History takes center stage: The DDR on Film

The DDR and film – whenever people talk about East Germany and cinema or TV, there are normally only two possibilities: they’re either discussing post-DDR films that look back and illuminate the nation’s history, or films created under the East German regime. Filmmakers began producing films again just after the Second World War. One of the first feature filmsof the new era was “Murderers among us” ( “Die Mörder sind unter uns”) with Hildegard Knief, which was released in 1946. The film’s main characters are a military surgeon and a concentration camp survivor and the film is now seen as the first of a new cinematic movement, Trümmerfilme (films from the rubble), that undertook a critical assessment of recent events. In the same year, the Deutsche Film AG DEFA was set up as a state-owned film studio in the DDR. DEFA produced more than 700 feature films, 750 animated films and 2,250 documentaries in the years between 1946 and 1990. These movies bear the stamp of East German socialism and are a product of its ideology, particularly as each and every film had to be approved by the state film commission before it could be released.

image courtesy of PNetzer / photocase.de

There are a number of films made in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall that deal with life in East Germany from very different perspectives. Many take a critical standpoint, wheras others use humor to examine the absurdities of everyday life in the DDR. We have selected a few comedies and tragi-comedies that we think you will enjoy:

• “Bornholmer Straße”
Bornholmer Straße was the first border crossing to open on the night of November 9, 1989. This tragi-comedy directed by Christian Schwochow was released in 2014 and portrays the turbulent last few hours leading up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The script is based on true events. The main character, Kommandant Harald Schäfer, has to grapple with the decision to open the border crossing or not.

• “Sonnenallee”
In this comedy, a group of teenagers grow up in 1970’s East Berlin. The film was directed by Leander Haußmann in 1999 and tells the story of two boys just before they finish school and start facing up to the problems of adult life and their futures in East Germany. The southern end of Sonnenallee, a street in Berlin-Neukölln, was one of the few places where people could cross from East to West.

image courtesy of dommy.de / photocase.de

• “Goodbye, Lenin”
The film is a tragi-comedy set in East Berlin. It was directed by Wolfgang Becker and released to great critical and commercial success in 2003. Christine, one of the film’s main characters, is a dedicated supporter of the DDR who suffers a heart attack as she watches her son being arrested at a demonstration. She goes into a coma that just happens to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall, leaving her completely unaware of the seismic political events she has missed. Doctors advise her family to shelter her from stress and shock, advice that leads her son to pretend, in ever more hilarious ways, that the DDR still exists.

• “NVA”
This comedy, directed by Leander Haußmann, is a charicature of life in the people’s army (NVA) in East Germany during the country’s final years. The film focuses on two fresh recruits, Henrik and Krüger, and their clashes with superior officers and the tricks played on them by their fellow soldiers. The film ends as the Berlin Wall falls and the army is dissolved.

image courtesy of complize / photocase.de

• “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”)
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film is a critical portrayal of the actions of the STASI (secret police) officer, Gerd Wiesler, as he is ordered to carry out surveillance and collect damning evidence on a theater dramatist. The film examines East Germany’s artisitic and cultural scenes, as well as describing the mechanisms of state surveillance used by the secret police. The film also offers hope of redemption and reconciliation between perpertrators and their victims.

• “Beyond the Wall” (“Jenseits der Mauer”)
“Beyond the Wall” is a German TV-Movie, first screened in 2009. A married couple attempts to get across the border with their two children. They are caught and are offered a deal: they can exit East Germany with their son, but only if they leave their daughter behind. The girl is adopted by another East German family. The filmends as the Berlin Wall comes down and the couple are reunited with their daughter.

image courtesy of nurmalso / photocase.de

• “The Woman from Checkpoint Charlie” (“Die Frau vom Checkpoint Charlie”)
“The Woman from Checkpoint Charlie” is a two-part TV-Movie, directed by Miguel Alexandre. The film deals with the story of a political activist, Jutta Gallus, as she is seperated from her daughter and imprisoned after trying to escape to the West. Her freedom is bought by the West German government and she dedicates her life to the battle to see her daughter again.

• “Weissensee”
“Weissensee” is a television series that has been running on German TV since 2010 and is directed by Friedemann Fromm. The series is set in 1980’s East Berlin and is a love story about Martin Kupfer (from a loyal East German family, although he is not actually so loyal) and Julia Hausmann (whose mother performs anti-DDR songs). As the couple’s relationship develops, it causes sparks to fly between the two families.