Mothers, Comrades, and Outcasts in East German Women's Film

Mothers, Comrades, and Outcasts in East German Women's Film

by Jennifer L. Creech


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Mothers, Comrades, and Outcasts in East German Women's Film by Jennifer L. Creech

Mothers, Comrades, and Outcasts in East German Women's Film merges feminist film theory and cultural history in an investigation of "women’s films" that span the last two decades of the former East Germany. Jennifer L. Creech explores the ways in which these films functioned as an alternative public sphere where official ideologies of socialist progress and utopian collectivism could be resisted. Emerging after the infamous cultural freeze of 1965, these women’s films reveal a shift from overt political critique to a covert politics located in the intimate, problem-rich experiences of everyday life under socialism. Through an analysis of films that focus on what were perceived as "women’s concerns"—marital problems, motherhood, emancipation, and residual patriarchy—Creech argues that the female protagonist served as a crystallization of socialist contradictions. By framing their politics in terms of women’s concerns, these films used women’s desire and agency to contest the more general problems of social alienation and collectivism, and to re-imagine the possibilities of self-fulfillment under socialism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253023018
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/14/2016
Series: New Directions in National Cinemas Series
Pages: 306
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jennifer L. Creech is Associate Professor of German at the University of Rochester, where she is Affiliate Faculty in Film and Media Studies, and Associate Faculty at the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies. She is editor (with Thomas O. Haakenson) of Spectacle. Her research and teaching interests include late 20th-century German literature, film, and culture; cinema studies; and Marxist and feminist theories.

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Mothers, Comrades, and Outcasts in East German Women's Films

By Jennifer L. Creech

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer L. Creech
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02317-9


Happily Ever After? The Emancipatory Politics of Female Desire in Lot's Wife

Is it now clear to all comrades ... that this isn't about literature nor is it about lofty philosophy, rather, that this is about a political struggle between two systems? ... It's about securing East German freedoms. ... But we have freedoms that move beyond those of the West; we just don't have freedoms for the insane. ... We have no freedoms for counterrevolutionaries, absolutely not.

— Walter Ulbricht, 11th Plenary of the Central Committee

[The SED leaders] had the wish and illusion: Why can't these boys make us a film that would finally help us to govern! And that makes it clear that we live in the best of all possible worlds? — They didn't understand that no one was going to do that, that it just wouldn't work, that art has to be subversive.

— Egon Günther, "Die verzauberte Welt"


The emergence of DEFA's women's films represents one particular piece of a larger shift in European cinematic history of the postwar period. While I will situate DEFA primarily within the East European and West German contexts in the chapters that follow, it is imperative to consider how DEFA's aesthetic and political engagements of the mid-1960s, the period from the thaw into the freeze, are also related to cinematic trends extending into Western Europe as well. From the mid-1950s until well into the 60s, DEFA films exhibited clear influences from both Italy and France, as well as from West Germany. Beginning with the first "Berlin film," Berlin — Ecke Schönhauser [Berlin — Schönhauser Corner] (dir. Gerhard Klein, 1957), and followed by numerous others, the East German cinema experienced a less than decade-long New Wave that revealed influences as diverse as Italian Neo-Realism, cinema verité, documentary realism and the magical realism typical of the Czechoslovakian cinema. The film that I discuss in this chapter, Egon Günther's Lot's Wife (1965), exhibits affinities with and differences from the trends in the French and West German cinemas at that time, particularly with regards to female desire as a structure for the film's narrative logic and political engagement.

The cinematic similarities that transgress the boundaries between East and West during the 1960s are both aesthetic and content based, born out of a break with the past and a celebration of the "new" and the "modern," a desire to construct new modes of representation for a postwar generation coming of age. Like their East German counterparts, the French and West German filmmakers of the early 1960s were themselves participating in a form of patricide and parthenogenesis: in resisting Papas Kino (the Oberhausen Manifesto and the New German Cinema) and the cinéma de papa (the "young Turks" at the Cahiers du cinéma), West European filmmakers were, with varying and often divergent political goals, remaking the cinema in their own image. Theirs was a cinema of youth, a modern cinema that both resisted and manipulated traditional generic forms, and was simultaneously preoccupied with issues of gender and sexuality (at the level of film content), and aesthetic innovation (at the level of film form).

