Awarded! Films from Behind the Wall

  1. Awarded!
  2. Films from Behind the Wall

From February 2 through 28, the Gene Siskel Film Center, in partnership with the Goethe-Institut Chicago and the Spertus Institute, presents Awarded! Films from Behind the Wall, a series of eight honors-winning films produced by DEFA, the state-controlled company that oversaw film production in the GDR aka East Germany.

Founded in 1946, DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, or “German Film Shares-Company”) produced approximately 750 films during its 46-year history. Given the irreconcilable tasks of serving the narrowly defined political agenda of the state and providing a homegrown alternative to Hollywood-style entertainment, DEFA saw its history defined by pendulum swings between crackdown and (relative) relaxation. These tensions came to a head in 1965, when twelve DEFA films (nearly the entire feature film output for the year) were banned.

The struggles, setbacks, and accomplishments of East German filmmakers were largely invisible to the world beyond the Wall. While New Waves in other Eastern bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland were creating a stir, East German films had limited impact in the international arena, their subject-matter and traditionally realistic style considered too GDR-specific to generate much interest abroad.

The situation began to improve in the early 1970s when hardliner Walter Ulbricht was succeeded as the country’s leader by the more permissive Erich Honecker. As part of this climate of liberalization, East German films, flourishing under less restrictive conditions, were exhibited more frequently at international film festivals outside the socialist bloc. The GDR also started submitting films for Academy Award consideration, beginning with HER THIRD in 1973. It is from this period of increased international recognition that the eight films in Awarded! are drawn. The first two weeks of the series also highlight the work of two of DEFA’s most important directors, Konrad Wolf and Frank Beyer.

Those expecting a group of stodgy state-sanctioned propaganda vehicles will be surprised by the subtlety, ambivalence, and vitality demonstrated by the films in this series. East German films were in many ways a unique phenomenon in film history. They cannot easily be grouped with the cinemas of their New Wave contemporaries, their Eastern bloc neighbors, their Soviet overlords, or their West German brethren. Among the distinguishing characteristics of East German cinema at its best are a direct engagement with everyday life (including the workplace), a departure from Hollywood-dominated conventions and popular genres, a strong (but not necessarily heavy) political consciousness, and (after 1970) a percentage of substantial female protagonists perhaps unequaled by any other national cinema. East German cinema stood alone, and that is part of the fascination it continues to exert, even after the nation that sustained it has ceased to exist.

Awarded! Films from Behind the Wall is supported by the DEFA Foundation, the Goethe-Institut Chicago, the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and PROGRESS Film-Verleih in Berlin. Curated by Hiltrud Schulz, DEFA Film Library. Special thanks to Werner Ott and Irmi Maunu-Kocian of Goethe-Institut Chicago, and Beth Schenker and Betsy Gomberg of Spertus Institute.

—Martin Rubin




Buy a ticket for the first Awarded! film on any Saturday in February, and get a ticket for the second Awarded! film that day at this discount rate (tickets must be purchased at the same time): General Admission $7; Students $6; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second film only. Discount rate available only at the Film Center box office.)



Sat, Feb 2nd at 3:00pm
Wed, Feb 6th at 6:00pm
Average: 5 (3 votes)
  1. 1980, Konrad Wolf and Wolfgang Kohlhaase,
  2. East Germany, 102 min.
  3. With Renate Krössner, Alexander Lang

“SOLO SUNNY was widely regarded at the time of its 1980 release as perhaps the best film to come out of East Germany, and, with the passing of time, that ‘perhaps’ might safely be removed.”
—Dave Kehr, The New York Times

Wolf’s last film (co-directed with longtime screenwriting colleague Kohlhaase) was a tremendous popular hit in the GDR and a prime example of the less doctrinaire side of East German cinema. Defiantly out of step with the prevailing ethos of socialist collectivism, the impulsive, individualistic Sunny is a second-rate singer for a third-rate rock band. She battles with her neighbors, embarks on an affair with a morose sax player, and yearns for the success that has always eluded her. Winner of the Silver Bear (Best Actress) at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival; Best Screenplay Award at the 1980 Chicago Film Festival. In German with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)

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Sat, Feb 2nd at 5:00pm
Mon, Feb 4th at 6:00pm
Average: 4.5 (2 votes)
  2. 1977, Konrad Wolf, East Germany, 103 min.
  3. With Peter Prager, Uwe Zerbe

Wolf’s wide-ranging filmography includes two highly regarded war films (the first being I WAS NINETEEN, 1968) drawing upon his personal experiences as a soldier in World War II. One of the central themes of East German cinema--the nation’s suspended identity between Germany and the Soviet bloc--is neatly encapsulated in this powerful tale of four young German POWs who decide to join the Red Army but find themselves torn by their divided allegiances. (Wolf himself was a German Jew whose family fled to Russia in the 1930s.) East Germany’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In German and Russian with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)



Sat, Feb 9th at 3:15pm
Mon, Feb 11th at 6:00pm
Average: 5 (2 votes)
  2. 1974, Frank Beyer, East Germany, 101 min.
  3. With Vlastimil Brodsky, Manuela Simon

