Monday, 9 May 2016

Unser Kurzes Leben (Our Short Life)

When Germany was partitioned after WW2 the Soviet zone that would became the German Democratic Republic, decided to set up its own film production company Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft better known as DEFA. Officially registered on the 13th August 1946 and based in Berlin the stated aims of this film making company was ‘to restore democracy in Germany and to remove all traces of fascist and militaristic ideology from the mind of every German, to re-educate the German people – especially the young – to achieve an understanding of genuine democracy and humanism and in so doing a sense of respect for other people and other nations’[1], although set up as a private company it was reliant on state sponsorship. Until DEFA was officially dissolved after German reunification in 1992 it had made around 950 feature films, 820 animated films and more than 5800 documentaries and newsreels and 4000 German synchronisations of foreign language movies.  
The DEFA Symbol. 

The Film Studio. 

We are now witnessing a wave of nostalgia for both the former East Berlin and the DEFA films, which are enjoying a revival in Germany and also the United States were the University of Massachusetts Amherst is the only archive and study centre outside Europe devoted to the study of the broad spectrum of East German film and filmmaking.  The movies that are available are distributed by Progress Film-Verleih GmbH some which can be purchased on line or if you are in Berlin try the giant Saturn store in Alexandra Platz which has a grand display of DEFA films.
Simone Frost.
Lothar Warneke was part of the third generation of DEFA directors who depicted the reality of everyday GDR life with great authenticity in the grand tradition of Italian Neo-Realism and cinema verite. Unser Kurzes Leben (1981), based on the 1974 novel Franzisca Linkerhand by Brigitte Reimann who died from cancer in 1973 at the age of 39 before she could finish the book, was made in 1980 and starred the attractive boyish looking actress Simone Frost who was born in East Berlin in 1958 and who appeared in many GDR TV series before landing the lead role of Franzisca Linkerhand.  
Subsidised housing for GDR citizens. 
Franzisca Linkerhand is an ambitious young newly qualified architect who has recently suffered a divorce.  She is the master pupil of the renowned architect Professor Reger (Dietrich Korner) but wants a year-out to gain experience away from the overpowering professor. To achieve this end she moves to a small provision town and gets a job working for its local authority building state accommodation for the citizens of the GDR. Franzisca is a determined young lady who has dreams and aspirations to help others and wants to incorporate an upgrade to the local town to included modern amenities to sit along side the new estates. But her new boss, the municipal architect Scafheutlin (Herman Beyer) is not an inspired man and it takes all of Franziska’s infectious nature to persuade him to take part in a completion to see who can design the best ‘New Town’. Buried in her work she seems incapable of living her own life outside the confines of her working environment that is until she strikes up a relationship with the mysterious Trojanowicz (Gottfried Richter).
The overpowering Professor Reger.... 

....and the mysterious Trojanowicz. 

As with any other filmmaking country DEFA’s movies would have included a certain amount of political bios but it is a pleasure to see the realism of life on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain and to appreciate that life was not bad for all GDR citizens. Their house-building programme with subsidised state rents certainly put far richer county’s to shame and as far as the UK is concerned still does. And as Jim Morton pointed out East Germany was also way ahead of the West when it came to feminist issues. Back when American women were still expected to stay in the kitchen and be good housewives, East Germany had women in nearly every profession. By the seventies over half the judges in the GDR were women.[2] We also get a glimpse of a typical working environment as well as a look at the social life of working people. This is a well-made intelligent movie that could easily have been made by Western directors like Ken Loach or Mike Leigh and if you can track it down well worth a look.    

[1]Christiane Muckenberger 1994.
[2] East German Cinema Blog Jim Morton October 2015.

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