History on screen: East Germany through its filmmakers' eyes

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In this Wednesday, June 17, 2020 photo Gunnar Dedio, German film producer and managing director of PROGRESS Film GmbH poses for a photo between rolls of film in the archive of PROGRESS Film, in Leipzig, Germany. A new project is underway to digitize thousands of East German newsreels, documentaries and feature films 30 years after Germanys reunification. The movies that are being scanned, transcribed and posted online provide a look inside a country that no longer exists but was a critical part of the Cold War. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

BERLIN – As John F. Kennedy peered over the Berlin Wall into communist East Germany in 1963, red curtains blocked the U.S. president's view through the Brandenburg Gate and a banner perched in front of it accused the United States of breaking an international agreement “to prevent the rebirth of German militarism.”

A western newsreel documented the crowds cheering Kennedy on the western side as well as the East German stunt, the narrator noting that Kennedy didn't get a good look at the gate, because "the Iron Curtain was supplemented by a giant cloth one, as the Communists made sure he saw their propaganda.”

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That might have been the final word on the visit, were it not for a new project, 30 years after Germany's reunification, to digitize thousands of East German newsreels. The movies being scanned, transcribed and posted online provide a perspective from inside a country that no longer exists but was a critical part of the Cold War.

The East German Augenzeuge, or Eyewitness, newsreel on the Kennedy visit trumpeted the prank as a triumph, scoffing that the American president got an “unexpected surprise instead of the great view into the East German capital promised by his Secret Service” and allegedly had to cut his visit from “20 minutes to five."

“History and who we are is a narrative, so it's very important to compare the different narratives,” said Gunnar Dedio, a film producer and media entrepreneur who last year bought Progress, the company holding the license rights to the East German film collection.

“It's not only the propaganda side of it, but also the whole societal side, where we can understand much better the differences in the Germany of today — why people who were socialized in East or West are still quite different often in their thinking, because their backgrounds, their history, was quite different.”

Dedio charges license fees to documentary producers, museums and others wanting to use the films, but they're currently available to view online for free.

The cellar of his Leipzig operation is stacked floor-to-ceiling with canisters of 35mm film reels, each labeled, catalogued and waiting to be scanned, a process that is expected to take another two to three years. In all there are more than 12,000 films, including some 2,000 newsreels — one made every week the German Democratic Republic, or DDR by its German initials, existed.

The online offerings include digitized films from other archives, like western newsreels and a series of home movies featuring Adolf Hitler’s girlfriend, and later wife, Eva Braun, enjoying holidays with family, friends, pets and the Nazi dictator himself as German armies marched through Europe.

Though some of the better-known movies have been available on DVD for a long time, having the entire collection available is a goldmine for researchers, said Stefan Wolle, the head of research for Berlin's DDR Museum, who is not affiliated with the project.

“For me, and for us, these films are terribly important and valuable, partially as historical documents, which tell a lot about the time from the perspective of the time — the ideology, the cultural policies. And they're also artistically valuable,” he said.

Germany was divided into four occupation zones after World War II, the Soviet-influenced East Germany and West Germany's American, British and French sectors.

In the Soviet sector, authorities in 1946 founded DEFA, a monopoly film production company that used the famous Babelsberg studio outside Berlin and its personnel to start making movies meant to reeducate the German people after years of Nazi rule.

DEFA soon broadened its productions to highlight wider themes of communism, like the emancipation of women and the redistribution of wealth, in feature films, documentaries and newsreels.

In 1950, the year after East Germany was established as a country, the authorities formed another company, Progress, as a state monopoly to distribute DEFA films and to import foreign productions.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, DEFA’s studios were sold and its film collection was given to a state-run foundation. Progress went through a couple of hands before being acquired by Dedio’s company in 2019.

DEFA teams shot around the world from the Eastern perspective, exploring the inequities of South Africa under apartheid while it was still largely tolerated by Western nations, focusing on the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests in the U.S., and looking at the 1967 six-day war between Israel and its neighbors as an act of “imperialist aggression” by Tel Aviv in collusion with “the U.S.A and other NATO countries.”

The films feature leaders like Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Indira Gandhi, Yasser Arafat, Ho Chi Minh and Salvador Allende, as well as prominent individuals such as American civil rights activist Angela Davis and actors and entertainers like Marlene Dietrich, Jane Fonda, and Louis Armstrong.

“It's a picture to show that ‘Our system is right and that the Western democracies are very far from being good societies, and some of it is, of course, propaganda," Dedio said. "But some of it seen with eyes from today is very, very interesting and revealing. It shows what wasn't captured on the western side of the Iron Curtain.”

As anti-government sentiment grew in East Germany during the 1980s, directors were emboldened to slip messages about topics that were verboten to talk about overtly past the strict state censors, such as by filming buildings in disrepair in the background of scenes to document the country's crumbling infrastructure.

“Most of the time, they find these very small ways to express what they really think, in metaphors, in symbolic ways, in very intelligent ways, where it was difficult for the censorship to intervene. But for the majority of people, it was clear how it was meant,” said Dedio, who was born in the East German city of Rostock in 1969 and grew up watching DEFA films.

A documentary on the underground music scene made just before the fall of the Berlin Wall features a beach concert of the East Berlin punk band Feeling B, several of whose members later found fame as part of the post-reunification band Rammstein.

A group of youths, their pants cuffed and boots laced high as they dance wildly in the sand, wouldn't have looked out of place in a New York. London or Toronto mosh pit in the 1980s, a reminder that beyond the official rhetoric, most residents on the east side of the Iron Curtain were just ordinary people living their lives.

“You see a lot of real life in pictures out of the East which you can’t find in the official propaganda,” Dedio said.

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