Falk Harnack's "Das Beil von Wandsbek" ("The Axe of Wandsbek", based on Arnold Zweig's novel written in exile) was banned in 1951. The DEFA production was not released until 1962, heavily edited; Erwin Geschonneck's nuanced portrayal of a butcher who becomes a Nazi executioner was out of step with the official policy of depicting moral issues in black and white. With the ban on "Das Beil von Wandsbek", a brief five-year period which had produced several classics of German cinema drew to a close. The first in this unique series of films was Wolfgang Staudte's anti-Nazi work "Die Mörder sind unter uns" (Murderers Among Us/The Murderers Are Among Us), which started shooting in the Althoff Studios on March 16, 1946, even before the DEFA was officially founded. Stylistically, "Die Mörder sind unter uns" carried on the expressionist lighting tradition of the 1920s, and it was shot by Friedl Behn-Grund and Eugen Klagemann, cameramen with years of experience. The major dilemma in the DEFA's early years was how to react to the "Ufa tradition" of Nazi cinema, and how to produce antifascist stories with technicians and artists many of whom had made their careers in the film industry of the "Third Reich" – for an audience used to the slick, entertaining style of Nazi-era film.
Kurt Maetzigs first feature film, "Ehe im Schatten" ("Marriage in the Shadows", 1947), tells the story of married actors driven to suicide by the Nazis' anti-Semitic persecution, based on the fate of Joachim Gottschalk. The film was shown in all four occupation zones and drew more than ten million viewers in three years. When it was shown in Hamburg, Nazi director Veit Harlan was expelled from the theater; ironically, the music for "Ehe im Schatten" was written by Wolfgang Zeller, who had composed the music for Harlan's anti-Semitic propaganda film "Jud Süss" ("Jew Süss"). The production plan for the first few years combined entertainment with some interesting experiments. In "Irgendwo in Berlin" ("Somewhere in Berlin", 1946), Gerhard Lamprecht bridged the gap between his successful children's film "Emil und die Detektive" ("Emil and the Detectives", 1931) and the reality of devastated post-war Berlin by having the adult protagonist in both films played by Fritz Rasp. In "Freies Land" ("Free Land", 1946), Milo Harbich tried to synthesize stylistic elements of Soviet revolutionary film with didactic sermons on land reform; "Und wenn's nur einer wär" ("Even If It Were Only One"), by Wolfgang Schleif, (Harlan's former assistant) confronts the issue of young "delinquents". The most important films seized on historical events as a way of addressing contemporary problems. In 1948, Erich Engel's "Affaire Blum" ("Blum Affair/The Affair Blum") dramatized an actual case from the early 1930s in which the authorities "solved" a murder by knowingly convicting an innocent Jew.
In 1948/49 Kurt Maetzig's "Die Buntkarierten" ("The Ones in Colored Check") and Wolfgang Staudte's "Rotation" took a new approach to early 20th century German history by showing the lives of proletarian families, a contrast to the bourgeois perspective which had hitherto predominated. In 1949/50 Maetzig and the writer Friedrich Wolf exposed the close connections between the Nazis and the giant chemical company IG Farben in "Der Rat der Götter" ("The Council of the Gods"). Staudte's "Der Untertan" ("The Subject/The Kaiser's Lackey/Man of Straw") a scathing 1951 satire of German philistinism based on the novel by Heinrich Mann, was banned in West Germany for years. This era at the DEFA came to a close around 1950, when the cultured, more liberal Soviet film officers and inspectors left the country after the founding of the GDR and the DEFA was taken over by German Stalinists like Director General Sepp Schwab.