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Film History: An International Journal 18.1 (2006) 73-87

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Eastside stories:

Singing and dancing for socialism

Unlike West German film studios, which produced Schlagerfilme (popular music films) in abundance during the 1960s, the East German DEFA studios released only about a dozen musical films during the entire 45 years of its existence. These ranged from stage adaptations, such as opera and operetta, musicalpantomime (Der junge Engländer/The Young Englishman, Gottfried Kolditz, 1958), backstage musical(Meine Frau macht Musik/My Wife Wants to Sing, Hans Heinrich, 1958), and musical revue (Revue um Mitternacht/Midnight Revue, Gottfried Kolditz, 1962) to youth musical (Heißer Sommer/Hot Summer, Jo Hasler, 1968). In this essay I will discuss musicals set in the GDR with pop-music style tunes specially composed for the film (rather than pre-existing opera or operetta melodies), focusing on three domestic box office hits that span the period from the erection of the Berlin Wall to the Prague Spring.

Midnight Revue is a self-referential genre film set in the milieu of DEFA's own production studios. A backstage musical, it tells the story of four male DEFA employees – script editor, composer, author, and set designer – who are held hostage in a villa by a female assistant producer until they have completed a revue film that everybody likes. In a clever, tongue-in-cheek manner it addresses the dilemma of GDR filmmakers who were urged to produce popular entertainment films, only to be criticised when they actually submitted such projects on the grounds that these were not sufficiently realistic and meaningful. Geliebte weisse Maus (Beloved White Mouse, Gottfried Kolditz, 1964), a musical comedy, is a love story about a traffic policeman (the eponymous 'white mouse', a nickname referring to the white uniform these officers wear) and a female motorist, celebrating consumerism and modern lifestyle in the GDR against the backdrop of beautiful Dresden locations. Hot Summer, the first and only attempt at a youth musical by DEFA, revolves around the adventures of two groups of youths during their summer holidays at the Baltic Sea. In an allusion to West Side Story (Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, 1961), perhaps the best-known Hollywood youth musical about two warring gangs, Hot Summer has been called East Side Story. All three of these contemporary musicals set in the GDR proved to be immensely popular with domestic audiences. Why, then, is it that DEFA produced so few? One explanation lies in the status of the musical film genre in the history of German cinema. After taking over the UFA studios in Babelsberg, DEFA was anxious to make a clean break with UFA's tradition of glamorous spectacles and escapist entertainment films, as these were tainted by association with the Third Reich. Another reason for the scarcity of GDR musicals was the constant rivalry with West Germany, which produced predominantly light entertainment films during the 1950s and 1960s: each of the German states strove to define itself by that which the other was not.1

In the GDR cinema was perceived as a key player in the country's cultural self-definition, in evoking a distinct national identity and socialist way of life. Hence, in contrast to mainstream western cinema, DEFA films often tended to be set in unglamorous work-places such as factories, chemical plants, or construction sites, the 'centre-pieces of the construction of socialism' and 'battlefields of radical ideological change', as Alexander Abusch, the Deputy Minister for Culture, called them.2 Light entertainment films such as the Schlagerfilme, which made [End Page 73]

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Figure 1
Midnight Revue, title cover of Progress Distributor's film programme with stars Manfred Krug and Christel Bodenstein. [Private collection, Rinke.]
[End Page 74]

up a quarter of the entire West German film production of 1960, were dismissed as unserious and unhelpful in raising the consciousness of working-class men and women.3 Like Hollywood musicals, they were regarded as a particularly garish and offensive product of the capitalist pleasure machine, as purely escapist and therefore opposed to...


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