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3 series examine postwar German film

Awarded! Films from Behind the Wall

When: Saturday to Feb. 28

Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State

Tickets: $11; $7 students; $6 Film Center members

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Updated: March 2, 2013 6:29AM

Characters make life-altering choices in films from the former East Germany. Nazism and the Holocaust loom in the first features made in the aftermath of World War II. Filmmakers in the newly founded German Democratic Republic remembered a fascist state to make anti-fascist art. The moral stakes are truly historic in this intriguing episode in world cinema.

Over the next five weeks, three Chicago venues will screen 17 dramas, all with English subtitles, from the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft) is the state-run studio that produced the GDR features.

The Gene Siskel Film Center kicks off this showcase Saturday with “Awarded! Films from Behind the Wall.” Made between 1971 and 1989, these eight dramas will be presented in 35mm prints.

Another series, titled “Shadows and Sojourners: Images of Jews and Antifascism in East German Film,” will present DVD screenings of nine black-and-white dramas made between 1946 and 1963. Six will screen at the Spertus Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, starting on Feb. 17; three more are scheduled for the Goethe-Institut Chicago on March 4, 5 and 6.

“DEFA predated the founding of the German Democratic Republic, and it appears destined to survive the country’s merger with the Federal Republic as well,” said Barton Byg, founding director of the DEFA Film Library, in 1990. When DEFA began, “a new cinematic language was being sought that could both speak to movie-hungry Germans from the screen, and counter the images and aesthetics of the Third Reich,” Byg said.

“These films offer the chance to plunge deep into the inner-life of the terra incognita of the German Democratic Republic — politically, culturally, sociologically, psychologically, I would even say: pathologically,” suggested Ralf Schenk, chair of the DEFA Foundation in Berlin, in a 1997 interview.

Byg and Schenk will speak at 6 p.m. March 7 at the Spertus Institute. Another film scholar coming to Chicago is Marc Silberman from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He will introduce the Feb. 17 screenings at the Spertus. In a phone interview, Silberman said a stint at the Free University in West Berlin during the 1967-1968 student revolts introduced him to Cold War art. “I was interested in East German literature because the [nation’s] cultural policy had this conviction of reaching the masses,” he said. “[But] literature no longer had the function in East Germany; it was actually the cinema was the mass media that was being used to reach the people.”

If Silberman had to pick a favorite, it would be a 1980 drama about a feisty female rock singer, “Solo Sunny.” “It is a very moving, very unusual film,” he said. “I think people will be surprised that kind of film came out of East Germany if they have a standard Cold War view of East Germany.”

Konrad Wolf, co-director of “Solo Sunny,” is represented with three other films in these series. He experienced the Cold War on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. At times, he ran afoul of the official socialist aesthetic. “If all our films dealing with contemporary topics are wrong — then something must be wrong with the ideology,” he suggested in 1965.

If DEFA features could not critique the Soviet-run present, before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they did scrutinize the Nazi past. Their ideological focus on is like an onscreen self-interrogation. “Because our people did not liberate themselves on their own initiative, the liberation process after 1945 had to be realized mainly on the intellectual level,” Wolf once wrote. Aiming at head and heart alike, DEFA directors offer a moral cinema that transcends propaganda.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and reviewer.

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