Take a trip into political art history: the state-run East German film company DEFA uses the experiences of Communist artists to promote the party line and educate young people on the sacrifices of the past. Some of the personal stories are incredible, and the art covered is indeed very impressive — writers, illustrators, a cartoonist, a film director, an actor, a journalist. It’s interesting to see what the films choose to emphasize and what they choose to ignore.
Arts in Exile: Nine East German Shorts on Artists Forced to Flee the Nazis
DEFA Stiftung / Progress Film GmbH, DEFA Film Library UMass Amherst / Icestorm / Goethe Institut
2015 / B&W & Color
1:33 flat full frame / 204 min.
Kunst im Exil
Street Date September, 2015 available through DEFA Film Library / 39.95
I’ve been privileged to review many DEFA Film Library disc releases of productions from East Germany, the German Democratic Republic. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall one could feel suspect just for being curious about the kinds of films made behind what we called the Iron Curtain. There was indeed plenty of loaded political content in the cinema put out by East Germany, at the time the most authoritarian and inflexible regime in the Soviet bloc. The half-truths and self-serving simplifications in some of the films are pretty hard to miss, as is a frequent lack of subtlety.
Americans’ awareness of what the arts were like in Germany is probably limited as well — not that many Americans have seen the successful export thriller The Lives of Others, which shows the oppressive and corrupt system of the GDR crushing the creativity of Eastern German playwrights, authors and actors. But many of the German artists that fled the country to escape the Nazis, later returned voluntarily to the Eastern GDR. The image we have here that every East German was desperate to escape is simply not true.
The subject that’s avoided is anti-Semitism. Although most of the men profiled were Jews threatened because of their faith, the shows downplay that aspect. The emphasis is instead placed on the communist struggle against Nazi persecution. In the final analysis, the viewpoint favors elements supporting the state’s ideological messages in the ‘workers’ paradise.’
The experts studying and restoring the legacy of DEFA, the state-run East German film studio, have turned their attention to nine short documentaries about noted East German artists. The films of Arts in Exile: Nine East German Shorts on Artists Forced to Flee the Nazis take on a variety of styles and approaches, but most share a common agenda. They first honor men considered cultural treasures, elder or deceased artists supported and encouraged by the state. Many were around for the failed Communist rebellion of 1919, and many documented or commented on social conditions from an antifascist viewpoint. Numbering among them are poets, graphic artists, a photographer, a film director, an actor and a journalist.
The films span the years from 1962 through 1989, right up to the end. In some but not all cases, the more recent the film, the less insistent is its message. A few contrive to show the ‘elder artist’ mingling with young art students, or just children. The powers that be in East Germany wanted new generations to fixate on the dark chapters of the past. The horrors of the war were never allowed to fade, so as to point up the necessity of everyone to keep fighting fascism, now defined as American aggression. These artists provide continuity links with that narrative. Outside of the history books and newsreel films, their work is in many cases the existing narrative of the ongoing ideological struggle.
But a film about an artist is going to be a film about people. The majority of these pictures have a warm human element. Since the work of these men — no women are represented — mostly agreed with the spirit of government policies, some of them realized rewarding artistic lives, fully supported by the state.
Arnold Zweig (Joop Huisken, 1962)
“Zweig works against the racial hate in the West,” says the narrator, and while we watch the kindly old man in the B&W footage, we hear his life story fighting injustice and fascism since 1914. The point is later made that Zweig identified himself very strongly as Jewish, but these state films give value to antifascist efforts while ignoring the contentious Jewish issue. We’re told that the authorities championed Zweig because his work wasn’t avant-garde. The fact that he was a close associate of Sigmund Freud isn’t mentioned. 19 min.
Malik (Giovanni Angella, 1967)
This is a straight docu about a left-wing publishing house founded in the 1920s, which specialized in promoting radical art movements like Dada, and the progressive, volatile work of artist George Grosz. The art was politically active, as were the novels they translated, by authors like John Dos Passos and Upton Sinclair. We see a lot of interesting graphic work and book cover designs, as well as some Nazi propaganda directly addressing Malik. One poster featuring a German flag says, “In My House Come no Malik Books!” 18 min.
Leo Haas: Artist and Witness of His Times (Jörg d’Bomba, 1971)
This film is in East German “Orwo Color,” which looks very good, with richly nuanced hues. Art students might like this short subject the best — Leo Haas is a little man with a big personality, who draws very good cartoons. He survived Auschwitz by helping to counterfeit British currency, as shown in the movie The Counterfeiters. He’s even more famous for documenting ghetto life as a prisoner in the Theresienstadt, hiding his art, and retrieving it after the war and. His work is one of the few visual records of life in that concentration camp. Many of Haas’ political cartoons will shock sheltered Americans who were protected from such disturbing images. Large magazine covers show Eisenhower and his happy generals planting hundreds of American flags on a globe, etc. Haas’ artistry is as sharp as his sense of humor. His message is humanism for the working class, and his potent wit is definitely a weapon of the Cold War. In person, Haas and his wife are delightful. We find that she survived being buried alive by a wartime bombing. The movie also shows endearing shots of Haas talking to children. I froze the frame to examine individual political cartoons. 13 min.
Slatan Dudow: A Film Essay about a Marxist Artist (Volker Koepp, 1974)
Slatan Dudow’s importance stemps from a film he made in Berlin with Bertolt Brecht, just as the Nazis came to power, called Kuhle Wampe or, Who Owns the World? I’ve reviewed it at Savant. Dudow died in 1963 but we get to see clips of his films, including some staged ‘behind the scenes’ footage showing him greeting a famous author. This short subject is a more or less straight biography, with a couple of relatives chiming in about Dudow. More than we expect, the narration keeps coming back to the idea that Dudow’s prime motivation was to dramatize class conflict and the plight of the workers. The docu slams Metropolis for its inane image of capitalist-labor reconciliation. Dudow’s work is likened to that of the earlier Russian masters, but there’s not much of a comparison. 29 min. Note: I didn’t find a good selection of photos for this review, so the image below is from Kuhle Wampe.
Even Today He’d Speak His Mind (Volker Koepp, 1975)
Family and friends remember Erich Weinert, who would seem the perfect picture of a Marxist cheerleader. The socialist activist and poet was apparently the eternal spokesman for the cause, no matter the personal risk. A woman remembers that Weinert was too agitated to calmly eat in a bourgeois café, as he needed to be forever lecturing, educating, changing minds. In almost every photo he’s on his feet speaking to a crowd. Not just a talker, Weiner volunteered with the International Brigades in Spain and barely escaped with his life.
Walter Ballhause: One Among Millions (Karlheinz Mund, 1982)
This is a very satisfying show, as photographer Ballhause is alive to talk about his work, attend exhibitions and even look at the efforts of young student photographers. Ballhause was one of the army of the unemployed in Hanover when he began furtively snapping stills of street life among his peers. He got so good at it that when the Nazis moved in he was able to document their public appearances. Anybody would admire his work — we see a great many candid but beautifully composed images. Imprisoned during the war, Ballahause survived the Nazis because a bombing raid blew up the office holding his papers — which presumably would have ordered his execution. 21 min.
Do You Know Where Herr Kisch Is? (Eduard Schreiber, 1985)
This one is interesting but not that easy to follow. It’s a partly stylized attempt to nail down the elusive ‘racing reporter’ Egon Kisch, who became politicized in WW1 and spoke on behalf of leftist causes around the world. Schreiber’s film concentrates on a mystery man who seemed able to flit in and out of countries across the globe, even in the middle of the war. We see photos of Kisch in various places but supposedly just reporting, not giving speeches. We also see him back in Prague as a witness at the hanging of a government official condemned as being a Nazi, or just pro-Nazi. Much of the film is paced like a mystery, with color footage taken with a Steadicam rig, cruising through narrow corridors in buildings in Prague, trying to keep up with a shadowy figure in a dark coat and hat. In one shot we can see a famous castle (?) in the background, which appears to be the landmark seen in Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! 19 min.
