Siegfried Kühn’s Mythmaking

by Lisa Lieberman

Siegfried Kühn Zeitzeugengespräch  © DEFA-StiftungI recently attended a retrospective on the work of East German filmmaker Siegfried Kühn sponsored by the DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst. DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft), a production company founded by the Soviets immediately following World War II in their zone of occupation, was responsible for most of the films produced in the former GDR. The DEFA film library is committed to making East German films better known and the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall provided an opportunity to reflect on the East/West divide by showcasing the career of one director over an eighteen-year span. Beginning with Kühn's popular love story, Time of the Storks, his gentle satire, The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm George Platow, and the period drama Elective Affinities, the series culminated with Childhood an intimate exploration of his wartime experiences growing up in a small town in Silesia, which would be absorbed into Poland by the terms of the Potsdam Agreement in 1945 and The Actress (1988), his award-winning film about an Aryan actress in love with a Jewish actor in Berlin during the Nazi era.

DEFA's ideological mission left little room for directors to assert their own vision. Over the course of his career, Kühn had some problems with the censors, but I didn't see much for the authorities to complain about. By and large, the basic tenets of the socialist state were upheld. Rather than subverting the establishment, these five films open a window onto the dominant preoccupations of the regime right up to the eve of its dissolution.

Love in the Workers State

The two main characters in Time of the Storks (1970) are young people in rebellion against bourgeois society. Susanne, an elementary school teacher, finds herself attracted to a man who is the polar opposite of Wolfgang, her staid fiancé. Time of the Storks © DEFA Film Library at UMass AmherstChristian is an angry guy who reminded me of the character Jack Nicholson played in Five Easy Pieces (1970), chafing against the genteel tastes of his parents, who gave him music lessons and harbored hopes that he would pursue an academic career. Instead, Christian became a foreman on an oil rig and at first glance appears to be a bad boy, which is what attracts Susanne, almost despite herself. But unlike Nicholson's alienated anti-hero, he turns out not to be so much of a bad boy; he's quite conscientious in his job and a field trip to the factory provides a reconciliation between the lovers complete with a vision of a happy future where Susanne's pupils celebrate the accomplishments of the country's workers.

Work in the Workers State

At first glance, the railway crossing guard who is the subject of The Second Life of Friedrich Wilhelm George Platow (1973) is anything but the model worker idealized in the Stakhanovite movement, part of Stalin's great push to industrialize the Soviet Union. Platow is lazy, sloppy and set in his ways. He is also redundant, now that the railroad crossing he has manned for decades is being automated. Kühn ran afoul of the authorities with this film, but compared to The Witness, Péter Bacsó's black comedy released in 1969 but banned in Kadar's Hungary for ten years, this says more about the East German officials' lack of a sense of humor than about the message of the film itself. Indeed, Kühn seemed perplexed, in the Q & A following the screening, by the verdict of the censors that Platow presented “a distorted image of the working class.”

Not so Splendid Isolation

Elective Affinities (1974) appears to have been an effort to get back in the authorities' good graces. An adaptation of a novel by the German Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe timed to appear on the 225th anniversary of the author's birth, it was faithful to the original in most regards. Siegfried Kühn and his then-wife Regine (who wrote the screenplay) have said that the film entailed a veiled criticism of the terrible isolation in which East Germans lived. Certainly the remote island where the story is set feels ingrown and claustrophobic, leading to great unhappiness all around. “Human beings should not grow content with the situation in which they happen to find themselves,” Regine said in a recent interview. “They must break free from its constraints.” Here the message was quite subtle. Kühn's subsequent two films from the retrospective, Childhood and The Actress, are more assertive in their condemnation of the status quo although neither provides a blueprint for rebellion.

The World Turned Upside Down

The Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin was fascinated by festivals where the social hierarchy was overturned, if only temporarily. He saw carnival as a gap in the fabric of society that gave hope to the oppressed. Childhood (1986) opens with a circus high wire act in contemporary Berlin, Childhood clownthen takes us to a farm in Silesia where a boy named Alfons (a stand-in for Kühn) lives with his beloved grandmother in the final year of World War II. A circus comes into the town and the grandmother is smitten with the lead performer, Nardini, a magical, clown-like figure who is not bound by any laws. After he humiliates the Nazis who run the town, Nardini is forced into hiding. He begs the grandmother to flee with him, but she hesitates to leave her farm and the family who depend on her. Finally she and Alfons do leave. In a Bakhtinian way, they have escaped through the gap that Nardini opened in their minds, and perhaps Kühn was attempting to open viewers' minds with this beautifully crafted fantasy.

Saint Joan Revisited

Released to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Actress (1988) paints a much darker picture of Germany under the Nazis. Here there is no escape except through death. Maria's love for Mark is doomed from the start. We see her playing Joan of Arc over and over again, embracing the role as if training herself for martyrdom. Soon she has identified herself as a Jew, dyed her hair black and taken on her lover's name, moved with him into the ghetto. We see her join in a schmaltzy Jewish dance in a darkened theater with the Yiddish actors in Mark's troupe, accompanied by a plaintive violin. Is all of this a heroic act of defiance, as Daniela Berghahn maintains in “Resistance of the Heart: Female Suffering and Victimhood in DEFA's Antifascist Films,” her contribution to the collection edited by Paul Cooke and Marc Silberman, Screening War: Perspectives on German Suffering? I think not.

Rifle ShootingBack in the 1960s, when Spaghetti Westerns were all the rage, DEFA produced a series of Red contributions to the genre which had audiences rooting for the Indians. Exposing the greed and cruelty of American history, Red Westerns such as The Sons of Great Bear (1965) allowed the Indians to fight back—and win. Twenty years later, DEFA seems to have traded one variety of heroic myth for another. Watching Kühn's development as a filmmaker, I appreciated his artistry all the more for the constraints within which he operated.