For the core cohort of the French New Wave — Truffaut and Godard, in particular — breaking with the cinéma de papa involved at first constructing a less overtly political cinema, one that was characterized by a rejection of history and an affirmation of the present whose dominant cultural traits were mannerism, stylization, formalism, and reflexivity. Like many of their colleagues in East and West Germany, the directors of the French New Wave rediscovered the Hollywood films of their childhood and their youth, engaging with particular genres in innovative new ways. Interestingly, by fetishizing individual Hollywood filmmakers — most notably Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks — as the epitome of artistic individualism, the cinéastes at Cahiers came to privilege what they described as cinematic auteurism, which, ironically, had its roots in the Hollywood dream factory. Distinct from the East European emphasis on a collectively-oriented socialist cinema that would serve as an alternative to the Hollywood model, and from the West German emphasis on auteurism as a rejection of Hollywood spectacle and as a path toward constructing a representative, democratic public sphere, the auteurism of the French New Wave is primarily characterized by distinct directorial styles that emphasize form, generic play, and abstraction rather than overt political engagement. However, it was in this very style, the formal results of their "individual talents" — the use of the jump cut, playful use of eye-line matches, disruption of continuity in editing, the use of text on screen, confusion of diegetic and extra-diegetic sound, and (often abstract) close-ups of beautiful female faces in long takes — that one observes a clear influence on other national new waves. In addition, the French New Wave's focus on particular characteristics of everyday life has its affinities in other East and West European cinemas of the period, including plots set in the immediate present; antiheroes as protagonists; a (primarily apolitical) refusal of institutions; nihilism and the absence of altruism; the increased presence of young, emancipated female protagonists; and an emphasis on the private sphere and individual problems, which focused on the banality of the everyday, the failure or rejection of the nuclear family, and issues of sexual emancipation.

The rebirth of the French and West German cinemas in the 1950s and 60s was clearly also a response to a diverse range of definite socio-cultural changes, including the various postwar "economic miracles" based in an American-style consumerism; the advent and social coup of youth culture; fomenting political resistance in the form of various social movements; as well as major changes in film production and distribution, including the introduction of lightweight cameras and onsite sound technology, and state and regional subsidies for the reestablishment of a national film culture that could compete with American imports.

In both France and West Germany, political and social movements provoked resistance to anti-authoritarianism, to the war in Vietnam, to colonialism, and to the residues of fascism in the newly democratized West. Feminist demands emerged from and grew alongside these movements, influencing the role women would play in the cinematic landscapes of both countries. While their counterparts in East Germany had already been benefitting from and learning to critique a paternalistic vision of women's equality handed down from the Party, women in Western Europe were decidedly constructing, as a grassroots movement, the second wave of feminism. Campaigns for equal rights and fair pay; access to contraception, abortion, and child care services; as well as equal representation in politics, access to typically masculine professions, and resistance to the exploitation of women in the workplace were only some of the demands being made by the West European feminist movements in the 1960s. Women's sexual emancipation and their various approaches to resisting patriarchy — avoiding marriage, embracing contraception, living in all-female communes, choosing lesbianism — reverberated in the films of the New Waves, which were produced almost exclusively by male directors.

