West Germany “Forgets to Remember” – Kurt Maetzig: German Film Maker 1911-2012

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By: Richard McKenzie

Kurt Maetzig

The 1979 showing of the American movie Holocaust on West German TV became an occasion for a mass outpouring of grief and shock as a reaction to the stark depiction of the Holocaust in Germany and Europe. Jewish commentator Julius Schoeps said of the reaction that “[f]or many people in the Federal Republic, “Holocaust” was an emotional introduction, the first encounter with the almost incomprehensible horrors of the Nazi regime. More than just a few became aware for the first time that they had repressed the murder of the Jews that was committed in the name of the German people and had previously avoided dealing with the past.”[1]

It was claimed by many that the film presented the Holocaust for the first time to the German public. However, the emotional reaction that greeted the film may also be taken as evidence that, to borrow a phrase from BBC Radio 4, the West Germans had “forgotten to remember” the work of the earlier Trȕmmerfilm (Rubblefilm) directors such as Kurt Maetzig, who became the most prolific director of the genre. He would go on to become one of the GDR’s leading directors from the 1940s to the 1970s and died this year on the 8th August. His three DEFA [Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft] Trȕmmerfilms; Ehe Im Schatten( Marriage in the Shadows) 1947, Die Buntkarierten (Girls in Gingham) 1949 and Der Rat der Götter (Council of the Gods) 1950 revealed the daily miseries of the Holocaust and took German history to task as he strove to remind Germans – East and West- of their bitter past. Born in Berlin on the 25th January 1911 Maetzig’s own life story was imprinted with the collapse of Weimar and the struggle against fascism. When he was interviewed about his life in the 1990s he described his life history thus “[I] lived under the Kaiser and experienced the First World War, went to school in the Weimar Republic and had my first political experiences during that period. Miraculously I survived fascism and the Second World War and in 1945 went to the place I felt I could be most actively involved in fighting the root causes of fascism and saw my own future in a state struggling to achieve socialism. I saw its mistakes early on and stayed because I thought it could be reformed. I experienced its disintegration and rightful collapse and now I’m living in a capitalist society again […] in the interests of us all, I sincerely hope that I will be spared a revival of fascism.”[2]

Remembering rubble

In 1947 Der Spiegel described the new Trümmerfilm genre as one where films “deal with the problems of today from the point of view of the little man” [3] and which are political but do not necessarily point the “finger of guilt”[4]at any one person or group. The magazine was clear that these films were an important step in dealing with the Nazi past and the “berubbled and crazy present” of the Occupation period.[5] The genre is one that spans both sides of the ever- firming Iron Curtain in the 1940s but is closely associated with the first films of the Soviet Zone of Occupation (SBZ) whose DEFA film studios had the remit to ”take part in the fight for the democratic reconstruction of Germany, and the root and branch removal of fascism and militarism from the minds of every German…”.[6] Filmmakers like Maetzig and his colleagues in the SBZ chose the path of combining storytelling with a strong message to create a “critical cinema”[7] as called for by the returned exiled playwright Friedrich Wolf. In this vein even in August 1945 the Soviet Occupation forces called together a nascent film group under the Zentralverwaltung für Volksbildung, (Central Organisation for the People’s Education) made up of German politicians and practitioners who had either been members of the KPD or in the socialist resistance during National Socialism. This group of cultural leaders[8] then called a film group together to create the Filmaktiv (Filmactive). With his background in the socialist resistance and film making technology Kurt Maetzig was a key member of this group and together with the other film makers would go on to develop, not only the Trȕmmerfilm genre but also establish anti-fascism as the key guiding principle of Maetzig and the other DEFA film makers.

It is possible to argue that Kurt Maetzig was born into the film industry and would have been prominent in the National Socialist Bablesberg film factory had it not been for his mother’s Jewish heritage. His father purchased a movie film duplication company in the 1920s which exposed Maetzig to the full range of film technologies from an early age. He studied in Munich and at the Sorbonne in Paris during the early 1930s. Following a short traineeship in film production he opened his own animation studio which produced cartoons and titles for films in 1935. These first steps in the film industry were halted, however, when in 1937 he was banned from making films by the Nazis for being half Jewish. This banning would eventually give Maetzig a unique standing amongst Trȕmmerfilm directors as of the 35 directors who would go on to produce Trȕmmerfilme only four, Maetzig, Slatan Dudow, Peter Lorre and the little known Erich Freund would have no career under National Socialism. The remaining Trümmerfilm directors would all have some sort of National Socialist UFA past. Despite being half Jewish he avoided deportation through the ministrations of influential friends and he made his living running a chemical company which was involved in the film industry. He joined the underground Communist Party (KPD) in 1944. The capitulation saw him attempting to resurrect the German film industry by trying to restart a derelict Luftwaffe propaganda studio near Berlin, but he quickly abandoned this and moved to the eastern sector of Berlin. The film makers of DEFA were driven by a powerful motivation to, as another DEFA director put it, “answer the question of how Fascism could have come to Germany”.[9] Maetzig stands out from his fellow fellow DEFA Trümmerfilm pioneers; Gerhard Lamprecht, Wolfgang Staudte, Georg Klaren and Peter Pewas, not only in his zeal for examining this question but also in remaining in East Germany throughout his career rather than fleeing westwards. When questioned about this, following the collapse of the Wall Maetzig replied that “I never considered leaving the German Democratic Republic, because I felt that I could only fight for the kind of democratic socialism I was hoping for from within the system and not from without.”[10] Maetzig would remain a key film maker and film functionary for the first 30 years of DEFA’s existence and would morph into a key commentator on DEFA’s output in the post-unification period.

