The collaboration between North American film distribs First Run Features and German producers IceStorm/DEFA appears to be bringing some real gems to the US market. Many of the films IceStorm/DEFA own the rights for are little seen East-German productions which until recently were part of a state-controlled film archive with a very limited distribution network. Fortunately enough after the reunification of Germany these films are now slowly making their way to those who would be curious enough to see them.
Jahrgang '45 a.k.a Born in '45 (1965) is a film that I have never seen shown in cinemas. Most certainly none of the art-house theaters where I've lived ever had a showing of it. Which is not surprising at all given the fact that Jurgen Bottcher's work was banned before its "official" release in East Germany. As it often happens however Born in '45 gained some serious following amongst those who managed to see it and eventually became something of a cult picture.
It gets even more interesting however. Apparently the very few who managed to see this "controversial" film must have been closely affiliated with the Communist Party in the now defunct East Germany as the copy in circulation provided for the state censors was actually an unfinished working print. Why you may ask? Well, because apparently Born in '45 was so earth-shattering that Jurgen Bottcher was told to immediately abandon the project and concentrate on something more "meaningful". As a result the film never received the ending its creator envisioned and even the "official" print that was screened during the 1990 Berlin International Film Festival was actually the same old unfinished, intended for the East-German party censors, copy.
Now what was so controversial about Born in '45? Those of you curious enough to see this film will discover that actually there isn't much here that one can describe as "controversial" (certainly not "controversial" enough for those who have seen the works of the Nouvelle Vague directors). Two lovers Alfred (Rolf Romer) and Rita (Monika Hildebrand) live in a tiny and mostly dreary looking apartment in East Berlin. One day they both decide that there isn't much that can keep their union going and the couple agrees to divorce. Alfred embarks on a revealing journey through the streets of East Berlin while Rita becomes visibly depressed.
I am not quite so sure how this film rivals the works of the great French and Italian directors from the late 50s and 60s and I sure do not see any visual resemblance with the work of Jean Luc Godard (apparently a well-known critic at the Boston Phoenix thought that such exists). What I do know after seeing Born in '45 is that Jurgen Bottcher's film offers a fractured narrative with plenty of suggestive acting that might have pulled a sensitive string here and there and as a result the East German censors must have concluded that enough is enough. Why? Because seeing East German directors produce films where the main protagonists act and converse in a manner contradicting the favored by the Communist regime at the time moral doctrine was flat-out wrong! Plain and simple!
This being said Born in '45 is without a doubt a great film to see. I am particularly fond of Eastern European cinema from the early 60s-80s when the winds of perestroika began blowing in the East and I must admit that Born in '45 brought some colorful memories back to life. Each time I look at a film that survived the communist sanitizing machine a sense of nostalgia starts creeping in me-not because I long for the regime that devastated the region, but because these were times when film directors attempted countless strategies to beat the communist censors and most of the time their efforts resulted in some remarkable films. Born in '45 is a great example!
How Does the Film Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 the print provided for this DVD release has been sourced from a PAL master. There is some mild "ghosting" throughout but the overall quality of the image is great. Shot in black and white Born in '45 appears to have undergone major restoration work and it clearly shows: contrast is very good, blacks are deep and well-saturated, and as suggested above there is hardly any print damage here. I suppose the only fault with this release is the fact that the DVD wasn't properly sourced.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original mono German track the audio is also of very good quality. Dialog is easy to follow and I did not notice any disturbing hissing/dropouts. The white English (optional) subtitles are very well done.
There are number of extras on this disc that provide a great deal of information about this little seen in the US film. First there is an interview with the director of photography Roland Graf where he recalls his work with the director of Born in '45 Jurgen Bottcher, the Italian influence, and the difficulties the film script presented (there is excellent information about the communist propaganda machine). Next, there is a short documentary titled Forbidden Films in Retrospect where we are given the opportunity to learn about a number of DEFA films that were banned by the GDR Communist Party. Professor Frank Hornigk from Humboldt University in Berlin share and Peter Rabenalt, drama Professor at Potsdam-Babelsberg Film and Television Academy share their thoughts and recollections. Next, there are three newsreels from 1975, 1976, and 1977 that shed plenty of light on the political environment in the former GDR. Next, there is an essay in text format titled A Personal Reflection by Film Historian Rolf Richter where the work and life of Jurgen Bottcher are closely analyzed. Last but not least there is a photo gallery and biographies/filmographies section with information about the cast and director.
If not for the PAL-sourcing this DVD by First Run Features can very well rival some of Criterion's releases. I truly like the films the North American distribs bring through their union with DEFA and they always seem to provide plenty of extras to compliment their releases. RECOMMENDED.