- The Story of a Young Couple (Roman einer jungen Ehe), and: A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze)
These two historical relics of the only film production organization of the now defunct German Democratic Republic have been available on VHS from the same source for over a decade but are now being promoted to the “permanence” of the digital format. The validation entailed by the transfer to disc is well deserved, for both are gems for the historian, the historical sociologist, and the film buff alike. The Story of a Young Couple (1952) and A Berlin Romance (1956) have much to share with contemporary audiences, representing as they do distant voices from across a vast frontier of decades passed, landscapes faded and governments discharged. Like all of the DEFA films available, in their images and sounds these films represent uniquely and invaluably the remaining shadow of the challenges and complexity of life and culture in the former GDR.
The Story of a Young Couple is an especially vivid example of DEFA propaganda cinema at the point of the Cold War when Stalinism was firmly establishing its grip on the artistic ethos of the GDR. The credits-over opening shots of Agnes Sailer making her way through a rubble-reduced East Berlin orients the audience to Germany at zero-hour, signifying the end and beginning of a nation’s history. The romantic relationship between Agnes and Jochen Karsten is completely acquiescent (incidental, really) to the greater narrative of the film: the choices, commitment and sacrifices that should, and must, be made in constructing a new socialist society. Indeed, the strain that Agnes and Jochen’s relationship is to endure is emphasized in the film as being rooted in their varying degrees of dedication to a socialist future for East Germany. While the unsullied and beatific Agnes displays the idealism and moral steadfastness of “chaste, pure and healthy” socialist art in her dedication to a collective future, her husband Jochen is a careerist actor and absent the ethical focus of Agnes leaving him full of doubt and prey to the inevitably underhanded business practices which increase in frequency with success in a capitalist market. To underscore this instruction, an elemental subplot of the film is the building of the Stalin-Allee, where the constructiveness of mutual aid and community service results in genuine personal fulfillment for Agnes as and is contrasted against the destructive forces of ego-driven wrangling, moral hypocrisy and compromise as depicted in the theater world of West Berlin.
As Katrin Sieg of Georgetown University states in her succinct notes, the discussions of art and theater that take place in the film illustrate the standard Stalinist concepts of cultural politics prevailing in the early to mid 50s. The Story of a Young Couple, while projecting narrow and politically motivated attitudes towards Western theater – Sartre’s play The Dirty Hands is dismissed by Agnes in disgust as [End Page 86] “cold, dirty and heartless” while Carl Zuckmayer’s drama The Devil’s General is characterized in the film as a purely apologetic view of the Nazi military – this nonetheless allows the audience a rare vantage point into the “salon” chatterings of artists and actors of the period. In this vein, particularly interesting are the conversations (and minor subplot) revolving around Hartmann, a director sympathetic to the Nazis, (modeled after Veit Harlan, director of the infamous Jud Süss) which demonstrates, unusual for DEFA films, an East German perspective on the debates surrounding artists complicit in Nazi policies.
A Berlin Romance also thematizes its characters disillusionment with the West. Here West Berlin is depicted as ruthlessly capitalistic and exploitive; indifferent to human concern. The free-for-all market lures the young from the Eastern sector with promises of sensational opportunities and glamour that, in the end, it is unable to deliver. The film is often visually arresting for its on-location shooting...