East German Film Rarities

While most hardcore film buffs are well versed in the movies of Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, F.W. Murnau and their latter compatriots Werner Herzog, R.W. Fassbinder, Wim Wenders and Volker Schlondorff, directors such as Kurt Maetzig, Joachim Kunert and Gerhard Klein are completely unknown or unfamiliar to Western audiences for an obvious reason. They worked for DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft), the nationalized film industry of East Germany, and as a result, very few of their movies were distributed outside of socialist countries during the Cold War Era when DEFA was in its prime. A rare exception was Kurt Maetzig’s Der Schweigende Stern aka The Silent Star, a science fiction adventure which was released in the U.S. in an edited, English dubbed version as First Spaceship on Venus in 1962. Much more complex and thematically intriguing is Maetzig’s Das Kaninchen Bin (English title: The Rabbit is Me, 1965) along with Joachim Kunert’s Das Zweite Gleis (English title: The Second Track, 1962) and Gerhard Klein’s Die Fall Gleiwitz (English title: The Gleiwitz Case, 1961).

First, a little information on DEFA. The studio was first founded in the Spring of 1946 and headquartered in Berlin where it was authorized by the Soviet Military Administration. The company produced movies for more than five decades before being dissolved in the wake of German Reunification in 1992 when it was sold to the French company Compagnie Generale des Eaux. It has only been in the 21st century that we have finally been able to learn about this fascinating period in cinema, thanks to the efforts of the theatrical and DVD distributor, First Run Features, which first acquired the DEFA library in 2001 (but only carries a few East German titles as of 2022). Despite the strict guidelines the movie makers were forced to follow by the Communist regime which prohibited any form of government criticism or protest, some of the DEFA filmmakers found ways to introduce challenging subject matter and ideas in subversive ways that eluded the censors but not always as in the case of The Rabbit is Me, which was banned and remained unseen for years.

While you might expect the bulk of these films to be dreary, cheerless propaganda films which extoll the virtues of farm collectives or present inspirational odes to Marxism, the reality is something else. In many ways, the DEFA films resemble Hollywood studio releases in terms of narrative techniques and genre. The difference is that the East German filmmakers were charged with imparting socialist messages, whether it was regarding morality, ethics, or role models. Yet that didn’t stop some of them from making such seemingly frivolous entertainments as Joachim Hasler’s Heiber Sommer (English title: Hot Summer, 1968), a Beach Party-like musical about a group of students vacationing at a farm on the Baltic Sea. In between the choreographed musical numbers and various romantic subplots, an obvious theme emerges through the character of Brit (Regine Albrecht), a free-thinker whose self-centered interests disrupts the group’s harmony. In a typical Hollywood-like happy ending, Brit comes to realize the error of her ways and commits herself to being the perfect party member. Some of you may have seen scenes from this film in the highly entertaining 1997 documentary East Side Story in which director Dana Ranga presented a toe-tapping survey of Communist musicals. Highly recommended if you haven’t seen it and a great entry point for East German cinema.

As fascinating as Hot Summer is and a great deal of it is both delightful and hilarious, the best DEFA films are character-driven dramas which run the gamut from working class “kitchen-sink” dramas to suspense thrillers to grim tragedies. One of the most striking is Joachim Kunert’s The Second Track, a stark, emotionally gripping melodrama, much closer to film noir than anything else. Comparable to Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948) in its bait-and-switch tactics, it draws you into caring about the protagonist, Station inspector Brock (Albert Hetterle), who appears to be completely devoted to Vera (Annekathrin Burger), his loving daughter. When Brock is witness to a robbery but pretends not to recognize Runge (Walter Richter-Reinick), the suspected thief, he arouses the latter’s curiosity which leads to a secret investigation of Brock’s past by Runge’s partner-in-crime, Frank (Horst Jonischkan). Pretending to be romantically interested in Vera, Frank pumps her for information about her father, her deceased mother and the couple’s early years during World War II.

Vera (Annekathrin Burger) becomes the target of a man who pursues her romantically with an ulterior motive in THE SECOND TRACK (1962), a film noir-like drama from East Germany.

On the surface, Runge and Frank appear to be unquestionably the villains of the piece until the film’s mid-point when Frank learns the truth about Brock and Runge’s former relationship. As the principal players in this complex story revisit the past, it has a profound effect on them, and in Frank and Vera’s case, it offers cathartic release. By the end of The Second Track, our loyalties have shifted and we’re left with an indelible portrait of two generations of Germans – the young and the old – trying to reconcile themselves with their country’s shameful history.

