Was There Such a Thing as an Underground Film Movement in East Germany?

Amazingly, yes, there was an underground film movement in the German Democratic Republic, which existed from 1949 to 1990. It was permissible to own a movie camera in the GDR, although most people couldn’t afford them. As in the United States, most filmmaking done privately consisted of home movies. Until the late seventies in the GDR, if you wanted to publicly screen your film, you did so only through one of the amateur film clubs. These, as with many organizations in the GDR, used a committee approval system for deciding what would get shown and what wouldn’t. Anything too avant-garde or shocking stood no chance of being approved.

Everything changed in 1976, when the SED (the ruling party in East Germany) decided to strip the controversial folksinger Wolf Biermann of his citizenship. Biermann was an ardent socialist, and he moved from his hometown of Hamburg in the West to East Germany to show his solidarity with the communist cause. But he was also outspoken and not afraid to point out when the SED strayed from the principles put forth by Karl Marx, which got him in trouble with the East German officials. While Biermann was on tour in West Germany, the SED announced that he was not welcome back in the country. The reaction from many people was strong and swift: 150 prominent artists came forth to protest the decision. Rather than acknowledge the protest, the SED doubled down and started marginalizing anyone who signed these petitions, in many cases costing them their livelihoods. As a result of this decision, several of the people on the petitions applied for exit visas and moved to the west, including the popular actors Manfred Krug, Angelica Domröse, and Armin Mueller-Stahl, as well as Biermann’s wife, Eva-Marie Hagen, and his step-daughter, Nina Hagen.

Biermann’s expatriation and the punitive measures that followed also had the effect of creating a subculture of people who no longer felt that the state represented them. Since the state had shown it was dangerous to challenge the status quo in public, these people started working underground. Secret screenings were held to let filmmakers show their work. No longer restricted by the democratic vote of the amateur film groups, these filmmakers were free to explore any topics and techniques that struck their fancies, and the East German underground film community was born. Freed from the normal societal restrictions, these filmmakers weren’t afraid to push the limits with work that is as shocking and effective today as it must have felt at the time.

These films might have faded into obscurity if not for the efforts of film historian Dr. Claus Löser—who was also himself an underground filmmaker in the GDR. Dr. Löser is the founder of ex.oriente.lux, an archive dedicated to preserving German underground films, such as Engelchen (1985), Konrad! Sprach die Frau Mama (1989), and 7 x 7 Tatsachen aus dem hiesigen Leben des Dichters Tohm di Roes (1983). He also helped put together a DVD collection of these films that is available from the DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst, which includes filmmaker interviews and a booklet on the films. There is an in-depth review of the contents of the DVD on the East German Cinema Blog.

As one might expect, these underground filmmakers were watched carefully by the Stasi, and some of them eventually emigrated to escape persecution. Some have continued their creative explorations since the wall fell, including Cornelia Schleime, Via Lewandowsky, and Helfe Leiberg, who have all gone on to become respected artists on the international scene.