Interestingly, while women in both France and West Germany were reporting similar experiences of inequality and sexism, their respective national cinemas produced visually similar yet politically different discursive meanings of woman and femininity. This can be partly explained by the different national experiences of the war and postwar period, the role of cinema as a national (exportable) art form, and the role of cinema as a site of public discourse. For the core cohort of the French New Wave — Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette — breaking with the past did not carry the same political gravity as it did for West and East German filmmakers, whose sense of historical responsibility weighed heavily in their cinematic politics. And although many of the radical thinkers of the 1960s and 70s who ushered in new political debates about academic knowledge, cultural elitism, and patriarchal power, were French — Bourdieu, Derrida, Foucault, Irigaray, Kristeva — their theorization of gendered, sexual, economic, political, and aesthetic discourses were not necessarily mirrored in the aesthetic politics of the French New Wave.

Instead, the French New Wave maintained a rather superficial relationship to gender politics. While amorous and sexual relations were often the focus of their films, the role of female desire and narrative agency was often contained by the point of view of a male protagonist. For James Monaco, "Truffaut's men are ... continually involved in an existential struggle to reaffirm their egos ... the women appear as art works, mysterious and confusing, variable and a little frightening ... women and art become indistinguishable." For Geneviève Sellier, the female protagonists represent "the male hero's fears and desires made concrete, and the viewer only has access to them through his gaze." When women are the main protagonists, "the director's gaze functions ... like that of a sociologist, who describes, with more or less pity or distance, the social and sexual alienation of the female character (and eventually her "emancipation" through love), in the lineage of Madame Bovary."

However, the French auteurs' interest in female problems, most notably women's sexual emancipation, served as an important influence for both East and West European cinemas beginning as early as the late 1950s. Roger Vadim's Et Dieu ... créa la femme [And God Created Woman] (1956) is particularly interesting in this respect. Brigitte Bardot's raw expression of sexuality is presented by Vadim quite voyeuristically, most notably in the opening scene of her sunbathing nude and during the scene in which she dances the mambo. In the latter scene the camera, representing the points-of-view of her husband and her lover as the diegetic surrogates for the male viewer, holds a close-up of her bare legs as they uncontrollably gyrate to the driving beat, a scene that clearly manifests Mulvey's theorization of the cinematic male gaze. Yet Bardot simultaneously registers the sociological importance of a new model of sexually uninhibited femininity, which "provided liberating effects that were discussed in many popular magazines for young women" at the time mostly because she fell outside of hitherto acceptable categories of French femininity. Louis Malle's Les Amants [The Lovers] (1958) was also groundbreaking in its representation of female desire: while receiving cunnilingus from her lover, Jeanne Moreau is presented in a facial close-up, providing the viewer with overt evidence of her sexual pleasure. More important for the films that came after, and for this chapter in particular, however, was Malle's use of the female voice-over. Spoken by Moreau about the character she is playing, the female voice-over privileges the heroine's perspective while also providing a distancing effect that presents her choice to escape the confines of her bourgeois marriage without moral judgement. This use of voice-over, along with the final shot of Moreau's character driving off into an uncertain future, is mirrored in Günther's cinematic choices in Lot's Wife, though with rather different political meanings.

Of all the French influences one might detect in the East German New Wave, Godard's is most obvious. Both formal and narrative elements of Vivre sa vie [My Life to Live] (1962) and Une femme mariée [A Married Woman] (1964) can be rediscovered in Günther's film in particular. The protagonist of the first film is played by Anna Karina, the other by Macha Méril, both of whom Günther's protagonist, played by Marita Böhme, physically and stylistically resembles. The staging of femininity and masculinity, and of the three women's alienation in their intimate relationships, is highly stylized in each of the three films, through the use of black and white film, close-ups of the women's faces, and extreme close-ups of their bodies broken into various parts, as seen in Figures 1.1 through 1.6.

Yet while the visual and narrative elements are similar, the relationship between politics and gender is quite different. Godard does provide his female protagonists with a voice, using a male voice-over in the first film and a female voice-over in the second, and films them in such a way as to emphasize the alienation and commodification of romance and sex, more so than his other New Wave colleagues. In My Life to Live, this is particularly so, as sex is removed from marriage (Anna Karina's character, Nana, is divorced) and placed decidedly within the realm of commodification: Nana has become a prostitute in order to support herself. Yet, as Sellier argues, the use of the male voice-over and of intertitles introducing each of the twelve tableaux maintains a sociological distance that makes Nana less "understandable" since she remains an object of (male) observation.

