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Are There Any East German Horror Movies?

In the communist countries of eastern Europe, horror was never a popular genre, especially in East Germany. Since all film projects had to pass a review board before production began, anything deemed “frivolous” was nixed immediately. Films aimed at children, such as the popular East German fairytale films, got a pass on this requirement, but horror had no such escape clause. Other Eastern Bloc countries, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, were less restrictive. You’ll find a few horror films in their catalogs, including, Poland’s Lokis (1970), a classic werewolf story—or, more accurately, werebear story—and Czechoslovakia’s Upír z Feratu (Ferat Vampire) (1982), about a car that drinks blood. There is even a very good Soviet horror film, Viy (1967), but it was based on a short story by the famous Russian author Nikolai Gogol, which is probably why it was approved.

In East Germany, the primary source of horror came in the form of the fairytale films, which often followed the original stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen more closely than their Disney counterparts. One of these, The Singing, Ringing Tree (Das singende, klingende Bäumchen) (1957), based on the Grimms’ fairytale about a vain young princess who is made ugly until she learns compassion, was shown on afternoon TV in Great Britain and left children cowering behind their sofas in fright. Although the film was shot in vivid color, it was broadcast by the BBC in black-and-white, making the already creepy movie even creepier.

Ironically, the closest GDR film in look and feel to an actual horror movie was based an opera by Richard Wagner. It was The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer) (1964), which was filmed in black-and-white in a style reminiscent of the old Universal horror movies on the thirties. The captain of the ship is portrayed in vampiric style, and in one scene, when the local townsfolk implore the crew of the Flying Dutchman to come ashore and party with them, the film suddenly starts to resemble George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)—as the crew, long dead, decides to join the festivities.

Closer to traditional horror, were the Krimis (crime films) that dealt with serial killers. After all, one of the first and best films about a serial killer came from Germany (Fritz Lang’s M (1931), starring Peter Lorre as a child killer). After WWII, the topic was revived in West Germany by Robert Siodmak with The Devil Strikes at Night (Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam) (1957), starring a young Mario Adorf as a particularly creepy psychopath. East Germany’s contribution to the genre came in 1972 with Murder Case Zernik (Leichensache Zernik) (1972). If the story had taken place entirely in East Germany, the film review board probably would have nixed the film for even suggesting that the government would allow a serial killer to run around unmolested, but the story takes place in 1948, when the border between East and West Berlin was still open. The killer travels back and forth across the border, killing women in East Germany and then retreating to the relative safety of the West.

The only other East German film that approaches horror does so in a comic vein. It is Motoring Tales (Automärchen) (1983), which is an anthology film whose stories are strung together and connected through a haunted garage. In one of these stories, a man signs his soul over to a fancy automobile that eventually eats him. Bad things happen in the film, including several deaths in auto accidents, but they are handled so humorously that they go by almost unnoticed. The film manages to be both gruesome and innocuous. It also helped that the messages in the stories were al resolutely anti-capitalist. In each of the stories, a person aspires to some individual luxury or advantage, only to see these things turn against them.

So why so little horror in East Germany? It’s tempting to ascribe it to the already horrible existence imposed by the State’s oppressive tactics, but that would be presumptuous and misinformed. For most people, life in East Germany was okay. There was plenty to complain about, but who doesn’t complain about their government? Things only got bad when the Stasi decided to put you on their suspicious persons list; then life could get very unpleasant indeed. Also, the film boards of other Eastern Bloc nations seemed to have no trouble approving horror movies, so the communist ideology wasn’t the problem either. In all likelihood it came down to the most mundane of reasons: that the members of the film approval board just didn’t like horror movies.

Links to films mentioned:

Films currently available on YouTube (there are some questions as to the rights and legalities of these video posts)

M (in German with English subtitles):

https://youtu.be/u3rWLm_PAbc

Viy (in Russian with English subtitles):

https://youtu.be/W6wpEpfx5dQ

Ferat Vampire (split into 10 minute segments, in Czech, no subtitles):

https://youtu.be/cTlQMAG9fFA

Lokis (in Polish, no subtitles):

https://youtu.be/HP-Ctpy9fQI

Films currently available with English subtitles from the DEFA Library:

The Flying Dutchman

https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/store/3637

The Singing, Ringing Tree

https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/store/3578

Automärchen is currently unavailable,