'Propaganda' films a hit in unified Germany

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Sebastian Heiduschke

Before German unification in 1990, hundreds of films made by the state-owned film company of East Germany were dismissed by the public as propaganda.

Surprisingly, despite being made under tight control of the Communist party, the films show thematic breadth and depth thanks to the ingenuity of many of the directors, a fact that fans in the United States as well as Germany have discovered in a major way.

Sebastian Heiduschke, a Center Research Fellow and OSU assistant professor of languages and literatures, is working on a book, From Boring to Booming: Fan Cultures of East Germany’s DEFA Cinema, aimed at increasing understanding of the traditions and legacy of East German films produced between 1946 and 1992. The book begins by describing how DEFA evolved as a production company following WWII, and how it ceased to exist when it was sold to a French investor in 1992.

During its years of operation as the sole film company in East Germany, DEFA produced 800 movies. But it was not until nearly a decade after unification, says Heiduschke, that “a process of historic reevaluation of postwar German history took place that resulted in critically acclaimed box office hits such as Good Bye, Lenin and Lives of Others.” In his book, Heiduschke will argue that “an in-depth analysis of this success will elucidate how audiences assimilated the memories evoked by films such as these in order to reevaluate historical events and reconstruct their reality.”

Because many of the DEFA films promoted official politics through a distorted view of the “better” of the two Germanys, said Heiduschke, East Germans shunned domestic film productions, so much so that party officials organized screenings in schools and factories to boost audience numbers.

“Thus, after unification in 1990, many scholars believed that DEFA films would not play a significant role in the merger of two distinct German cultures. Surprisingly, the exact opposite took place, and DEFA films became more popular than ever.”

DEFA films are now in high demand and are widely screened at German clubs and theaters as well as available on DVD. Their popularity is not limited to Germany. In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented 21 of the films as part of “Rebels with a Cause: The Cinema of East Germany.” In 2008, East Gemran director Rainer Simon toured 21 American universities screening his films, and in 2009, the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst collaborated with the Wende Museum in Los Angeles to release the film series, “Wende Flicks: Last Films from East Germany.”

Though a number of studies have been done on the popularity of DEFA films, Heiduschke’s is the first to address specifically the phenomenon of their success in the post-unification world. “In my book I show how the newly found success of DEFA films can be explained by paying close attention to their audiences, specifically looking at internet fan sites, audience participation in ‘fan meetings’—film clubs, film festivals, screenings with directors and stars present—and how DEFA fans celebrate the star cult, a phenomenon officially unknown in East Germany before 1990.”

Heiduschke is looking at both “passive” fans, those who merely view DEFA films at theaters and on television, and the active fans who “create an imagined DEFA community.” Much of his material is drawn from personal interviews with DEFA fans and 160 questionnaires he collected in Germany following film screenings over the course of a year.

The book will conclude with a look at the popularity of DEFA films outside Germany, particularly in the United States, “where such things as sales of T-Shirts from the Wende Flicks series and the popularity of an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 about a DEFA science-fiction film indicate growing interest.”