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  • Learning from the enemy:DEFA-French co-productions of the 1950s
  • Marc Silberman (bio)

Between 1956 and 1960 East Germany's state-owned film company DEFA released in relatively quick succession four major feature films co-produced with French companies. Although it also developed limited partnerships with West German, Swedish, and Italian production companies during the 1950s, the French initiatives seemed to have enjoyed a privileged status for the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Not only did negotiations involve high-ranking political authorities in East Berlin, but the productions also brought to the DEFA studios in Babelsberg, situated near Potsdam at the southwestern edge of (West) Berlin, some of France's best-known cinematic talent, including internationally celebrated film stars like Gérard Philipe, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Bernard Blier, and Jean Gabin. At the time the films enjoyed good runs both in the GDR and in France, although none of them were considered critical successes. Today they are largely forgotten, mentioned in film histories or memoirs only in passing and rarely included in retrospectives or otherwise available for distribution and screening. The four films to which I refer are: Gérard Philipe's Die Abenteuer des Till Ulenspiegel/Les Aventures de Till L'Espiègle (Till Ulen-spiegel's Adventures,also The Bold Adventure, 1956), Raymond Rouleau's Die Hexen von Salem/Les Sorcières de Salem (The Witches of Salem, also The Crucible, 1957), Jean-Paul Le Chanois's two-part Die Elenden/Les Misérables (1959), and Louis Daquin's Trübe Wasser/Les Arrivistes (Muddy Waters, 1960). Upon first encountering them, I surmised that their genealogy might somehow be linked to German communists in Paris exile during the 1930s who, upon returning to (East) Germany, renewed their contacts in order to introduce a more international flavour to DEFA's rather provincial production values. Although this conjecture was not entirely off the mark, in fact the storyis more complex and in its complexity reveals some striking insights into the interplay of cold-war politics, cultural policy, and film production in the GDR (and France) during the 1950s.

The scope of the co-productions

The DEFA-French cooperation constitutes no more than a footnote to the broader narrative of postwar European co-productions and in some ways follows similar conditions and constraints in terms of policies and expectations.1 After World War II bilateral cinema agreements among European partners were sought to offset the influx of American imports and the growing tendency of American majors themselves to capitalise on the relatively cheap labour of European studios through their own co-production agreements. France and Italy led the way with the result that about 30 per cent of France's annual movie output consisted of co-productions by the end of the 1950s. While France in fact had no bilateral cinema agreement with the GDR, nothing prevented a French producer from negotiating a 'co-participa-tion' contract with DEFA, whose considerable technical resources and politically over-determined economic strategy made for an attractive partner under certain circumstances.2

Typically such cooperative cinema projects draw on transnationaltraditions of popular and genre [End Page 21] cinema, e.g. adaptations of great works of literature, musical entertainment, or historical costume dramas constructed around great heroes. This was the case for the DEFA-French co-productions, although – as we shall see – the actual commitments and expectations of the respective partners rarely coincided. In the first co-production, Till Ulenspiegel is the legendary Flemish hero who fought for liberty and the national independence of the Low Countries from imperial Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, in a film adapted from the 1868 novel by Belgian writer Charles de Coster. The second film's titular 'witches of Salem' refer to a well-documented historical trial in seventeenth-century Massachusetts that Arthur Miller had dramatised successfully in 1953 under the title The Crucible, an allegory for the anti-communist 'witch hunts' of the McCarthy hearings in the United States Congress. Les Misérables became the fourth French cinematic remake of Victor Hugo's classic historical epic about the quest for justice by oppressed citizens in the first third of the nineteenth century. The final co-production was...


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