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Berlin Haul: Fascinating But Cautious Retro From the DDR

Artifact of a vanished ideology and a no longer extant state, East German cinema is something like socialism with a Quasimodo face—half paralyzed by war guilt, produced with one eye fixed on the radiant future, the other monitoring the Soviet occupier, and a nose pressed against the Western window.

It's fascinating stuff, although MOMA's current selection—12 features and a score of shorts produced between 1953 and 1990—is a bit cautious. The emphasis is on responsible documentaries and stolid human interest pieces, some from a feminist point of view. You won't find any of the DDR's mad Marxist musicals, politically correct westerns, through-the-looking-glass spy movies, or Stalinoid historical extravaganzas in this batch.

Youth films, yes: DDR filmmakers developed an entire tendency devoted to the postwar struggle of disaffected working-class kids and exemplified by Berlin—Schönhauser Corner (October 15 and 23), directed by Gerhard Klein from Wolfgang Kohlhaase's screenplay. The sensation of 1957, Berlin successfully combined aspects of Italian neo-realism with the Hollywood juvenile-delinquency flicks released in West Germany. The East German cops may be sympathetic, but no more so than the badge-wearing social workers who try to help James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

Bicycle, thieves: Berlin—Schönhauser Corner
photo: Archive DEFA Film Library
Bicycle, thieves: Berlin—Schönhauser Corner

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Rebels With a Cause: The Cinema of East Germany
October 7 through 23, Museum of Modern Art

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Less neorealist than new wave, Born in '45 (October 14 and 16) is the lone feature by documentarian J B Shot in 1966, it was banned in its rough cut; not until the DDR lay dying in 1990 did B get to finish this playful, summery tale of a young auto mechanic who decides to divorce the maternity ward nurse to whom he is married. Unlike the confused young construction worker who leaves Berlin's "democratic sector" for the Wild West in Berlin—Schönhauser Corner, B disaffected, provocatively apolitical anti-hero takes us on an aimless tour of East Berlin's museums, parks, and dance halls.

Where Western cultural Marxists once dreamed of Brecht, it was the DDR that had actually supported the embodiment of modernist political theater and his aesthetic heirs. A 1958 documentation of Brecht's Mother screens October 10 and 21, with Helene Weigel and the Berliner Ensemble, but the most Brechtian of DDR movies is Klein and Kohlhaase's 1961 The Gleiwitz Case (October 14 and 17). A laconic 70 minutes of modernist music, Nazi newsreels, and alienating camera angles, Gleiwitz restages the fake attack that precipitated World War II. Nazi machine men issue robotic commands to the local pod people, orchestrating a fake Polish attack on an antiseptic sci-fi radio station broadcasting light Latin pop from a few miles inside the German border. Back in the day, Gleiwitz's deadpan satire of Riefenstahlian aestheticism was mistaken for Nazi nostalgia—now its icy experimentalism might inspire Ostalgie for a lost German avant-garde.

 
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