This month I started my PhD and though I felt completely daunted I decided to get a head start with my writing. My PhD is titled ‘Ein Frauenparadies: A gendered analysis of the social care system in the German Democratic Republic, 1970-1990.’ Part of my methodology involves using film and television and this post will introduce some of the main themes developing from my research, namely discussing two types of women that emerged from East German cinema of the 1970s and 1980s; socialist models and outsiders.
In January 1946 the East German state-owned film company, Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft (DEFA), was founded amidst post-war destruction and decay. The film company’s initial productions, the Trümmerfilme (rubble films), of the 1940s and 1950s dealt with the Nazi past presenting clear cut lines between the evils of Nazism and the inevitable victory of Socialism. In the 1960s women’s film developed as a genre in both East and West Germany latterly as Frauenfilme while the former came under the rubric of Gegenwartsfilme (films about contemporary society). Of the ninety films in this genre around half featured a female protagonist explaining the genre’s association with women. With the Berlin Wall’s construction in 1961 East Germans were safely enclosed inside socialist walls and the party leadership encouraged, to an extent, Gegenwartsfilme to address contemporary issues in East Germany. The films were a departure from employing the audio-visual as an educational tool, instead the films depicted societal conflicts that East German citizens could identity in their everyday lives.
The development of West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt’s, Ostpolitik in 1969 led to the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) recognition as a sovereign state, which ushered in a period of liberalisation in the arts under Erich Honecker’s leadership. In 1971, Honecker famously declared in his speech at the 8th Party Congress there should be ‘no taboos’ in the GDR’s cultural production providing work was produced from a socialist standpoint. However, this attitude was short lived; from 1973 tensions over cultural freedoms were evident in the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) reaction to the 1973 hit Die Legende von Paul und Paula. The ‘no taboos’ attitude was finally reined in in the form of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann’s expatriation after his alleged slandering of the socialist republic on West German television. Conversely, following the Biermann affair, DEFA underwent a time of appeasement realising East German audiences, as well as their film-makers, had to be lured from West German cinema. In this atmosphere, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a burst of female led Gegenwartsfilme such as Sabine Wulf (1978), Bis dass Tod euch scheidet (1979) and Solo Sunny (1980). Cultural production of the 1980s was, however, characterised by repression heralded by a letter from a concerned citizen printed in party newspaper, Neues Deutschland, criticising contemporary film which was shockingly similar to the language and style of Honecker.
Female led films were common in the Gegenwartsfilme genre where women were often evidenced as proof of the GDR’s existing gender equality through their agency, personal relationships and financial independence. In the character of Sonja (Bis dass der Tod euch scheidet), a suitable life plan is presented for East German women; Sonja marries young, has a child soon after (while planning for more) and hopes to return to work quickly to contribute to society. Strictly following a book gifted by her boss, Sonja ensures she raises her child properly, keeps her house in order and has dinner ready for her husband’s arrival home. It is her husband, Jens, who forces her to act outside the rules set in her guidebook. Sonja is unable to return to work owing to her husband’s refusal and she has an abortion after her husband continues to beat her and drink heavily. In the scene where Jens confronts Sonja about the abortion, she asserts her agency while also asserting the emancipation the GDR provided her as a woman:
Jens: “Whose child was it?”
Sonja: “A drunkard’s! An abuser’s! Yours!”
Jens: “Who gave you the right?!”
Sonja: “The law! My law! Mine!”
(Bis dass der Tod euch scheidet, Heiner Carow, 1979)
The 1979 production reflected the practice of portraying women as progressive and men as regressive. In Sonja’s character we learn women can have a family, a job, educational opportunities and importantly autonomy over their bodies. Although reactions to the abortion from Jens and Sonja’s mother reveals abortion was a last resort in any case, only acceptable in this situation owing to the bad, and, un-socialist behaviour of the husband. Discussing the film, Unser kurzes Leben (1981), Andrea Rinke argues men in East German cinema were often portrayed as lost characters lacking ambition, whereas women were enthusiastic examples for men to follow. The main character in this film, Franziska, skirts between the socialist model and outsider. On the one hand, she is highly qualified and passionate in her role as an architect part of the GDR’s housing mission, but she also questions the status quo. Franziska disagrees with her boss, and other male colleagues, on the purpose of the Plattenbau (high-rise) communities if they have lack cultural centres. Critique of the project is further evidenced in a rape committed on their construction site which Franziska feels solely responsible. However, because of her middle position between socialist model and outsider her character conveys that critique within socialist society can be a force for good. Discussing her idea to re-design Neustadt with her boss Franziska suggests working together can produce something new:
Franziska: “I don’t mean to insult you…I just want to start a dialogue. Maybe we can come up with new ideas, discover new opportunities and a few innovations.”
