DEFA film stock “Preparing the DEFA inheritance for the future”

The new director of the DEFA foundation, Ralf Schenk.
The new director of the DEFA foundation, Ralf Schenk. | Photo (detail): © DEFA-Stiftung/Reinhardt und Sommer

After the former East German state-owned film studio DEFA was closed down, the organization’s entire film stock was passed on to the DEFA Foundation. Renowned journalist and new director of the foundation, Ralf Schenk, doesn’t just want to keep the archive alive, but also set it up for the future. An Interview with Goethe.de.

Mr. Schenk, has the entire DEFA film stock been catalogued at this point?

For the most part, yes. That is, all of the titles are known along with the names of the directors. We have the contents of the feature films and animated films, and even those of the foreign films that have been overdubbed here. We are still in the process of gathering information about the documentary films and in particular the newsreels from that time.

There are still loads of DEFA files in the Federal Archives. Are these also being made available by the foundation?

That is not exactly the DEFA Foundation's task. That is more of a job for the Federal Archives. More specifically, the Federal Film Archives deal directly with the film material and the Federal Archives store and work with the document files. There is still a lot of paperwork, yes, and it will take a long time to get through it. But regarding the documents that deal with the rights of authors or composers, for example, we have made it through most of that, which is important for TV broadcasting and for DVD production.

Progress-Filmverleih and Icestorm Entertainment published a number of DEFA works on DVD in recent years. Were they successful?

Icestorm has brought out about 200 feature films. The fairy tales and films with “Indians” (Native Americans) have done well.

Where and how can domestic and international markets get access to the DEFA films?

There are a number of events and projects that have been put on by the DEFA Foundation both here and abroad. One film series currently being put together with the Murnau Foundation in Wiesbaden, for example, is called Brüche und Kontinuitäten (lit. Disruptions and Continuities). It deals with the era before and after 1945, with directors who worked before the end of the war with the Third Reich and then with DEFA after the war ended. We also have partners who organize film series on their own with financial support from DEFA and then show the works in art-house cinemas around the country. Local theaters can also apply for money from the foundation to show certain film series and invite correspondents to the showings. That is a popular option at the moment. We are always joining forces with new partners such as the Federal Center for Political Education, with whom we are now working on a contract, or the Konrad Wolf University of Film and Television in Potsdam, which deals with more scientific material.

We also have contracts on an international level with various institutions, one very important one being with the Goethe-Institut. The University of Cypress, for example, will be showing a series of films in autumn this year and we are already in talks with Brazil for next year. Last year we were in India and this year in spring we went to Chile. There is also our work with the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The DEFA Film Library has been located there since the end of the 1980s and is responsible for providing important DEFA films with English subtitles – they have completed nearly 100 at this point – in order to make them available to universities and colleges in the USA.

Interest abroad for DEFA productions has been significant since they were made available after reunification. Has that interest remained constant?

Film always provides a sort of document of the times and the overall interest in learning more about German history is still pretty strong. In the USA, 15 publications were just put out including books, essays and the like, all of which dealt the subject of DEFA from a variety of perspectives. A professor in Rochester, New York, for example, did a piece on "reunification films". There are 26 films made exactly during the period when DEFA was shifting from a state-owned operation into a limited liability company. They were more or less ignored at the time despite the involvement of directors like Frank Beyer and Heiner Carow. When you see these films you can't stop watching because, just like the films of 1945/46, when DEFA was founded, they were created during a period when film history and contemporary history were so closely linked.

To your regret, German television isn't showing much interest in the DEFA film stock. Why is TV such an important partner for you?

It saddens me a bit that this German film legacy – and not just DEFA films – has more or less dropped completely out of the public television programming schedule. I wish TV would show more of it and in doing so contribute to the preservation of this heritage. If TV stations show these films, the revenues from that help us continue with our work. As a private foundation, we live solely off of the income generated by these partnerships to preserve these films, which means digitalizing them for the future. That is my job: to maintain interest in this legacy as well as to awaken renewed interest in it.