Placing Hope in Honecker

In 1971, when Erich Honecker took over the leadership of the SED from Walter Ulbricht (later becoming head of state as well), his speeches held out hope for a more liberal cultural policy: there were no taboos in the arts, he insisted, as long as artists stuck to the socialist platform. One of the first films after the change in leadership was Egon Günther's "Der Dritte" ("The Third"), which won prizes for Best Director and Best Actress (Jutta Hoffmann) at the film festivals in Karlovy Vary and Venice, as well as the National Prize of the GDR, the highest award which an East German artist could achieve. The film was also a box office hit. With a screenplay by Günther Rücker, "Der Dritte" tells the unspectacular but humorous story of a woman in search of her third partner. Günther's next film, "Die Schlüssel" ("The Keys", 1971), a close collaboration with screenwriter Helga Schütz, landed him in political difficulties again, making him decide to stop filming contemporary themes.

Source: DIF, © DEFA-Stiftung
Winfried Glatzeder in "Die Legende von Paul und Paula" ("The Legend of Paul and Paula", 1972)

The biggest hit of the era was Heiner Carow's "Die Legende von Paul und Paula" ("The Legend of Paul and Paula"), from 1972 – a bittersweet love story about the young shop assistant Paula (Angelica Domröse) who lives out her love for the married Paul (Winfried Glatzeder) in the face of overwhelming obstacles. The film was based on the book by Ulrich Plenzdorf, whose banned screenplay "Die neuen Leiden des jungen W." ("The New Sorrows of Young W.") was hugely successful both as a short story and on stage, especially with young people. Siegfried Kühn, who had studied at the Moscow Film Academy VGIK, broke with narrative conventions in "Das zweite Leben des Friedrich Wilhelm Georg Platow" ("The Second Life of F. W. G. Platow", 1972/73). Shifting between different camera and montage styles and jumping from one genre to another, Kühn and cameraman Roland Dressel depicted a dismissed signal-man's search for a new life – and came into conflict with the studio management.

Source: DIF, © DEFA-Stiftung
Vlastimil Brodský and Erwin Geschonneck in "Jakob der Lügner" ("Jacob the Liar", 1974)

Another long-unrealized screenplay was Jurek Becker's "Jakob der Lügner" ("Jacob the Liar"). Becker, who had grown up in a Polish ghetto, turned the screenplay into a novel which became an international bestseller; in 1974 the film finally got the go-ahead. Directed by Frank Beyer, "Jakob der Lügner" (Beyer's first film for the big screen after "Spur der Steine") broke with the conventions of the antifascist genre, handling the story of the Jews in the ghetto as a sentimental parable – a rarity in DEFA films. The film represented the GDR with great success at the Film Festival in West Berlin and was the only film in the history of the DEFA to be nominated for an Oscar. After several ironic children's films, Rainer Simon filmed his version of the medieval tale of "Till Eulenspiegel" (1973/74) as a parable of the artist rebelling against church and state. Simon came into conflict with the authorities when he continued in this vein with the satire "Zünd an, es kommt die Feuerwehr" ("Light Up, the Fire Department's Coming", 1977/78).