Women Directors of the DEFA

Helke Misselwitz: Who is Afraid of the Bogey Man? Helke Misselwitz: Who is Afraid of the Bogey Man? © DEFA-Stiftung, Thomas Plenert

With this series, comprising three feature and four documentary films, we take a look at how women directors working for the DEFA (German Film Corporation, Ltd, 1946 – 1990/1992), East Germany's state-owned production company, represented life in the GDR and under what conditions they could made their films.

Please find a full list of the screenings in this series below with links to more information.

About the Programme

While Ingrid Reschke’s feature film Do you Know Urban? (1971) about a young ex-convict finding his path comes across like a bright socialist coming of-age story, The Dove on the Roof (1973/2010) by Iris Gusner is a free-wheeling, often amusing portrayal of a young professional woman confused by her attraction to two different men. Evelyn Schmidt strikes a darker note in The Bicycle, the story of a single mother and unskilled worker who rejects her dehumanising work and has to deal with the consequences. She could be one of the women that Helke Misselwitz encounters in her land-mark film After Winter Comes Spring (1988), in which she travels acriss the country towards the end of the GDR giving women from all kinds of backgrounds the space to talk about their lives. Made even nearer the end of the GDR, Misselwitz’s Who is Afraid of the Bogey Man (1989) is a portrait with entourage of the matriarchal boss of a private, family-run coal selling business in Berlin and the men working for her. The short Nude Photography – Gundula Schulze (1983) makes portraiture itself its subject matter, cleverly intertwining a portrayal of the photographer Gundula Schulze talking about her idea of nude photography as portraiture and Misselwitz’s own footage of supermarket cashiers. The series closes with Petra Tschörtner’s Berlin Prenzlauer Berg – Encounters between 1st of May and 1st of July 1990 (1990), which takes us to the same neighbourhood as Misselwitz’s 'coal film', but after the Fall of the Wall. We hear the contrasting reactions to the historic event from a colourful array of locals, reflecting a complex state of emotions, ranging from joy, to indifference and to anxiety about the future.

The equality of women was central to the self-concept of the German Democratic Republic and to its policies. It ideologically corresponded with the idea of a socialist society, in which all citizens are equal, and it supported the participation of women in the workforce and thus East Germany’s productivity and economic development. The work of women was encouraged through training opportunities and child care, as for example is shown the film Stars, we are showing in our parallel Jürgen Böttcher season. Such measurements changed over time, and so did the officially promoted image of women. Depending on the political climate and the economic situation, women were supposed to be hard workers or good mother or to heroically fulfil both roles at the same time.
When it comes to the representation of women in East Germany’s films and its film production, their presence, again was strong, though more visibly so on screen. A remarkable number of GDR films centre on a female protagonist, one of the explanations being that, particularly from the 1960s onwards, dealing with problematic social issues was less controversial if it was done through a female character. Most of these films, however, were directed by men, including some of the now best known ones such as The Rabbit Is Me (Kurt Maetzig, 1965), Carla (Herrmann Zschoche, 1965/1990), The Legend of Paul and Paula (Heiner Carow, 1973), Solo Sunny (Konrad Wolf, 1979), or Apprehension (Lothar Warneke 1981). One simple explanation for this is that there were simply very few women feature film directors in the DEFA ), in fact only five, of whom two directed children’s films. In other departments, however, women fared better. While there were no camerawomen, most editors in the DEFA were women and there were a considerable number of scriptwriters and dramaturgs, who also left their imprint on the stories that were filmed. And there were more female directors in the studios for documentary, animation or educational film, not to mention the women working in the make-up and costume departments – or the many excellent and popular actresses. But in the discipline of feature film direction, generally regarded as the most important and prestigious one, the DEFA did not prove to be a place of equal opportunity. 
When the fall of the Wall led to a wider reception of DEFA films in the West, the focus was generally on male directors and on bringing banned films to light. It has taken much longer for the work of women directors to become accessible and noticed. The retrospective at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival Self-determined — Perspectives of Women Filmmakers  (7.2.–17.2.2019), curated by Connie Betz and Karin Herbst-Meßlinger, which presented films by women from West and East Germany made between 1968 and 1999, has raised the profile of East German women directors. Adding to this, the parallel publication of the book Sie (She), edited by Cornelia Klauß and Ralf Schenk, has also helped to make up for lost time by compiling over 60 portraits of DEFA women directors from all areas. Our small series, focusing just on feature and documentary film,  can offer only a very limited selection from this wide spectrum. It is a chance to watch and enjoy these films while staying aware that a lot remains to be discovered. 

The prints and DCPs shown in this retrospective have been provided through the DEFA-Foundation and its distribution service located at the Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen in Berlin.
We would also like to thank Mirko Wiermann (DEFA-Stiftung) and Diana Kluge (Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen).