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East German film made during the Cold War is a fascinating subject, and I feel grateful to have been able to sample many examples through the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, starting with the propagandistic science fiction thriller The Silent Star. Some of these politically minded films were ideologically directed by the East German regime. Others questioned the status quo and saw little distribution; some dealt more openly with controversial issues and were suppressed outright.
A couple of DEFA releases hail from the year that the Berlin Wall actually came down. The excellent The Architects courageously addressed the touchy emigration issue, only to be rendered obsolete when history intervened and the barriers suddenly fell. Just out from DEFA is another remarkable film, a documentary called Winter adé (Winter Farewell). Filmed in 1988, just before the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, this picture remains topically relevant. Director Helke Misselwitz' uncomplicated method was to interview five or six subjects, in search of what life is really like for modern women of East Germany. The answers are eye opening, to say the least.
The film's main revelation? Winter adé is an apolitical expression of the 'human condition' from the POV of ordinary women. It uncovers core feminist issues, without resorting to the advocacy rhetoric often encountered here.
Director Misselwitz' camera crisscrosses East Germany through its rail system, finding interesting interview subjects along the way. The women we encounter come from a range of backgrounds. Some have successful careers and others have pretty much been abandoned by "the system".
Hiltrud Kulmann is a manager in trade advertising. A teen bride, she separated from her husband after having one baby and that looked for a new mate who had a child of his own. That union didn't work out either. When her son became a teenager, he and his girlfriend had a child and then married, but that arrangement also fell apart quickly. She expresses dismay that the younger generation approach relationships and sex in such crude terms. Hiltrud now leads this loose family, with estranged mates that visit from time to time; she's raising her grandchild as if it were her own. Hiltrud's story keeps coming back to the issue of male dominance. She left home too soon to escape her father and later rebelled against her husband. Now she's a successful professional, but she's unimpressed by the sexism in the workplace. Members of the 'state central council' regulating her industry are treated like monarchs, and almost all of the career-advancing productivity awards go to men.
At 78 years, Liselotte Schaller still runs a dance (and deportment?) school for children. It's been in the family for 150 years, and shut down only once, for a couple of years when "Total War" began in 1943. We see her encouraging a group of young boys and girls to get up and dance together. The woman is an energetic dynamo. She and her husband were an exhibition dancing team, as seen in a photo she proudly displays. Even as everything went crazy during the war, she cared for eight children, three of them her own.
Christine Schiele is 37 and works a dirty job at a briquette factory, cleaning the flues of an enormous furnace. At the end of each workday she must shower off the soot. She came from a rough farm background where her brother did nothing and she labored instead of properly finishing school. Christine had to get married at 17. Her off 'n' on husband gave her two kids and then left. Her (unseen) daughter is mentally handicapped and spends most of her time verbally abusing her from the next room. Christine is emotionally desperate -- her children don't return her love and being the single mother of a child with problems makes her a social outcast. Life is grim.
We meet two 16 year-old runaways under a bridge, Anja and Kristin. They dress like punks and candidly admit that they're trying to escape boring or dysfunctional home lives, where absent parents don't care or have left for the West. They've let their grades fall. Neither cares about school, although Kristin regrets that she can't become a cook because her grades are below "C" level. They paint graffiti they don't really believe: "CHEATED, DECEIVED, RAISED TO HATE." They say that they run with boys sometimes; one shares her fantasy of moving to Hawaii. The state apparently has no tolerance for delinquents. We later see one of them leaving parents behind, taking a train to a reformatory. There will be no more school. Anja thinks she'll be working in a light bulb factory. We see her baby picture.
As a change of pace we see a family celebration for a diamond anniversary for Margarete Busse, who is 85, and her husband Hermann. Their enormous family of descendants includes ranks of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, one of which seems very devoted to Magarete. The withered old lady is plenty lively when it comes time to dance with her sons and husband. Various daughters speak proudly of the grand woman and the happiness that seems to be hers. It all seems a portrait of an Eastern-bloc life lived in harmony. The camera then catches up with Margarete a day later, and in just a few short sentences she tells us the truth about her life as she sees it. Happy? Not quite.
Erika Banhardt runs a home for troubled children but is also a politician, at present a deputy mayor. In her fifties, she also seems to "have it together", but her candid speech has a rueful edge, as if her fixation on a career has hurt other aspects of her life. Erika's male partners haven't lived up to her expectations. She loved men but didn't want to live with them. If she had it to do all over, she wouldn't have raised children alone.
In between these interviews we get glimpses of details of life in East Germany. We see a news broadcast playing on a display of TV sets in a department store window. An old woman runs a miserable little shop repairing dolls. A marching band gathers; they look as if they're accompanying new army recruits to a railway station. A drive-in movie (!?) appears to be showing 1974's The Legend of Paul and Paula, a romantic story with sex scenes. A family we meet lives under tight economic restrictions. The couple says that their "child stipend" doesn't go far enough. A group of young girls on a train voice similar ambitions to their Western counterparts -- marriage, maybe, children yes. They covet a life with a house and other material things. None talks about dedicating her life to the good of the state.
What we see is that after 35 years of a "worker's paradise", East Germany is no less materialistic than the West. None of the women interviewed has formed a lasting relationship with a husband. Those in lower-rung occupations have no way of bettering themselves, and may not even have the right to quit a bad job. Even the professional achievers regret that their family lives are in total disarray.
Winter adé is often noted as "the first and only East German feminist documentary", which isn't surprising. What is impressive is that it is so moving and interesting -- after so many talking head docus it's refreshing to see one as gripping as this. The issues under discussion are in no way restricted to life in a Communist-run country -- these experiences are universal. I for one am no longer impressed listening to angry women from Beverly Hills speaking about about the plight of unenlightened women. The women of Winter adé are playing out the same frustrating stories women have faced since the Industrial Age began.
DEFA Film Library's DVD of Winter adé is an excellent B&W transfer of this remarkable document from East Germany, just before the "fall". The transfer is sharp and well defined, with excellent contrast. Audio is clear and the easy-to-follow English subtitles are optional. Besides its entertainment value, this is an excellent film for Women's Studies. Americans will instantly recognize the music cue over the credits, Summertime sung by Janis Joplin!
DEFA adds an original trailer, text bios and filmographies, and as a DVD-Rom extra, three essays, After Winter Comes Spring by Claus Löser; Narrating Woman's History in Winter adé by Jennifer Creech; and My November 9th, 1989 by director Helke Misselwitz.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Winter adé rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.