DEFA Film Library Interview with Hiltrud Schulz

Hiltrud Schulz
Hiltrud Schulz | Photo: Hiltrud Schulz

We share a passion with Hiltrud Schulz for all things East German film. She spoke with us about her work at the singular DEFA Film Library in Massachusetts.

The DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is the only archive and study center outside Europe devoted to the study of filmmaking by East German filmmakers or related to East Germany from 1946 to the present. Since 2002, Hiltrud Schulz has been with the DEFA Film Library, where her major projects have included the DVD production of the restored German film classic Kuhle Wampe, oder: Wem gehört die Welt? (Kuhle Wampe or Who Owns the World?, Slatan Dudow, 1932), the Filmmaker’s Tour program (for directors Frank Beyer, Jürgen Böttcher, Andreas Dresen, Jörg Foth, Iris Gusner, Rainer Simon, and scriptwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase); the Rebels with a Cause film series and tour, which premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York 2005, and the Made in East|West Germany film program (a joint effort with the film archive at the Goethe-Institut Boston) that premiered in Boston in 2009.

The Goethe-Institut Chicago and the DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst have agreed to an annual program that introduces the new DEFA releases on DVD in the Midwest. Schulz curated the film series AWARDED! Films from Behind the Wall at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center in February 2013. Our own Irmi Maunu-Kocian sat down to pick her brain.

Hiltrud, you have worked with the East German films made at the DEFA studios for many years, wearing a lot of hats.

In thinking about when I started working with DEFA films, I realize that I forgot about my 25th anniversary last year! I've been working with East German films since 1987. I was first employed at PROGRESS Film-Verleih, the only East German film distribution company. In my last years there, I was responsible for world sales and curated and organized film series in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. In 1998, I helped found ICESTORM International, a new company set up to market East German films on video in North America. That's when I moved to the United States.

When you look at the DEFA productions throughout the years, is there one film that evokes an especially strong response in you, be it favorable or not?

This is a very difficult question. The DEFA Studios produced several thousand films from 1946 until the closing of the studios in 1990, including almost 800 feature and children’s films. Each single film is a document of its time and reflects the political climate in the country as well as artistic ideas that were in the air at that time.

Currently, we are working on six new DVD releases and I'm excited about every one of them. For example, the two post-war films Wozzeck (dir. Georg Klaren) and Ehe im Schatten [Marriage in the Shadows, dir. Kurt Maetzig]—both produced in 1947—are so closely connected to Ufa [Universum Film AG] filmmaking. Artists who worked in film production during the Nazi period suddenly found themselves working on productions ib a very different social, political, and ideological system. How did these artists deal with these extreme changes, on a personal level? Take cinematographer Friedl Behn-Grund: he did the cinematography for both the 1941 Nazi propaganda film Ich klage an (I Accuse, dir. Wolfgang Liebeneiner) and, only six years later, photographed the antifascist melodrama Ehe im Schatten.

It is very interesting to see how DEFA built on filmmaking during the Weimar era as well as the Nazi period—at least in the first years after the war and before a new generation of film artists arrived at their studios. After World War II, DEFA was the first to reopen its film ateliers for production and instantly became a melting pot for all kinds of artists: German “re-émigrées” who had spent the last years in the U.S., Mexico, Palestine, France, the Soviet Union or other countries; Ufa artists who had worked during the Nazi period; artists returning from “inner emigration.” DEFA attempted a fresh start but there was an interesting twist in the result: while the first East German films did try to come to terms with German history during WWII, the resultant antifascist films were often very close in their aesthetic to that of Nazi propaganda films.

In the same vein, I am fascinated by the little anecdotes or stories I come across from behind the scenes. Like actor Joachim Gottschalk: he was quite famous before the rise of the Nazis and shared the stage in Berlin with actress Ilse Steppat. After his tragic death in 1941, Steppat, in turn, played his wife in Kurt Maetzig’s Ehe im Schatten, a film adaptation of Gottschalk's story and one which many of his fans did not learn about until after the war and through this film. Incidentally, the film had its U.S. premiere at the Met Theater in New York on September 16, 1948.

So, to answer your question: each single film from the DEFA archive is important to me. Even a hardcore East German propaganda film can unveil very interesting historical aspects. Now, if you had asked if all the DEFA films deserve another chance at reaching the silver screen, the answer would have been different. But they are all objects for research and discussion.

You curated the film series Awarded! Films from Behind the Wall.

Yes. I have long been fascinated by the fact that East German films slipped through the Iron Curtain and found an international audience long before the Wall came down. And I strongly advocate for the idea that East German film can make an important contribution to international film history.

In terms of the series, I recall that you and I met on a cold and rainy day at your Goethe-Institut office in the spring of 2012 and when I talked about the East German film collection at the DEFA Film Library and possible projects, I could feel your sincere interest and your excitement. Why not show a program with GDR films that won major international awards before 1989 or films that were submitted to the Oscars? When I shared these ideas with you, I knew that you would and could help support and present a program like this. In the end, we decided to create a special Chicago film program, a selection of films that had never been shown in this combination before.

Many partners, including the excellent team at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the DEFA-Stiftung, and the Goethe-Institut Chicago, made these 35mm-screenings possible. Among the eight feature films selected was Roland Gräf’s biographical film Fallada – Letztes Kapitel (Fallada - The Last Chapter, 1988). This film had not been shown in cinemas for many, many years because of a situation surrounding the rights to the music. So we were especially thankful to the DEFA-Stiftung for helping us resolve these rights issues so that the film could return to a screen in Chicago, where leading actor Jörg Gudzuhn won a Silver Hugo for Best Actor at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1989.

