GDR International

A three-part program in the context of documenta fifteen.

Video still form Frauen in Berlin (Women in Berlin, GDR 1982) by Chetna Vora.

Barely known, or looked back upon with either ridicule or romanticization, an adequate appreciation of the GDR’s versatile support for independence movements in the Global South remains wanting. While today, official  German History tends to deal with state-sponsored GDR internationalism  under the blanket denotation of the Socialist Germany as an  “Unrechtsstaat”, or “illegitimate State”, for many, the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist programmatic of that State did represent “the better Germany” on the post-WWII map.

With hindsight, the GDR often seemed to have been on the “right side of the road”—a point to be made, for example, when acknowledging the country′s steadfast indictment of apartheid in South Africa, the Pinochet regime in Chile and the US intervention in Vietnam, even if the reasons for such positioning were more pragmatic than the idealistic rhetoric suggested.

GDR International probes three exemplary aspects of how the  internationalist agenda of Socialist East Germany (German Democratic Republic) were negotiated in film and film politics. It is a response to the  film program of the lumbung artists, whose contributions are being shown at the Gloria cinema during documenta fifteen. The program also  acknowledges the special significance of archives as testimonies of parallel histories and networks of solidarity within the context of documenta fifteen.

GDR International #1

Three rarely shown shorts by Peter Ulbrich, produced for the popular education arm of the GDR′s state film production, DEFA, recall the importance of North Vietnam for the political self-image of the “first socialist German state”.

Wo einst Könige saßen
(Where Once Sat Kings)
dir.: Peter Ulbrich, GDR 1957, 9 min,
German with English subtitles
A sympathetic gaze at a country recently liberated from foreign  domination, now facing a selfdetermined future built on its cultural  traditions. The division between North and South Vietnam is subtly likened to that between East and West Germany. Ulbrich′s first take on Vietnam was internally criticized for “romanticizing the past.”

Die Fischer von Vinh-moc
(The Fishermen from Vinh-moc)
dir.: Peter Ulbrich, GDR 1958, 17 min,
German with English subtitles
The steady path to socialism told from the perspective of a fisherman. He praises the help of brotherly countries towards the gradual modernization of his trade and again draws parallels between the division of Vietnam and  that of Germany: “The Den Hai river is our Elbe.” Shot under the working title Red Sails on the Blue Horizon, Ulbrich′s second film on Vietnam was lauded for “presenting the heroic contributions of simple people in the construction of socialism.”

Denkt an mein Land
(Think of My Country)
dir.: Peter Ulbrich, GDR 1966, 19 min,
German with English subtitles
A scorching indictment of the US intervention in Vietnam identifying the destruction of a socialist society as its driving motive and glorifying the skillful resistance of David against Goliath. A compilation film partly made from footage shot by DEFA crews in Vietnam during the war, it played a significant role in publicly reinforcing the GDR′s support for the Viet Cong and anti-imperialist struggles worldwide.

GDR International #2

In the Year of the Pig
dir.: Emile de Antonio, USA 1968, 104 min
The well-equipped, internationally renowned State Film Archive in East Berlin was an important source for American filmmaker Emile de Antonio′s radical take on the US intervention in Vietnam, In the Year of the Pig (1968). One of the most devastating indictments of the Vietnam War in film history, the film analyzes the wider historical context of the US intervention and lays bare its racist foundations. The film combines archival footage meticulously raked from various sources with interviews de Antonio filmed
with a wide range of protagonists representing different views on the war.

Being a radical, FBI-blacklisted filmmaker made Emile de Antonio a prominent representative of “the other America”, a term used among GDR officials to refer to cultural institutions and individuals in the USA with  whom collaboration was politically desirable. From the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, de Antonio was a frequent visitor at the documentary film festival in Leipzig – where In the Year of the Pig picked up a Silver Dove award in 1968 – and he maintained a cooperative correspondence with  Peter Ulbrich, whose Vietnam footage he was given access to when researching In the Year of the Pig at the GDR State Film Archive.

GDR International #3

Among the many foreign filmmakers trained at the GDR State film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg was the Indian Chetna Vora, who studied there from 1976 to 1981. The confiscation and forced abandonment of her diploma film, Frauen in Berlin (Women in Berlin, 1982), testify to the contradictions behind the benevolent facade of the GDR′s internationalist commitment.

dir.: Chetna Vora, GDR 1980, 45 min,
German with English subtitles
After several short films, the mid-length documentary Oyoyo was Chetna Vora′s examination film. Filmed by her partner, Lars Barthel, her encounters with students from Chile, Cuba, the People′s Republic of Mongolia, Ethiopia, and Guinea-Bissau move effortlessly between everyday chores, moments of silence, joy, nostalgia, and longer conversations about  personal hopes and ambitions. Made possible in a tangible atmosphere of mutual trust, Oyoyo conveys rare insights into the everyday life of an  “international community” aware of its temporary status. Almost no  reference is made to Berlin or the GDR, and except for the opening and  closing shots, the entire film is set indoors, in a student residence whose  corridors are pervaded by the Guinean liberation song the film borrows its title from.

Reading (German with English supertitles)
In an unpublished transcript, filmmaker Tamara Trampe and film professor Christiane Mückenberger, two important figures of GDR film in the 1980s,  talk about their memories of Chetna Vora and the circumstances that led to the confiscation and suppression of her diploma film, Frauen in Berlin (Women in Berlin), by the Babelsberg film school. Excerpts from the  conversation are read by film scholar Cornelia Klauß, herself an alumna of that school, and co-editor of Sie – Regisseurinnen der DEFA und ihre Filme, a comprehensive reader on the work of female directors within GDR state film production.

Frauen in Berlin (aka Schattenbilder)
Women in Berlin (aka Shadow Images)
dir.: Chetna Vora, GDR 1982, 139 min, German with English subtitles
Conversations with girls and women of different ages and various walks of life, almost entirely filmed in their private homes. Their testimonies focus on gender relations and the realities of everyday life in a society whose  utopian promises are wearing off, but have not entirely seized to inspire personal choices and ambitions. The film was meant to be Chetna Vora′s graduation piece from the East German state film school in Potsdam-Babelsberg.

After a preview screening of the two-hour rough cut for co-students and teachers, the school first demanded the film to be cut to the 30 min TV standard, and, after Chetna Vora′s refusal, not only stopped its finalization but apparently destroyed the entire source material. The form in which the film has survived, a pirated video copy obtained by Vora herself in a cloak-and-dagger operation, has made Frauen in Berlin a restless reminder of not only one contradiction behind the GDR′s benevolent and progressive facade

lumbung film: GDR International was part of Meydan #2 at documenta fifteen, from Aug 12 to 14, 2022.

The program was curated by Tobias Hering.

Thanks to: David Le Grant, DEFA Foundation, Decolonizing Socialism/Doreen Mende, Lars Barthel, Maria Nguyen, Progress Film, Kassel Dokfest, Short Film Festival Hamburg, vinit agarwal.

Special thanks to Felipe Steinberg and Michelle Bake Arenas who co-ordinated the program for documenta fifteen.