(Unser kurzes Leben, Lothar Warneke, 1981)
According to Rinke, because women were seen as unthreatening in the GDR’s patriarchal order they could ‘safely’ offer criticism of socialist society. In polar opposite order from Sonja and Franziska is Sunny (Solo Sunny) who represents the popular female outsider character in GDR film. The film introduces Sunny, an aspiring singer, as a non-conformist character after receiving a police complaint from her neighbours owing to her loud music and late nights entertaining men. Sunny acts like a ‘diva’, she is always wearing high heels and provocative clothing which has led Larson Powell to question whether Sunny’s aesthetic could be described as queer. Sunny stands in stark contrast to Sonja’s character; she engages in one-night stands who she refuses to talk to the following morning. All three characters reveal the prevalence of sexual violence in the GDR as all three films either refer to the threat of rape or the crime takes place on screen suggesting a wider problem within socialist society. In encounters with sexual violence, Sunny refuses to be objectified revealing her agency, “if you want to hit me, you’ll have to beat me to death.” In further contrast to Sonja, Sunny’s accepting of Harry’s marriage proposal only comes after her failed solo career and attempted suicide. Sunny remains silent while Harry discusses the prospect of marriage revealing her bitter acceptance of societal norms.
Source: Solo Sunny, Konrad Wolf, 1980. Image available via https://www.defa-stiftung.de/
Though Sunny’s character could be read as non-conformist therefore acting as a critique of socialist society, the film’s director, Konrad Wolf, explained Sunny alerted socialist society to the fact that it could not operate “…without the conscious, careful and patient fostering of the individual’s personality and his/her claim to self-fulfilment.” DEFA studio director, Hans Dieter Mäde, insisted that the film’s less than perfect depiction of gender relations was only related to the “shady world of show business” and Sunny revealed socialist women’s position as “emancipated and self-confident.” The film was extremely popular with East German women; writing to an East German newspaper one female reader described feeling inspired by Sunny and her “refusal to give in and her insistence on staying who she is.” In this way the film can be read as offering East German women, and young people in general, the chance to explore their personalities and different life paths.
If you are interested in East German cinema, check out DEFA’s online film library: https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/
Several archival materials are also available online (in German): http://www.filmarchives-online.eu/partners/defa-stiftung
Additionally, many of DEFA’s films can be found with English subtitles here: https://www.kanopy.com/
Anna McEwan is a first year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, she is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Scottish Graduate School. Her research specifically considers gendered citizenship and the relationship between Communist regimes social welfare systems and women’s political loyalty to these regimes.
See Chapter 2: Andrea Rinke, Images of Women in East German Cinema: Socialist models, private dreamers and rebels, (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006).
 The Hubert Vater Brief: Vater, allegedly a chief mechanic in a car manufacturing combine, wrote a letter to Neues Deutschland complaining about the depiction of GDR society in film. He believed films should focus on the GDR’s successes for example, their housing programme. The letter, which was widely interpreted as written by Erich Honecker, resulted in film-makers often self-censoring their works. If they chose to experiment they could be stopped by bad reviews, personal rebukes and marginal distribution of their films.
 Andrea Rinke, Images of Women in East German Cinema, p. 130.
 Ibid, p. 139.
 Larson Powell, ‘Nostalgia as Reflexive Commodity Form: The Impossible Star’ in Kyle Frackman and Faye Stewart (eds), Gender and Sexuality in East German Film: Intimacy and Alienation, (New York: Camden House, 2018), p. 150.
 Andrea Rinke, Images of Women in East German Cinema, p. 185.
 Ibid, p. 198.
 Ibid, p. 202.