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.
SATURDAY DOUBLE-BILL DISCOUNT!
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.)