In A Married Woman, Charlotte's voice serves as the extra-diegetic commentary for many of the images. Yet the abstract nature of her words — a stream of consciousness that does not make overt connections between sound and image — constructs her obtusely, maintaining a narrative distance between her and the viewer. In addition, the camera clearly fetishizes Charlotte's childlike beauty: the markers of her femininity — knees, legs, belly button, face, eyes, mouth, hands, arms — are presented in long takes and in close-up. Although we are encouraged to witness her body as being somewhat contained — her lover's hand grasping her wrist or his hands pressing against her abdomen — she is primarily presented as an object of his, and by extension, our desire.

Further, Charlotte's own desire to escape her marriage floats between the film's politics, rather than being connected to the larger issues Godard seems to want to address in the film. Discussions of the Holocaust and the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt are interspersed with scenes of Charlotte having sex with her lover and her husband; comparing, with geometrical precision, the size of her breasts with the "perfect bust" measurements in a woman's magazine; shopping for bras; and listening to two young women at the local coffee shop discuss their first experiences of sex. The relationship between female desire and politics is only made obvious through the camera's gaze and through the alignment of feminine desire with an ahistorical, anti-intellectual relationship to the world, in particular to the past. This is made clear in two scenes introduced with the intertitles: I. Memory and II. The Present. The first is introduced by Charlotte, who argues that "The past isn't amusing, the present is more important," which is followed by Charlotte's husband's soliloquy on memory. Smoking a cigar and describing his experience of the Auschwitz trials, he remarks on the unbelievable inability of perpetrators to remember anything of their crimes and of false memory. He ends by saying he remembers everything: his first flight, a childhood vacation, the day they met, the dress she wore. This is followed by the second scene, II. The Present, in which Charlotte asserts that memory is not for her, she prefers the present because it is more exciting, because things die, and because of love: love has to be lived, and one lives in the present. One has to be aware, it's difficult to live in the present, she argues, but she loves to live in the present because it gives her no time to think, and because it's impossible to understand. Charlotte's face, presented in medium close-up, glows; she is youthful and unencumbered in her soliloquy. The alignment of masculinity with memory and understanding, and its juxtaposition with femininity as contingent and as object (rather than subject) of history and the gaze, reveals the underlying political meaning of femininity for Godard: women are fascinating because they are ungraspable, they provide aesthetic pleasure but are unknowable, and, most important, they are "incapable of knowing or taking responsibility for their desire." Godard reveals here that the feminine exists outside of (masculine) politics, because she exists outside of a history: she is a contingent, commodified object to be fetishized by the camera, but not understood, since she cannot even understand herself. Günther's film, on the other hand, takes a different route by privileging feminine desire as a means of potential resistance to a socialist ideology of labor — an ideology built upon a memory of the past that must not be repeated in a future utopia — and by using the female voice-over to overdetermine the narrative logic of the film. As such, Katrin Lot resembles several West German protagonists of the time, whose femininity is more directly aligned with an overt politics of coming to terms with the past in the present.


Excerpted from Mothers, Comrades, and Outcasts in East German Women's Films by Jennifer L. Creech. Copyright © 2016 Jennifer L. Creech. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Note on Translation
Introduction: Rescuing History from the Ruins
1. Happily Ever After? The Emancipatory Politics of Female Desire in Lot’s Wife
2. The Lonely Woman? (Re)production and Female Desire in The Bicycle and On Probation
3. Pleasure in Seeing Ourselves? All My Girls
4. Real Women: Goodbye to Winter and the Documentary Women’s Film
Conclusion: After the Fall
DEFA Filmography

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