“The beauty of this film is its simplicity...a heartrending, brutally funny and ultimately devastating story."
—Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle

JAKOB THE LIAR is the best known East German film in the West—for being the only East German film nominated for an Academy Award, and for being remade (poorly) as a Robin Williams vehicle in 1999. Adapted by Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker from his own novel, it tells of a barber in a Polish ghetto who uses fictitious radio reports to keep up hope among his neighbors as the shadow of deportation grows nearer. The restrained poignancy and gentle humor of this film stand as a rebuke to the more heavy-handed approaches of both the Hollywood remake and Roberto Benigni’s similarly themed LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Winner of the Silver Bear (Best Actor) at the 1975 Berlin Film Festival. In German with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)



Sat, Feb 9th at 5:15pm
Thu, Feb 14th at 8:15pm
Average: 3 (2 votes)
  3. 1982, Frank Beyer, East Germany, 102 min.
  4. With Sylvester Groth, Fred Düren

The theme of the flexibility and arbitrariness of truth that marked Beyer’s JAKOB THE LIAR is also central to this tense postwar prison drama. Mark, a young German soldier, is accused by a Polish woman of being the SS officer who murdered her daughter. From that point on, Mark is thrown into a Kafkaesque nightmare of accusation and persecution--first in solitary confinement, then among Polish prisoners who detest him, and finally among German prisoners who assume that he is a spy planted by the Poles. East Germany’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In German and Polish with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)



Sat, Feb 16th at 3:15pm
Wed, Feb 20th at 8:15pm
Average: 3 (2 votes)
  2. 1971, Egon Günther, East Germany, 107 min.
  3. With Jutta Hoffmann, Barbara Dittus

During the relatively liberated 1970s, a large number of East German films used female protagonists to explore the gap between ideal and reality in the socialist state. Margit, the heroine of HER THIRD, is a skilled professional who attains equality in the workplace but is still expected to take a traditionally subservient role in the romantic and domestic spheres. Flashbacks and dreams trace her abortive relationships with the two men who fathered her children, while her current interest in a co-worker is frustrated by social convention. Winner of the Best Actress award at the 1972 Venice Film Festival; East Germany’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In German with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)



Sat, Feb 16th at 5:30pm
Mon, Feb 18th at 8:15pm
Average: 4 (2 votes)
  1. 1989, Heiner Carow, East Germany, 108 min.
  2. With Matthias Freihof, Dagmar Manzel

“One of the landmark works of gay cinema.”
—David Hall,

Notable as the first and only East German film to focus on homosexuality, COMING OUT is also a complex character study and a fascinating look at Berlin life in the last days of the GDR (the Wall fell on the evening of the film’s premiere). Philipp, a schoolteacher, tries to lead a “normal” life, complete with a mother-pleasing girlfriend, but a chance encounter with a former male lover triggers an identity crisis that leads him back into Berlin’s gay underground. Especially remarkable is a late scene in which an aging queen compares the persecution he endured under the Nazis and under the communists. Winner of the Silver Bear at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival. In German with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)

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Sat, Feb 23rd at 3:00pm
Wed, Feb 27th at 8:30pm
Average: 2 (1 vote)
  2. 1988, Roland Gräf, East Germany, 101 min.
  3. With Jörg Gudzuhn, Jutta Wachowiak

FALLADA—THE LAST CHAPTER is a dramatization of the last ten years in the life of writer Hans Fallada, best known for his 1932 novel “Little Man, What Now?” Anchored by Jörg Gudzuhn’s award-winning performance, the film provides an unflinching portrait of a deeply compromised and contradictory man--suicidal, thin-skinned, a morphine addict and inveterate womanizer. Under the Nazis, Fallada cravenly agrees to deliver an anti-Semitic book while risking his life to secretly write an anti-fascist novel. Made mayor by the conquering Russians, he is too debilitated by drugs and depression to govern effectively, but he summons up the will to attempt a final novel. Winner of the Silver Hugo (Best Actor) at the 1989 Chicago Film Festival. In German with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)



Sat, Feb 23rd at 5:00pm
Thu, Feb 28th at 7:45pm
Average: 4 (1 vote)
  2. 1980, Günther Reisch and Günther Rücker,
  3. East Germany, 105 min.
  4. With Jutta Wachowiak, Regimantas Adomajtis

“As harrowing as it is beautiful, a superbly articulated drama with an absolutely stunning performance from its star, Jutta Wachowiak.”
—Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

Anti-fascist subjects, usually centered on heroic communist resistance to Nazism, were by far the largest category in DEFA’s output. This late example, a popular hit in the GDR, reflects changing times by emphasizing personal over political motives. Featuring an extraordinarily intense lead performance by Jutta Wachowiak, it tells of a female resistance fighter who endures ten years in a Nazi prison, drawing strength primarily from her love for the man whom she was planning to marry before her arrest. Winner of the Crystal Globe at the 1980 Karlovy Vary Film Festival; nominated for the Golden Hugo at the 1981 Chicago Film Festival. In German with English subtitles. 35mm. (MR)