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  • Last Features: East German Cinema’s Lost Generation by Reinhild Steingröver
  • Seth Howes
Last Features: East German Cinema’s Lost Generation. Screen Cultures: German Culture and the Visual Series. By Reinhild Steingröver. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2014. Pp. 259. Cloth $85.00. ISBN 978-1571135551.

Toward the end of Last Features, her illuminating monograph on the last generation of East German filmmakers educated under the auspices of the DEFA studio system, Reinhild Steingröver discusses Peter Kahane’s insistently allegorical film Die Architekten (1990). Here she observes that the film “represents a critical and self-critical examination of the internal dynamics within the now vanished GDR, and specifically the DEFA studio as a micro-system within the larger apparatus” (215). With its emphasis on the frustrations and personal experiences of East German film-makers with bureaucratic constraints, this assessment recapitulates in microcosm the broader procedure of the book, which interweaves the consideration of biographical and institutional contexts with the analysis of cinematic texts.

Placing equal emphasis on reconstructing the conditions under which these “last features” were produced, and on analyzing the films themselves, Steingröver takes what she calls a “generational” approach to periodizing and analyzing careers of directors like Kahane, Peter Welz (Banale Tage, 1991), Herwig Kipping (Das Land hinter dem Regenbogen, 1991), Ulrich Weiß (Blauvogel, 1979), Egon Günther (Stein, 1991) and Jörg Foth (Letztes aus der DaDaeR, 1990), Helke Misselwitz (Sperrmüll, 1990, and Herzsprung, 1992), among others. Emerging from Steingröver’s archivally contextualized, fluid, and jargon-free readings of these films is the sense that they (and their directors) offer a minority report on the final years of East German communism, on the intransigencies of the DEFA administration, and on the social transformations of the Wende. As Steingröver puts it: “Taken together, the films discussed in this book [End Page 203] offer alternative views on life in the GDR and the unification process from within the GDR, which have mostly been ignored in what Thomas Ahbe calls the historical master narrative” (16)—the familiar story of the Berlin Republic, as told in literature and film, whose contours Ahbe, Martin Sabrow, Stephen Brockmann, Paul Cooke, and others have traced.

These films’ (and directors’) awareness of their own marginality to this master narrative, and their thematization of their own exclusion from prevailing historical and cultural discourses, organize the author’s approach to analyzing them in context. Thus while genre aspects, intertextuality, and subject matter are all considered, Steingröver suggests that the last features all articulate “resistance to demands for political or aesthetic conformism” (21), and elevates the identification of gestures of anticonformist resistance to the guiding theme of her book’s analyses. In the first chapter, readings of Günther’s Stein and Foth’s Letztes aus der DaDaeR emphasize the critical potential of humor—specifically of clowns, represented in Foth’s film by Steffen Mensching and Hans-Eckardt Wenzel; or of fools, represented by the titular character, played by Rolf Ludwig, in Günther’s—to register quite serious critique. Thus Stein uses formally challenging camerawork and oblique dialogue to thematize an artist’s decision between engagement and hermeticism, and Letztes aus der DaDaeR picks up this very question as the traffic of its own stage, “speak[ing] directly to Günther’s question on the use or futility of withdrawal and protest” (41). A younger filmmaker in Foth engages in cinematic dialogue with an older one in Günther, with a common problematic underlying the two films: the politics of aesthetics, the costs of participating in a too-rigid system as weighed against the personal price of silence.

Subsequent chapters proceed along similar lines. They examine filmmakers’ careers through the lens of thematic or stylistic conformity and contumacy, charting their productivity from their education within the DEFA system to their (frequently overlooked) post-Wende endeavors. Compelling connections are also made between the films at issue and more canonical or widely known works. In one chapter, the unusually experimental tendencies of Kipping’s work in Hommage à Hölderlin (1982) are juxtaposed with Kipping’s “nightmarish scenarios of violence and destruction” (91) in the post-Wall Das Land hinter dem...


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pp. 203-205
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