The international aspect of the DEFA films is particularly important to you, is it not?

Whenever possible, I really try to emphasize that these films had an international audience during the Cold War, albeit limited. The list of internationally awarded DEFA films—again, not East European festivals; I am talking about Cannes, Venice, Edinburgh, Chicago, West Berlin—is very impressive. I would like for people to understand that East German films did not linger behind the Wall and were not only shown in the GDR. International exchanges took place throughout the film trade—co-productions, for example, and with international organizations such as FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives)—which made events such as the 1975 retrospective of East German cinema at the Museum of Modern Art in New York possible. The GDR’s State Film Archive (Staatliche Filmarchiv) had been a member of FIAF since the late 1950s. Such memberships opened up interesting networks and possibilities for film events. I just read that Maetzig, a DEFA director after all, was the vice president of the International Association of Film Clubs (FICC).

But one of my favorite stories has to do with the screening of Turlis Abenteuer (Turli’s Adventures, dir. Walter Beck, 1967) in the U.S. in the late 1960s. Ron Merk, an American independent producer, director, and distributor since 1967, acquired the rights for this film and screened it successfully at his famous “kiddie matinée.” I am sure that many Americans will still remember the series. Or maybe they remember the live-action Pinocchio film series that Ron Merk produced. The puppet Pinocchio that leads through the program was actually a recreation of the Pinocchio puppet featured in Turli—created in consultation with artists who also designed the famous Czech Spejbl and Hurvinek puppets. Who knew, in the late 1960s, that this famous “American” Pinocchio was born in East Germany and had Czech parents?

By the very nature of their work and the time in which they were working, DEFA directors live or lived interesting lives. Is there one whose biography particularly surprised you?

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with these films that were made by so many outstanding film artists. It still makes me happy that I met director Frank Beyer twice—in 2002, when he was our artist-in-residence and when he came to our MoMA event in 2005. I still remember our conversation about his studies at FAMU, the famous film school in Prague, his work at DEFA, and his experiences when his film Spur der Steine (Trace of Stones, 1966) was banned, having serious professional consequences for him. His interest in other people’s lives and in the work of the DEFA Film Library always impressed me.

I have to say, there is one director I wished I had met: the Dutch-born documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens. Ivens worked at the DEFA Documentary Film Studio in the 1950s and continued his involvement with East German film until the late 1960s. His life was truly adventurous. Not only did he film one of his most important films, The Spanish Earth (1937), during the Spanish Civil War, he also filmed, lived, and worked all over the world, and knew so many important artists, including the Russian directors Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, Ernest Hemingway, journalist Martha Gellhorn, the Brazilian-born director Alberto Calvacanti, actors Simone Signoret and Gérard Philipe, and many others, from all walks of life. He should be acknowledged for bringing some international flair and important contacts to the DEFA Documentary Film Studio.

The DEFA Film Library is the main promoter of GDR films in the US. Do other countries have similar institutions or is the organization at UMass Amherst unique?

Our DEFA Film Library is the only archive and research center outside of Germany devoted to East German filmmaking. The Library was officially founded by Professor Barton Byg in 1993, although Barton had already been engaged with DEFA films long before. Not only did he conduct research on East German film, he also organized DEFA film events, licensed DEFA films for North American distribution, and of course started the DEFA Film Library’s collection.

Barton always mentions that one tour in particular inspired the creation of the DEFA Film library: in the fall of 1989, he organized the first U.S. tour for documentary filmmaker Helke Misselwitz and her film Winter Adé (1987). The film had had its East German premiere a year earlier. Barton was able to bring a print to the U.S. and sent Helke on a marathon tour to various universities and colleges across the country. Helke, who was accompanied by Thomas Plenert, her cinematographer, and her editor, Gudrun Plenert, also presented the film in New England... the evening the Wall came down in Berlin.

I remember when Barton came to the PROGRESS Film-Verleih in Berlin—where I was working at the time—at the beginning of the 1990s. He was interested in clearing the rights for 35mm and 16mm DEFA prints, which he had acquired from the shuttered East German embassy in New York, and discussing the possibility of distributing East German films in North America. It took until 1993 for the contracts to be signed and for partners in Germany to commit to the legal creation of the DEFA Film Library.

Since then, the DEFA Film Library has worked to develop interest in the history of East German filmmaking. We also try to set trends and open new fields for research about GDR film history in the context of and in relation to international film history. For example, our upcoming East German Summer Film Institute biennial, entitled DEFA & Amerika: Culture Wars, Culture Contact (July 7-14, 2013), will explore different dimensions of the relationship between GDR filmmaking and the United States. Executive Director Dr. Skyler Arndt-Briggs and PhD candidate Victoria Rizo Lenshyn, who are planning this institute, have discovered films that were never shown outside East Germany and are working on interesting workshops on GDR propaganda, espionage, and mass entertainment that will hopefully be the beginning of new research ideas.

... and we see more collaboration for us in our future as well.

We sure do. After our successful DEFA program in Chicago, we are planning a program about Super-8 experimental films made in the GDR. And we have already scheduled the Midwest premiere of all six new DEFA Film Library releases this fall!