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  • Home sweet home:Desperately seeking Heimat in early DEFA films
  • Thomas Lindenberger (bio)

The classic Heimatfilm is well-known as a symbol of postwar reconstruction in West German society. From early on intellectual critics were accustomed to denouncing it as mainstream escapism driven by the desire to forget the rupture of civilisation, war, and total defeat. Filmic fantasies such as Schwarzwaldmädel (The Black Forest Girl, Hans Deppe, 1951) or Försterchristl (The Forester's Daughter, A.M. Rabenalt, 1952) restored the intact relation between nature and community. All manifestations of the twentieth century's catastrophes were conspicuously absent from the kaleidoscopic panoramas of high mountains and green heaths, farms and church spires, country attire ('Trachten') and decent rural dwellers. Plots were set either in a more remote past, in the 'good old times', or at a safe distance from the noisy, modern world.

This is more or less how contemporary film criticism and early film historiography wanted to see things.1 Meanwhile a more differentiated view now concedes that the tremendously popular Heimatfilm contributed to the economic survival of the domestic movie industry in times of Hollywood's European expansion. By negotiating seemingly perennial conflicts between town and countryside, poor and rich, strangers and locals, man and woman, old and young, and by leading them inevitably to a happy ending, these films were part of West Germany's accelerated modernisation under the conservative leadership of the Adenauer government. Johannes von Moltke highlights the ambivalence inherent in this 'nostalgic modernization', stating that 'the undeniable political conservatism of such films … consists not in its anti-modern stance, but in the selective embrace of the modern and in the mythologization of modernization as a process that ultimately does not threaten the underlying sense of continuity and Gemeinschaft [community]'.2 From this perspective Heimat served as a vehicle into the future rather than into the past. It spared spectators the pains of confronting openly a past that had been ruined once and for all, and it was therefore generally accepted as a popular genre.

The Heimatfilm genre as heir to the UFA entertainment tradition remained a specialty of West Ger-many's movie industry against which one could set the East German Gegenwartsfilm (contemporary social drama), DEFA's more didactic and ideologically transparent contribution to antifascist enlightenment, the fight against imperialist war-mongering, and socialist construction. Retrospectively, however, things were not yet so neatly divided between East and West during the early years of Germany's partition. While Germans were already living in polities opposed to each other by their founding constitutions, they nevertheless communicated with each other, both in private and in public. What was propagated aloud or silenced by the other side was closely followed and commented upon. Neither elites nor society at large considered the division of the nation final. Germany's future as one nation and her place in the postwar order was a contested issue, and this applied also to the political and economic ramifications of movie productions. [End Page 46]

One of the most contested issues was Ger-many's relation to the USA. The roles were fixed in a seemingly symmetric polarisation: Adenauer's policy of firm alliance with the US implicitly prioritised freedom over unity, while the SED (the East German unity party of communists and socialists) countered this relativisation of the nation with fierce nationalist rhetoric. If the Bonn government was collaborating with the colonial occupiers, the USA, then the SED was defending the fatherland, and this meant defending Heimat. Although they ranked behind the future orientation of the 'new' as the centre of gravity for socialist realism, Heimat values remained indispensable within the ideological universe of late Stalinism. Heimat in the traditional regionalist sense had a firm place in the SED's cultural policy already in the early fifties, long before the entire GDR was epitomised as a socialist Heimat of its own.

Three DEFA features explore the possibilities for articulating the Heimat motif during the early 1950s. Two of them, Das verurteilte Dorf (The Condemned Village, 1952) and Der Ochse von Kulm (The Ox from Kulm,1955), both directed by Martin Hell-berg, could be categorised as 'Heimat-ploitation'. They indulge in...


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