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3 series explore state-produced DEFA titles from the former East Germany

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‘Awarded!’ & ‘Shadows and Sojourners’

When: Through March 7

Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State; Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan; Goethe-Institut, 150 N. Michigan

Admission: Varies by venue


Updated: March 16, 2013 6:09AM

The series “Awarded! Films from Behind the Wall” and “Shadows and Sojourners” showcase compelling moral dramas from DEFA, the state-run studio of the former East Germany. Presented by the Gene Siskel Film Center, Goethe-Institut Chicago and the Spertus Institute, the monthlong series will wrap with a talk between Barton Byg from the DEFA Film Library, and Ralf Schenk, chair of the DEFA Foundation in Berlin, at 6 p.m. March 7 at the Spertus Institute.

Postwar filmmakers diagnosed and condemned Nazi fascism and anti-Semitism. Later, the focus included personal politics in the socialist German Democratic Republic. Lasting only four decades, this national cinema pursued agendas set by censors in this “Workers’ and Peasants’ State.”

Experimental styles are rare, but early DEFA films share elements. Characters listen to Beethoven on records and the radio. Military newsreel footage injects realism, as does location shooting in the ruins of Berlin. Facial close-ups register shock with super-imposed flashbacks. Women sense what is wrong in the country and what must be done. Children, usually girls, are deployed as martyrs. Communists are heroic. Russians are saviors.

Among the films screening:


“Her Third” (3:15 p.m., Siskel): Twice-divorced with two daughters, Margit (Jutta Hoffmann) is a computer engineer seeking her third mate. As a teen, she was “fighting for a fascist-free future.” Now she observes: “We have so many rights but no right to say to someone, ‘I want you. I need you.’ ” Directed by Egon Gunther, this was GDR’s first entry for best foreign film Oscar. Also, 8:15 p.m. Feb. 20.

“Coming Out” (5:30 p.m., Siskel): Heiner Carow portrays a gay school teacher, with a dissonant score by his son Stefan. “Everyone is alone here,” explains a guide to Berlin’s gay underground. “Everyone is afraid.” “Coming Out,” titled in English, premiered on the same November 1989 night the Berlin Wall fell, only five months after the GDR decriminalized homosexual acts. Also, 8:15 p.m. Monday.


“The Murderers Among Us” (11 a.m., Spertus): “There is no longer any point in healing mankind,” laments a doctor traumatized by World War II. He decides to execute a businessman for ordering the execution of Polish civilians. Wolfgang Staudte directs the first drama shot in Soviet-occupied Berlin before the GDR’s founding. This expressionist exercise also launched the “rubble film” genre.

“Marriage in the Shadows” (3 p.m., Spertus): Dedicated to the memory of two German stars who committed suicide in 1941, this tragedy about a Jewish actress and her Aryan husband is directed by Kurt Maetzig, whose Jewish mother killed herself before she could be deported. The acting is rather theatrical, but the message is unmistakable: “We thought as artists we could ignore politics,” a character tells a Nazi. “We are as guilty as you are.”

“Council of the Gods” (7 p.m., Spertus): Nuremberg Trial transcripts inform Kurt Maetzig’s incisive attack on I.G. Farben, the infamous German chemical company. A chemist develops a conscience after he sees his new formula shipped to Auschwitz. The title refers to what Farben board members called themselves. Hitler meant profit. “If he didn’t exist, we’d invent him,” cracks one industrialist.

March 3

“Stars” (11 a.m., Spertus): Directed by Konrad Wolf, this love story centers on a young German soldier and a Jewish prisoner on a train heading to Auschwitz. Set in 1943, the film ends like “Casablanca” on a note of resistance. This GDR-Bulgarian co-production got banned in Bulgaria for failing to demarcate “proletarian Jews” and “bourgeois Jews” on the screen.

“Professor Mamlock” (3 p.m., Spertus): “The cancer of fascism is paralyzing our people,” warns a German communist. Konrad Wolf’s 1961 film is the second adaptation of his father’s harrowing 1933 play about a Jewish surgeon. A 1938 Soviet version screened five weeks at Chicago’s Sonotone Theater, after Mayor Kelly overruled censors who feared that film “might incite Chicagoans to riot.”

“Naked Among Wolves” (7 p.m., Spertus): Set and shot at Buchenwald concentration camp, this fact-based film by Frank Beyer (“Jakob the Liar”) shows how members of the communist resistance protect a little Jewish boy hidden in a suitcase. Based on Bruno Apitz’s autobiographical account, the film resulted in the discovery of the boy, who went on to a career in film. The cast includes Armin Mueller-Stahl, who also appears in “Her Third.”

March 4

“The Blum Affair” (6 p.m., Goethe): A montage of headlines, including “Hitler Publishes Mein Kampf,” opens Erich Engel’s 1948 crime drama based on a 1926 court case. A Jewish businessman is framed for murder. Authorities suspect a Red conspiracy. “I knew all along it would work out,” observes his Aryan wife at the end. “We live in a law-abiding country. After all, we live in Germany.” Unlike other filmmakers featured in the series, Engel had no features banned in the GDR.

March 5

“Rotation” (6 p.m., Goethe): Staudte once asked: “how did the Germans become guilty?” In this everyman melodrama, he portrays an unemployed man who joins the Nazi Party just to get work as a printer. His son in the Hitler Youth reports him for smashing a framed Hitler portrait and for aiding his communist brother-in-law.

March 6

“The Axe of Wandsbek” (6 p.m., Goethe): Another tale ending in double suicide, this stark drama begins with girls playing hopscotch with “Heaven” and “Hell” chalked on the sidewalk. Falk Harnack, formerly in the White Rose resistance, directs this portrait of a butcher who beheads four communists framed for killing a stormtrooper. “It’s unforgivable how we just stood and watched it all happen,” relates a doctor. “Why did we do it?”

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

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