Hollywood Behind the Wall. The Cinema of East Germany

Daniela Berghahn,
Hollywood Behind the Wall. The Cinema of East Germany.
Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
ISBN: 1 7190 6172 5
£16.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Manchester University Press)

Eastern European cinema has always reminded me a little of the old children’s game, What’s the time, Mister Wolf? If you know that game, you’ll know it’s all a matter of stealth; players see how far they can creep up on the blind side of the nominated ‘wolf’ figure. Before perestroika, things were much the same for film-makers in the Eastern bloc, but for real. From time to time, entire generations of film talents attempted to avoid the totalizing gaze of the Soviet ideological machine and edge towards artistic freedom. Their success varied from country-to-country – but only slightly. As Daniela Berghan’s impressive book demonstrates, the film-makers of East Germany shared the general fate of having to kowtow to the intractable tenets of Socialist Realism.

Berghahn does well to remind us that Socialist Realism (a.ka. Zhadonivism after its primary thinker) was created with apparent “democratic and emancipatory desire”. Nonetheless, it was barmy and irrational stuff, which spoke fully of Stalin’s paranoiac zeal to eradicate ambiguity from Soviet cultural life and thereby compel art to become the docile servant of the socialist project. As Berghahn observes, East German film-makers seemed to be better placed than most to side-step the centralised aesthetic doctrine; up until the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, East Germany felt a strong cultural kinship with the West and artistic cross-pollination was common.

Nonetheless, Hollywood Behind the Wall demonstrates that the Eastern influences generally held sway over the film-makers at the state-owned DEFA studios. Like their contemporaries in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere, East German film-makers enjoyed temporary moments of relative freedom (not least in the wake of Stalin’s death). Nevertheless, successive East German leaders were able to use various instruments of the state – principally the Hauptverwalting Film (Central film administration) – to keep filmmakers firmly in place.

Hollywood Behind the Wall commences with a detailed overview of the state mechanisms which compelled East German filmmakers for over forty years. This provides a secure basis for the subsequent analysis of East German film creativity organised around four basic themes: anti-fascist films, costume drama, banned films and women on film. Some may argue that this structure means that Berghan is unable to compare like with like (genre-based criticism occurs alongside institution-based analysis). Certainly, there are moments – notably within the “costume” section – where the text seems a little over-determined by critical orthodoxies. However, by the end, one feels convinced that Berghan has in some sense worked with the filmmakers, understanding their priorities and always empathising with their plight.

I would say that this book has several distinct strengths. To begin with, Berghan demonstrates a fluid yet disciplined approach to history. Analyses of post-war East European cinema are particularly susceptible to the “one damn thing after another” approach to history. Berghan avoids this pitfall by demonstrating points of artistic and ideological continuity. At the same time, crucial political moments, such as Erich Honecker’s speech to the Eleventh Plenum, are rightly allowed to migrate between chapters. Better still, Berghan’s assured textual analyses means that the reader always feels a keen sense of the effects of state film policy on patterns of production and reception. Overall, Berghan’s confident approach to both contextual and textual matters results in a work which is never purely reflectionist, but which demonstrates the perennial sense of “push and pull” between state and film artist in East Germany.

I would have very few criticisms to make of Hollywood Behind the Wall. At times, Berghan’s nerve seems to fail her, with the result that she tends to fall back upon the opinions of others. This is usually unnecessary given her obvious talent as a film historian. I also felt that certain points of German history could have been spelt out in greater detail for the benefit of non-specialist readers. However, Hollywood Behind the Wall succeeds in its aims. It is an insightful book which provides a sober but generous appraisal of East German cinema. Berghan never allows her revisionist sensibilities to cloud her judgement; not once is it suggested, for example, that East German filmmakers created a substantial new wave of the kind experienced in Czechoslovakia. At the same time, Berghan encourages the reader to reappraise the “lost” works of East Germany, such as Frank Beyer’s Jacob the Liar (East Germany/Czechoslovakia 1975) and Egon Gunther’s When you are grown up, dear Adam (1966). She also communicates a laudable enthusiasm for the oft reviled nostalgie (nostalgia) films such as Sun Alley (Germany 1997) and Goodbye Lenin (Germany 2003).

It is easy, perhaps, to stereotype the precepts of socialist realism. They existed, after all, to stereotype art. But the film historian should look beyond the rhetoric, ill-defined as it was, to sense the human pulse which lay beneath film-making in Eastern Europe during the pre-Glasnost era. Hollywood Behind the Wall does this. In the process, it tells us much about East Germany’s relationship with the Soviet Union, with Germany and, above all, with itself.

Laurie N Ede,
University of Portsmouth, UK.

Created on: Thursday, 9 November 2006 | Last Updated: 9-Nov-06

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

About the Author

Laurie N. Ede

Laurie N. Ede is a Principal Lecturer in Film, Media and Applied Writing at the University of Portsmouth.View all posts by Laurie N. Ede →