A scene from THE SECOND TRACK (1962), an East German film about Nazi guilt directed by Joachim Kunert.

Nazi guilt was certainly a theme of many DEFA films and anti-fascist films were encouraged by the East German government but The Second Track is impressive because it suggests that Germany’s past continues to haunt the present, dividing and creating dissonance among its citizens. Obviously, the censors interpreted the film differently since it was released without opposition but it is clear from the movie’s ending that a simple and final resolution to the personal tragedies we’ve seen may never be resolved.

The East Germany film poster for THE SECOND TRACK (1962)

If I have overstated the ideological concerns of The Second Track, rest assured that the film works wonderfully as a first rate suspense thriller. The influence of Alfred Hitchcock is obvious, particularly in the poisonous paranoid atmosphere that envelops everyone not unlike Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956). The ending is clearly a homage to the final shot of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and the desolate railroad yard setting recalls Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954), which was a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine (1938).

Frank (Horst Jonischkan) and Vera (Annekathrin Burger) reflect on their situation in THE SECOND TRACK (`1962), directed by Joachim Kunert.

The superb black and white cinematography of Karl-Heinz Marzahn, Rof Sohre and Heinz Walter recalls the look of some of Robert Siodmak’s Hollywood noirs and Pavol Simai’s score for a solo harp is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. It didn’t yield any top forty pop hits like Anton Karas’s zither score for The Third Man but it is quite atmospheric and memorable.

As for director Kunert, he got his start making newsreels and documentary films for DEFA before launching his feature film debut in 1956 with Besondere Kennzeichen: Keine, a drama about the fate of German WW2 widows who had to raise their children without a partner. He made several crime dramas that were popular such as Tatort Berlin (1958) and Der Lotterieschwede (1958) but his best known film is probably The Adventures of Werner Holt (1964), an anti-Fascist epic about a young soldier confronted with the futility of war.

Another highlight of East German cinema is The Rabbit is Me, directed by Kurt Maetzig, who was one of the founders of DEFA. Banned for more than 25 years, this incredibly sardonic portrayal of a barmaid who wages a one-woman campaign to free her brother from a prison sentence for counterrevolutionary actions has the look and feel of a French New Wave film. It employs a variety of striking visual stylistics while charting the progress of its relentlessly resourceful heroine who initiates an affair with the married judge who sentenced her brother. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with her prey which leads to complications but the ironic ending, in which her brother proves to be almost dismissive of the sacrifices his sister has made for him, is unself-consciously upbeat. The barmaid realizes her long unattainable dream of a college education!

A promotional still from the East German drama THE RABBIT IS ME (1965).

The film’s blatant critique of the deadening bureaucracy and ineffective justice system of East Germany was a brave move by director Maetzig but he paid the price by seeing his film suppressed by the authorities. He also was forced to issue a public apology for the film or face prison time. This allowed him to continue directing but he only produced four more features and a segment in the 1970 anthology war drama Aus Unserer Zeit. Like Kunert, he got his start making newsreels and documentaries but his main claim to fame remains The Rabbit is Me.

The East German film poster for THE GLEIWITZ CASE (1961), directed by Gerhard Klein.

Equally compelling is Gerhard Klein’s The Gleiwitz Case, which is based on a real incident. This documentary-like account shows in intricate detail how the Germans faked an attack on themselves and blamed the Poles, justifying their invasion of Poland in 1939. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the tone is surprisingly light and satiric with a visual design that suggests a heightened form of German Expressionism. Apparently, the film made the East German government uncomfortable because aesthetically, it reminded them of the films of Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. The movie was given a brief but limited distribution and forgotten.

A former prisoner-of-war in England during WW2, Klein enjoyed critical acclaim for his films but also faced constant criticism and repression from state film officials on the tone and implications of his movies, particularly his most famous feature, Berlin – Ecke Schonhauser (1965), an Italian neorealism influenced drama which won two awards years later at the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival. At the time, however, the movie was criticized by the socialist government as being inappropriate on an aesthetic level.

The Gleiwitz Case, The Second Track, and The Rabbit is Me were all released on DVD by First Run Features with extra features and detailed liner notes but the company no longer distributes them today. You may still be able to find these out-of-print films but instead of paying the inflated prices sellers are charging these days, it might be better to wait and see if the movies get the remastered Blu-ray treatment in the near future.  

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