Erich Fried: The Whole World Should Endure (Roland Steiner, 1988)
Erich Fried looks like the nicest guy of the bunch. A political poet who later specialized in love poetry, he’s an exception in that he didn’t return to his native Austria, but took citizenship in London and was at times critical of some policies of the GDR. We see Fried at home, dealing with his relatives, some of them Britons; we see him collecting castoff materials and tinkering with an electric typewriter. Received warmly at a literary gathering he expresses a split opinion of the present state of Communism. The woman bestowing his prize then says that she disagrees with him completely — he’s anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. But everybody loves Fried’s gentle verse. If this movie were made at an earlier, his ‘narrative’ might have ended after his struggle with the Nazis.
Traces (Eduard Schreiber, 1989)
This last entry carries a feeling of finality. It shows actor Martin Brandt, who in the 1930s joined the Jewish Cultural Federation, an acting group tolerated — for a short time — by the Nazis, and dramatized in the fine DEFA film The Actress. Brandt is the last surviving member of the theater group. He escaped into exile at almost the last moment in 1941, became an actor in Hollywood and ironically plays a Nazi war criminal in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg. We see Brandt in his modest room, and also reciting lines from a play; intercut are old photos of the Berlin he once knew. Meanwhile, demolition equipment is dismantling sections of Hitler’s blasted bunker, just a few yards away from a modern street.
The DEFA Film Library’s DVD set of Arts in Exile: Nine East German Shorts on Artists Forced to Flee the Nazis is an excellently curated group of films — tightly organized around a theme but offering a great deal of variety both in tone and style. The restored transfers are flawless. The color films look as new as those in B&W, and only occasional older stock shots and film clips show generational loss.
The second disc contains a number of DVD-R .pdf documents. Biographies and filmographies are provided for the directors of the shorts — Eduard Schreiber, Giovanni Angella, Joop Huisken, Jörg d Bomba, Karlheinz Mund, Roland Steiner and Volker Koepp. Three essays are also included. Hltrud Schulz of the DEFA Film Library interviews director Eduard Schreiber in Painting with a Lens: Artists’ Film Portraits. Schreiber says that Martin Brandt was actually blind when his short subject was filmed.
A longer essay by Seán Allan called Exile: Nine Variations on a Theme points up aspects of the artists in exile not made obvious in the films themselves. Many returning Jews thought East Germany would be more welcoming because of its official line, only to find that Stalin favored only those Jews that actively resisted the Nazis. Although most of the artists were Jewish the East Germans wanted that aspect played down. We also learn that Arnold Zweig first went to West Germany, only for the British sector to refuse to return his house, which the Nazis had confiscated years before. The East Germans offered him a house, and he went to the other side. Basically, the GDR was willing to support artists that were in sync with the State; while the free enterprise system in the West expected artists to pay their own way like anyone else.
Director Roland Steiner offers his memories of the great poet in a short monograph, Erich Fried: Father or Brother? Fried only agreed to be in Steiner’s film because it was to be made by East Germans, to be shown to an East German audience. The poet’s comments critical to the state were tolerated because the East German government was already all but finished, and there was little point in suppressing it.
Arts in Exile:
Nine East German Shorts on Artists Forced to Flee the Nazis
Movies: Very Good — Excellent
Sound: Excellent (German language)
DVD/Rom text supplements: Biographies and filmographies; essays: Exile: Nine Variations on a Theme by Seán Allan, Univ. of Warwick, Painting with a Lens: Artists’ Film Portraits 2015 interview with director Eduard Schreiber, Erich Fried: Father or Brother? by director Roland Steiner.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, removable
Packaging: 2 DVD discs in keep case
Reviewed: September 25, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson