Film History: An International Journal 18.1 (2006) 88-103
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Realism and romance in the East German Cinema, 1952–1962
John Griffith Urang
In Gerhard Klein and Wolfgang Kohlhaase's 1965 film Berlin um die Ecke (Berlin around the Corner) Horst, a young East Berliner, reminisces about his short stay in the West: 'I went to the movies every day', he says, 'sometimes twice. And not like the flicks we have here: Lovers doing self-critique' ('Liebespaar macht Selbstkritik'). Horst's sneering appraisal of the East German film studios' inferiority rests on their inability to produce a convincing love story. DEFA's couples, it seems, are interested more in principles than in passion. Indeed, Horst's statement captures a sense felt by many audiences of early East German movies: there is something de facto unromantic about these productions. This is not to say there were no love plots during this period. As a March 1953 editorial in Neues Deutschland pointed out: 'There is hardly a film made by DEFA in which love relationships do not play a thematic role'.1 Yet something feels amiss in these love stories: they seem uncomfortably suspended between genres, stranded halfway between realism and romance.
The following investigation explores this intuition, examining the fraught ambivalence around the treatment of romantic plots in 1950s East German film culture. The changing fortunes of East German romance reveal the inconsistency of an uncharacteristically erratic party line. In the early part of the decade GDR cultural policy underwent an extensive revision, reversing the mandate of cultural producers overnight while insisting that the underlying principles remained the same. This drift – in fact a fairly precipitous slide – toward a romantic model associated more with Lubitsch than with Lenin did not just represent a capitulation to the West or a concession to the demands of GDR audiences, but rather it marked an internal rift in the ideological self-under-standing of the socialist party (SED).
If the cultural climate of the GDR's socialist construction phase (the late 1940s and early 1950s) was inherently inhospitable to the flowering of romance, this seems most readily attributable to a contradiction between the traditions of romantic narrative and the demands of doctrinal socialist realism. Whereas the former insists on narrative and ideological autonomy, on what Piotr Fast in a short but evocative chapter on romantic conventions in Soviet socialist realism calls the 'autotelicity' of love, the latter by definition 'evaluates the individual, particular experience of reality from the standpoint of the future [socialist] society'.2 In the early 1950s even love stories are subject to socialist realism's characteristic politicisation of any and all intimate interpersonal ties; here, desire is cut to the measure of politics.
Roman einer jungen Ehe (Story of a Young Couple, 1952), directed by Kurt Maetzig and written by Maetzig and Bodo Uhse, exemplified this dynamic. The 'young couple' in the title are Jochen (Hans-Peter Thielen) and Agnes (Yvonne Merin), struggling actors in post-war Berlin. While Jochen drifts into the not-so-successfully denazified West German theatre scene, Agnes inclines toward the East, working on a highly political – and in Jochen's eyes shamelessly propagandistic – film project. Eventually the political divisions between Agnes and [End Page 88] Jochen become too great, and they file for divorce. A last-minute courtroom reconciliation, however, saves their marriage – just in time for the opening celebration of the Stalinallee, a newly designed grand boulevard in the classical Stalinist style of the 1950s, intended to be the cynosure of socialist East Berlin.
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| Figure 1 |
Agnes (Yvonne Merin) and Jochen (Hans-Peter Thielen), the 'young couple' of Kurt Maetzig's Roman einer jungen Ehe (Story of a Young Couple, 1952), share a romantic moment. Their marriage barely survives the political pressures of Cold-War Berlin. [Photo courtesy of Film museum Potsdam/DEFA-Kilian.]
Though its plot revolves around the young couple's courtship, break-up, and reunion, Story of a Young Couple differs from conventional filmic love stories in an important respect...