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In recent years, two films - Goodbye, Lenin! (2003) and The Lives of Others (2006) - have rekindled interest in the cinema of the former East Germany. Although these two films were made long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they bring alive the fascinating paradox of life in the German Democratic Republic, which was so close to the West yet so firmly controlled by its Communist government. Now, the films of the GDR are being celebrated in a festival at the Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv Cinematheques, starting this week. More than 15 movies from the GDR will be shown and several filmmakers will be on hand to discuss their work.
Films in East Germany were produced by a single studio, DEFA, a national film company located on the outskirts of Berlin. Although most of the 700 feature films and thousands of documentaries produced by DEFA never made it the West, they had a tremendous impact at home. Now that it has been nearly 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell, this festival, called Black and White Does Not Equal Gray: German Cinema behind the Iron Curtain, offers a glimpse at a world that shaped the contemporary Germany but is unknown to most of those outside its borders.
The festival begins in Jerusalem Sunday night at 9 p.m. with the 1966 The Trace of Stones, directed by Frank Beyer. This film, considered one of the most important DEFA films of the Sixties, was released briefly when it was first made, then banned for 25 years. It tells the story of a construction foreman who is well-respected by his men for his honesty. When construction supplies become scarce, a young female technician and a party secretary arrive at the site to supervise it. A power struggle develops between the foreman and the party functionary both personally and professionally as they vie for control of the site and the affections of the technician. Like many of the most successful DEFA films, this one is a metaphor for larger tensions in the country and the regime felt threatened by it. Actress Jutta Hoffmann will attend the screening.
The 1966 film, Karla, directed by Herrmann Zschoche, had a similar history. The story of a young teacher who encourages her students to speak honestly about taboo topics, the film was banned until 1990. Dr. Ofer Ashkenazi of the Hebrew University will talk about the film before it is screened.
The Architects (1990), about an architect who becomes obsessed with building a miniature city during the last days of the Communist regime, will be screened in the presence of Peter Kahane, its director.
Screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase will be present at a screening of his film, Berlin - Schonhauser Corner. Made in 1957, it tells the story of rebellious young people. The filmmakers were rebuked by the government for emphasizing, "negative problematic images of our life," but the film was a huge hit with moviegoers, 1.5 million of whom saw the film just after its release.
Director Volker Koepp will discuss his documentary film, Leben in Wittstock, a look at the lives of female textile workers in a plant near Berlin during a period of nearly 20 years.
Several of the films deal with the specter of the Holocaust, notably the 1962 The Second Track, by Joachim Kunert. It concerns a station inspector on the railway line who is tormented by his memories of the Nazi era and his failure to take a stand against the persecution he witnessed. The 1946 film, Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Among Us, the first film made at DEFA, looks at a doctor who returns from the war and takes refuge in a half-destroyed apartment. Broken by what he has seen, he lacks the energy to rebuild the place. Then the apartment's owner, a young woman who was sent to a concentration camp for being a Communist, returns and invites the doctor to stay on. Meanwhile, the traumatized doctor locates his former commander, now a wealthy businessman, and plots to kill him.
The issues raised by these films continue to haunt contemporary Germany, as The Lives of Others showed so compellingly. These films from East Germany illuminate that country's troubled past and shed light on the European present.
The festival runs through the end of the month.