looks for a somewhat more complete picture of the FRG with all its contradictions cum many grey-going-pitch black areas (read: the topics deemed High Up unfit for the movies), one needs to study the film production of both countries, closely.
For which reason I’m very happy that Subversive Festival rose to the challenge and presents a small program in which I could devote myself only to this aspect of the project: Ten films, five from each country, arranged always in dialectic pairs – one subject, two visions which are sometimes complementary and sometimes wildly divergent, invariably adding up to a truth greater than the mere sum total.
The young FRG is an ideological battleground. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise (even if it was for most…) that DEFA, the main film studio of the German Democratic Republic, produced all through the 50s an astonishing amount of fiction features set in the Federal Republic of Germany – a sub-genre, so to speak, that came to an end with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. That said: The FRG would remain a locus/topic of constant interest for GDR filmmakers, albeit then almost exclusively in the spheres of documentary cinema as well as TV; many of the best crime series’ and serials produced by the DFF (GDR’s national broadcasting organization) were espionage thrillers detailing the misdeeds of the FRG. The FRG, on the other hand (or side…) showed film- and TV-wise very little interest in the GDR: all through the Adenauer years, maybe a dozen movies in toto got made that deal in one way or another with life in the “Other Germany” – sure, mention was often made of refugees from the “East”, or of relatives living in the “Zone”, etc., but that’s about it; and it stayed like this: also post August ’61, neither cinema nor television had too much to say about the subject, at least in terms of fiction. One might wonder: Why? The answer is probably several-fold. Before the building of the Berlin Wall, the GDR was interested in convincing not only the viewers at home but also the viewers in the FRG about the justness of the nation’s cause – only that most of the films never made it into FRG cinemas, sometimes because the distributors assumed that audiences in the West wouldn’t pay to see the films, othertimes due to the doings of the Interministerielle (an essentially illegal entity concerned with the import of films from state communist countries, active between 1953 and circa 1966). For the FRG, things were a bit different: The less attention paid to the GDR, the less stories, images got produced the better – which was (more or less consciously) in accord with the Hallstein Doctrine.
Now on to the subjects the five pairs touch upon:
Like every nation born from WWII, the two Germanies anchored their respective state’s myth partly in narratives of resistance and collective suffering. Yet, both states willfully ignored certain factions fighting Hitler, with each singling out one particular group. Stärker als die Nacht and Der 20. Juli are quite exemplary for both narratives: Dudow focuses on a communist couple and stresses their engagement against Fascism starting in ’33, while Harnack talks about a military elite and middle-class that learned their lesson too late.
One of the few subjects both Germanies felt equally awkward about was the US-presence in the FRG – albeit for quite different reasons: Das verurteilte Dorf focuses on the US’s military as a threat to world peace, while Die goldene Pest portrays the US as a deeply corrupting influence on FRG tastes and morals – not that the locals objected too much, as they got serious money out of it… It’s noteworthy that both films have locals returning from war at their respective narrative’s center: a POW in Das verurteilte Dorf, a German-born Korea-War-vet in Die goldene Pest.
Two narratives about gullible authorities. Der Hauptmann von Köln paints a panorama of life in the FRG as ruled by cronyism among ex-Nazis and -Wehrmachtmembers – Der Hauptmann von Köpenick is a paean to individualism with a slightly anarchic bend as well as a satire on bureaucracy and authoritarianism set safely in the Wilhelminian past.
The echt 50s genre of juvenile delinquency film showed many parallels between the two Germanies, chiefly: a bourgeois core that youngsters felt an almost existential need to rise against. It also suggests that for a few years a common aesthetic ground did exist between the blocks: a cinema of stylish modesty open as much for the romantic touches of the Thaw generation as for the casual sexiness of De Santis-style neorealism.
Two zeniths of wildly different modernist praxes provoked by the building of the Berlin Wall:… und deine Liebe auch pushed DEFA-style documentary realism beyond a point of no return with its improvisations, candid camera and lose script that could change any moment depending on current developments – while FRG political cabaret cinema got never more outrageous, occasionally almost Beckett’ian in tone than with Genosse Münchhausen.