East German Film Banned But Not Forgotten

Fifty years ago, the communist party in East Germany crushed a short-lived, audacious revolt by a young generation of filmmakers. Their banned works are being screened – some for the first time – as part of a special Berlinale retrospective.
"Jahrgang 45" or Born in ʼ45, was made in the GDR, featuring actors Werner Kanitz, Rolf Römer and Holger Mahlich.

This article was originally published on February 19, 2016, and republished without changes in February 2018.

The 1960s were a time for experimentation in the arts -- on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Yet when Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader at the time, and his protégé Erich Honecker saw the string of avant-garde, socially critical films that the state-funded studios began producing in 1965 – just four years after they had built the Berlin Wall – they were deeply concerned about their impact and felt a need to react. And so in 1966 they banned or censored many of them.

Fifty years later, the Berlin International Film Festival has brought several of these famed “verbotene Filme,” or banned films, to the big screen in digitally restored versions, including censored versions never seen before by the general public.

State censors eventually shelved a total of 12 productions from the state-run DEFA film studio in 1966. Ten of them are showing at the Berlinale, which runs through Sunday, and are now also available in German with English subtitles as a set of DVDs called “DEFA-Verboten.” The retrospective includes a series of short and mid-length films typical of the era.

The mid-1960s were a period of growing tension in Germany. On both sides of the Wall, societal conflicts were brewing.

A post-war generation of Germans were re-examining how their lives should look. Many young people had different ideas and were searching for new ways to define them. Especially in the communist-controlled eastern part of the divided country, many were beginning to question life under socialism.

Italian neo-realists were a source of inspiration and encouragement for us. Wolfgang Kohlhasse, Film Director in former East Germany

New filmmakers in both East and West Germany saw an artistic opportunity and pounced on it, but the story of those breaking with the communist party line under the Ulbricht regime is arguably the most telling.

“Italian neo-realists were a source of inspiration and encouragement for us,” said Wolfgang Kohlhasse, who worked as a screenwriter and film director in former East Germany, in an interview with Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. “Cinema did not only have to depict the beautiful other world; it could also show everyday life, shot not in the studio but on the road, with original, short focal lengths and raw footage.”

Their protagonists roved the streets and flouted authority, or were in search of something they couldn’t yet define. An example is the character Al, in the film "Jahrgang 45" (Born in '45), who roams the streets of East Berlin knowing exactly what he doesn’t want, but not what he really desires.

A string of films produced in East Germany’s DEFA state studios reflected the realities and desires of young people growing up in a tightly regulated society with limited perspectives. Many of the productions openly questioned the contradictions of so-called “real existierender Sozialismus,” or real existing socialism, intensely championed by leaders of the German Democratic Republic.

Interestingly, the films were planned and produced with government approval, thanks to support from a group of reformists in East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, the SED.


The GDR film "Berlin um die Ecke" is being shown in the 66th Berlinale's retrospective section.


But in December 1965, the party’s Central Committee held its infamous 11th plenum at which the hardliners – heeding calls for tighter controls by Soviet ruler Leonid Brezhnev – crushed the reformists and imposed their views. The charge was led by Mr. Honecker, who warned of “manifestations of hooliganism” in the authentic works of the rebellious filmmakers.

The result was a battery of restrictions in the country, including a ban on the dozen movies, which were also known as the “Kaninchenfilme,” or rabbit films, in reference to the title of one the first banned productions, “Das Kaninchen bin ich” (The Rabbit is Me).

The censorship of that film surprised many because it was made by one of East Germany’s showcase filmmakers, Kurt Maetzig, who had earlier directed the biography of Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the Communist Party in Germany prior to World War II. The Central Committee claimed the film “spread skepticism.”

"Jahrgang 45" by Jürgen Böttcher features a young married Berlin couple questioning the world around them. The state film authorities liked nothing about it. They disapproved of the film’s locations, shot in courtyards and dark cellars, calling them “inhospitable and dirty.” They also disliked the characters whom they referred to as “indifferent, feckless, confused and ... far removed from the characteristic traits of our socialist reality.” Mr. Böttcher was told to rework the script of his film. His censored original version was shown for the first time in Berlin at this week's film festival.

A censored version of “Karla” (Carla) also premiered at the Berlinale. Karla is a newly trained teacher in her first job in a small town, full of vigor and idealism. She isn’t interested in the curriculum but in teaching her students how to be thoughtful, critical people. She manages to pull many of them out of their shell. Her unconventional teaching style, however, conflicts with methods promoted by the state.

The original version was banned. A long series of edits and truncations to the work followed, but the censored version ended up being so fragmented, with a lack of context in the plot, that it was abandoned. A team of film experts pulled it together in 1990.

Kurt Barthel’s “Fräulein Schmetterling” (Miss Butterfly) shows the life of a socialist woman through a combination of documentary realism and fantasy. The main character, 18-year-old Helene Raupe, fails miserably at all jobs assigned to her by authorities and really only “emerges” in her fantasies where she can escape her dreary life. The contrast between the desire for self-fulfillment and East German reality couldn’t be sharper. Mr. Barthel was forced to suspend production in 1966. A team of film experts then assembled his footage into a film in 2005.

“Spur der Steine” (Trace of Stones) is considered by many fans to be one of the best films produced in East Germany and the most recognized among the forbidden dozen. A construction project struggles with poor planning and a shortage of materials and equipment.  The well-known actor Manfred Krug plays Hannes Balla, a construction foreman, who overcomes the problems with unconventional methods.  The character Werner Horrath is put in charge of bringing the freewheeling construction crew into line.

The film took a critical look at how the party machine worked, with all its contradictions, and was received positively at the East German workers’ festival in 1966 but was later banned for its “anti-socialist tendencies" and not shown again until November 1989.

There was a brief period in the mid-1960s, said Mr. Kohlhasse at one of the festival's panel discussions, when some directors, screenwriters and other influential people had hoped “to democratize” the East German film industry by allowing more voices to have a say in artistic expression. “The banning of films in 1965 and 1966 ended this,” he said.

John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]