The DEFA Documentary


The DEFA Documentary
Source: DIF© DEFA-Stiftung
Still from "Leben in Wittstock" ("Life in Wittstock", 1984)

In the GDR, documentary films emerged as an important production sector. Thousands of films were produced in repeatedly restructured and renamed studios such as the DEFA-Studio für populärwissenschaftliche Filme (DEFA Studio for Popular Science Films, 1952-68) and the DEFA-Studio für Wochenschau und Dokumentarfilme (DEFA Studio for Newsreels and Documentaries). Along with the many productions commissioned by television, ministries, factories and organizations, the DEFA also developed traditions and genres of its own, thanks to its secure integration into the state-funded (and -controlled) production system.

Traditions: History as Inspiration and Mission

In the early years, personal and stylistic continuity tied DEFA documentaries into the Ufa's venerable documentary tradition. Ulrich K. T. Schulz, since the 1920s one of the pioneers of biology films, worked for the DEFA on into the 1960s. Directors such as Kurt Maetzig, Richard Groschopp, Gerhard Klein and Heiner Carow started out with documentaries before moving on to dramatic films. Alongside mainly self-congratulatory reports on the process of rebuilding the GDR's industry and agriculture, anti-western propaganda, aimed primarily at West Germany and NATO, remained a predominant theme until well into the 1980s. "Exposes" – such as the series "Archive sagen aus" ("Archives Testify"), coordinated by Andrew and Annelie Thorndike - attempted with varying degrees of authenticity to expose the Nazi past of Bonn politicians and military figures. A prime example of this tendency was the historical panorama "Du und mancher Kamerad" ("You and Many a Comrade", 1954-56), about the role of the army and the Wehrmacht in Germany, which the Thorndikes produced at great expense, using much previously-unknown archival material. Their pupil Karl Gass, like other documentary stars, was largely able to work independently within his own artistic working group at the DEFA Studios. For years he focused primarily on covering domestic and foreign issues; after the construction of the Berlin Wall he made the feature-length film "Schaut auf diese Stadt" ("Look At This City"). Later, assisted by screenwriter Klaus Wischnewski, he turned to historical topics, as with "Das Jahr 1945" ("The Year 1945") in 1984.

Heynowski and Scheumann

Source: CineGraph XI. Internat. Kurz- und Dokumentarfilmwoche Leipzig 1968. Photo: Podszuweit, Goldner
Gerhard Scheumann (right) and Walter Heynowski (middle)

With their trademark mixture of documentation and interviews – skillful propaganda, but often methodologically and ethically questionable – Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann were for a time the East German documentary filmmakers with the broadest international recognition. As such, they were showered with prizes at film festivals, especially at the showcase International Documentary Film Festival in Leipzig. With steady commissions from East German television, which was directly controlled by the SED Propaganda Department rather than the Hauptverwaltung Film (HV Film, Main Film Administration), they worked with a relative degree of independence in their Studio H&S, which they built up into a small media concern. Almost all their films were accompanied by books, and retrospectives traveled the world with brochures they designed themselves. Aside from anti-Bonn polemics, they focused mainly on "internationalism" and "imperialism", picking up on current conflicts and post-colonial wars. "Der lachende Mann" ("The Laughing Man"), from 1965/66, an interview with the cynical mercenary Kongo-Müller (obtained under false pretenses), was followed by cycles on the Vietnam War (including the five-hour miniseries "Piloten im Pyjama" ["Pilots in Pajamas"] from 1967/68 and "Die Teufelsinsel" ["Devil’s Island"] from 1975/76) and Chile during and after the putsch ("Der Krieg der Mumien" ["The War of the Mummies"], 1973/74; "El golpe blanco", 1974/75).

Portraits and Daily Life in the GDR

Source: CineGraph© DEFA-Stiftung
Col. Robinson Risner in "Piloten im Pyjama" ("Pilots in Pajamas", 1967/68)

Alongside films serving mainly propagandistic purposes, in the 1960s a less spectacular yet artistically significant current of documentary filmmaking began to develop within the DEFA. These films examined the fates of individuals or small groups in highly nuanced portraits. Documentaries in this current typically move between artist portraits, observations of everyday life in the GDR and – often intended as enticements and rewards for the filmmakers – travel reports from around the world. The most important representative of this trend was Jürgen Böttcher, also known as a painter (under the name Strawalde) and experimental filmmaker (e.g. "Potters Stier" ("Potter’s Steer", 1981). With the noteworthy assistance of his cameramen Christian Lehmann and Thomas Plenert he produced works of great formal and emotional power: "Martha" (1978) about an old Berlin "rubble woman", "Rangierer" ("Switchmen", 1984) about railroaders at work. Like Karlheinz Mund ("Nordzuschlag – Sibirische Charaktere" ["Northern Bonus – Siberian Characters"], 1975; "Vom Büchermachen in finsterer Zeit – Gespräche mit Fritz Landshoff" ["Making Books in Dark Times – Conversations with Fritz Landshoff", 1984]), Gitta Nickel portrayed artists ("Paul Dessau", 1974) as well as a nurse who moonlights as a pop singer ("Gundula – Jahrgang 58" ["Gundula – Born in ’58"], 1982).

Source: FMP© FMP, Günter Linke
Konrad Wolf and Werner Bergmann (from left)

Volker Koepp poetically evoked landscapes ("Hütes-Film", 1977) and spent decades following the fates of several women who worked in a textile factory in the provinces (including "Mädchen in Wittstock" ["Girls in Wittstock"], 1975; "Leben in Wittstock" ["Life in Wittstock"], 1984; "Neues aus Wittstock" ["What's New in Wittstock"], 1992). A similar, even more ambitious long-term study was filmed, at the suggestion of Karl Gass, by director Winfried Junge and cameraman Hans-Eberhard Leupold. Beginning in 1961, it focused on a group of first-graders in Golzow in the Oderbruch. Over the course of more than 40 years, it grew into a monumental work composed of separate short films, summary cross-sections and individual portraits of the "children of Golzow" as they come of age, with the more than four-hour "Lebensläufe" ("Life Stories", 1980/81) providing the most complete and most artistically satisfying overview. Another major documentary project with a completely different stylistic and thematic thrust, made possible only by the special conditions of the East German film industry, was realized by Konrad Wolf in 1981. For "Busch singt" ("Busch Sings") Wolf acted as the artistic director of a group including Erwin Burkert, Peter Voigt, Reiner Bredemeier, Eberhard Geick and Doris Borkmann. The six films, following the biography of the actor and singer Ernst Busch, provide a historical panorama of the first half of the 20th century.

Last Movements

Source: FMP© FMP, Günter Linke
Helke Misselwitz, 1989

While the 1980s brought the DEFA’s dramatic studios pervasive stagnation, with female directors few and far between, younger talents emerged in the documentary field, including Petra Tschörtner and Helke Misselwitz. In 1988 Misselwitz caused a stir with her portraits of women in "Winter adé" ("Goodbye Winter") before switching to dramatic films. That same year "Flüstern und Schreien" ("Whispering and Shouting") by Dieter Schumann and Jochen Wisotzki documented the mood of the younger generation in the GDR, this time focusing on rock groups. In the fall of 1989, young and old DEFA documentary filmmakers were the first to react to the collapse of the GDR, documenting the escalating events as well as the positive and negative effects of reunification. After some shadowy maneuvering on the part of the Treuhand, all the creative employees of the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films were dismissed at the end of 1990. Some well-known directors were able to continue working, mainly for television stations in Eastern Germany.