Documentary Realism and Documentarism in the West Germany (1966-1989)

Having recovered very slowly from the shock of the two-year period 1965-66, the DEFA began towards the end of the decade to deal with the problems of the so-called technical-scientific revolution in their repercussions within the life of the Republic. No longer characterized by the pathos of the ‘heroic’ years of the construction of socialism, this renewed interest in the world of work was characterized by the ‘micrological’ and substantially aideological perspective that led filmmakers to shoot outside the Babelsberg studios, in places and real environments, often with non-professional actors. It was the tendency towards ‘documentary realism’ to which most of the directors of the ‘third generation’ of the GDR would have referred, albeit with different or even opposite styles: Horst Seemann, Siegfried Kühn, Ralf Kirsten, Lothar Warneke, Roland Gräf, Rainer Simon, Hermann Zschoche. The emergence of this trend was closely related to the evolution of the documentary in the GDR. From the compilation works of A. and A. Thorndike we passed with the couple Walter Heynowski-Gerhard Scheumann to an extremely ‘aggressive’ type of audiovisual journalism that focuses mainly on the Congo, Vietnam and Chile while the first work he gave Internationally renowned for the couple of filmmakers was Der lachende Mann (1966), an interview conducted in disguise with the leader of the Congolese mercenaries, Siegfried Müller. The counterpart to the sensationalist documentarism of Heynowski and Scheumann, whose method has often been contested for its extreme and preconceived propaganda rigidity, is represented instead, from those expeditions into everyday reality conducted, as well as by the pioneering work of Karl Gass, first of all by J. Böttcher and then by Winfried Junge, Gitta Nickel and Volker Koepp. Influenced by the Cinéma vérité and its techniques (live sound, 16 mm etc.), the documentary school of the GDR succeeded in distilling and documenting fragments of reality from the squalor of real socialism with German diligence and patience (the cycles of films that follow individuals and / or social groups for decades and decades). The meticulous attention to the everyday aspects of reality, combined with the adoption of ‘light’ shooting techniques (even with the classic difficulties of technological adaptation, characteristic of socialist systems), would have constituted an example that fictional cinema, however,

The election of Erich Honecker as secretary general of the SED in 1971 marked a short five-year political-cultural opening. However, the crisis of 1976, with the deprivation of citizenship of the dissident singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, again had serious consequences on the production of the DEFA, marred by the continuous loss of artistic personnel, gradually moved to work in the West: thus the actors Angelica Domröse, Renate Krössner, Manfred Krug, Jutta Hoffmann, Armin Mueller-Stahl (who has become an international star) and Katharina Thalbach, as well as director Egon Günther. Furthermore, the death of K. Wolf, a bit like that of Fassbinder in the Neuer Deutscher Film, deprived the GDR of its ‘heart’: by a curious coincidence the two authors died in the same year, 1982.

In a political climate that always fluctuated between repression and liberalization, the fictional cinema of the GDR exhausted its best strength in the 1980s. Few were the works worthy of being remembered outside a local context, while the accusation of knowing only three b’s acquired more and more force: “brav, bieder, bildarm” (good, respectable, visually poor). While trying to reflect on the dullness of everyday life, on the private outside the ritual manifestations of collective life, the new recruits of the DEFA missed the goal of telling more complex stories. The exceptions constitute the rule: Märkische Forschungen (1982) by R. Gräf; Die Frau und der Fremde (Golden Bear ex aequo at the 1985 Berlin Film Festival, from a short story by the expressionist writer L. Frank) by R. Simon, director who had suffered yet another case of political censorship with Jadup und Boel, produced in 1980, but only released in 1988; perhaps Die Beunruhigung (1982) by L. Warneke, an ‘exceptional’ work for the DEFA production modules, built without a script and in black and white, shot in just three weeks with live sound that thematizes the fear of having thrown away one’s existence.

To the minimalism of ‘documentary realism’ answered H. Carow who, after the censorship suffered by his Die Russen kommen (1966, it would only be released in 1987), was the author of two fortunate and controversial melodramas of everyday life, among the greatest public successes DEFA: Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973, from a screenplay by the writer and scenarista Ulrich Plenzdorf) and Bis dass der Tod euch scheidet (1979), from a screenplay by Günther Rucker, both characterized by a solid professionalism in the direction of the actors and by a direction that is careful to measure the effects and emotions. It would have had to wait until the fateful 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, to see his talent again in Coming out, a film in which he was able to tell a homosexual story.

Already reported in 1965 with a good debut on the problems of divorce, Lots Weib, which continues the tradition of Dudow’s Frauenfilme, Günther returned to shoot two films (both starring Jutta Hoffmann) on interpersonal problems: Der Dritte (1972) and Die Schlüssel (1974). The latter’s failure forced Günther to return to those literary adaptations of which he was the undisputed master in the GDR: Lotte in Weimar (1975, by Th. Mann, with Lilli Palmer as protagonist) and Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1976, by JW Goethe). He then left the GDR to continue his work on German-federal television where, with the exception of the remarkable drama Exil (1981), in seven episodes, from the novel of the same name by L. Feuchtwanger, however, he was unable to match the previous tests.

Back in vogue with Jakob der Lügner, but always poised to emigrate to the West, F. Beyer first made a funny marriage comedy, Das Versteck (1978) and then Der Aufenthalt (1983), from a screenplay by W. Kohlhaase, film that in taking up the parable structure of Jakob der Lügner explores with Kafkaesque accents the stay in an internment camp of a young soldier who was the victim of a mistaken identity. Finally, he shot another beautiful ‘criminal’ comedy set after World War II, Der Bruch (1989), which gathers a large cast of interpreters from East and West (Götz George, Otto Sander, Rolf Hoppe). Unintentionally, the political and state unification was anticipated in the cinema, which would soon take place.

Documentary Realism and Documentarism in the West Germany (1966-1989)