Four seasons of a film career

Maetzig’s film career had four seasons, that of Trȕmmer pioneer, unwilling Socialist Realist propagandist, functionary filmmaker and rebel, then finally cultural commentator when the wall came down. His first season is, perhaps, the most significant and the one where Germany’s culpability and sin was most vehemently examined and criticised by Maetzig. In this Stunde Null (Year Zero) atmosphere of a berubbled new beginning Maetzig began not as a feature film director, but as the director of DEFA’s newsreel Wochenschau [The Week in Review]. Maetzig was director, chief reporter and voice-over artist who was determined to present the news in such a way as to counter the syrupy melodramatic kitsch of the Nazi’s news output. He coined Wochenschau’s powerful strapline “See for yourself, hear for yourself, judge for yourself”. He continued making Wochenschau and its successor Der Augenzeuge [Eye Witness] until 1959 but it would be as a feature film director that he would make his mark.

picture 1 ehe_im_schatten

In 1946 he was one of the four directors to hold a license to make movies in the Soviet Zone. He began with a powerful piece of Vergangenheitsbewȁltigung, (‘coming to terms with the past’) and grappling with the memories of a destructive century. His first feature film, Ehe Im Schatten, tells a story which mirrors his own backstory and is based on the biography of prominent German film actor, Joachim Gottschalk, who committed suicide with his Jewish wife in 1941 because of the pressure that this brought on the pair as he struggled for work and she was threatened with deportation. Maetzig has described that when the original idea for the film was put to him by theatre director Hans Schweikart it “shocked me very deeply because I had seen in my own circles many such tragedies. My mother had died fleeing from the Gestapo and I had many friends who I had seen persecuted.”[11] He fictionalised the story and set it in the context of a domestic relationship between fictional German actor Hans Wieland and his Jewish wife Elisabeth Maurer. Maetzig claimed that he wanted to “open up people’s hearts”[12] to the horrors of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is shown through a series of domestic vignettes rather than through a broad depiction of the horrors of the concentration camps. The most telling vignette is played out in the Berlin Jewish ration card office. Elisabeth Maurer is shown queuing for her ration cards with those yet to be deported. Initially there are two queues of people waiting to receive their cards. One is for Jews only and the other is for people who are married to non-Jews or are half Jewish. Eventually the queue for the “pure bred” Jews disappears and eventually the numbers in the queue for mixed race Jews slowly diminishes to hardly any people at all. As with the Gottschalks, Weiland and his wife see no way out and finally commit suicide. The film ends with a dedication to Gottschalk and his wife.

The dedication to the Gottschalks may have been the most shocking part the film in 1947. Following his suicide in 1941, Gottschalk simply became a “non-person” in Nazi Germany and few people knew the truth of his fate. So affecting was the first showing of the film, which was the first DEFA film to be simultaneously premiered in all four sectors of Berlin, that Der Spiegel commented “not a hand moved when the curtain came down. It wasn’t possible to tell whether this was because of the audience’s trepidation, or shock at having seen the horror of the last 12 years played out before them.”[13] Emotions around the film ran strong. When it was given its West Zone premiere in Hamburg there were protests amongst the audience when the premiere was gate-crashed by Viet Harlan who had directed the infamously anti sematic Nazi film Jud Sȕß (Germany, 1940) and who had not been invited.[14] Maetzig’s film was so effective in highlighting the Holocaust that, although the British were to ban all films made in the SBZ from presentation in its zone in 1948, Ehe im Schatten with its powerful and measured storytelling fitted perfectly with the British view of re-education and remained free for presentation in the cinemas of the British Zone.[15] The film was seen by 10 million people in Germany[16] and after Ehe Im Schatten it would be impossible for the German public to say “Wir haben es einfach nich gewuβt…. [we simply didn’t know]…”.

picture 2 buntkarierten

His next Trȕmmerfilm; Die Buntkarierten, examined Germany’s history from the 1890s to the capitulation. It shows German history through the story of the film’s main protagonist , a working class woman, Guste, whose family is slowly destroyed by capitalism and war until a new start is made in 1945. Such an obviously didactic film, pushing a strongly socialist view of German history might be assumed to only find favour in the SBZ, however it won plaudits in the West as well. The SED’s official organ, Neues Deutschland, welcomed the film saying “ a 100% YES to this film..” but surprisingly the American Zone’s Neue Zeitung described it as a “fantastic epic..” too. Even Der Spiegel reviewed the film as a “..romp through history with spirit and humour.”[17] Maetzig’s final Trȕmmerfilm Der Rat der Götter 1950 accuses German industry of supporting and benefiting from fascism. With the division of Germany formalised in 1949 with the creation of the GDR and Federal Republic the western press was much less fulsome in its welcome. Der Spiegel claimed that when the curtain went down the audience refused to applaud.[18] From the perspective of the 21st century it may appear that these DEFA films must have been influenced and controlled by the Soviet occupation authorities. Maetzig however was at pains to emphasise that at the beginning of DEFA’s production from1946 to around 1949 film makers had total freedom to make the “critical” films they wanted.[19] This freedom to make the “critical” films was not, however, to last. The establishment of the GDR in 1949 forced film makers to change direction as Maetzig commented that “ this wonderful first period lasted only three or four years, then everything changed with the creation of the GDR and censorship pass[ing] in to the hands of the new State authorities…”[20]

It was in this period, post 1949, of strong state control that the doctrines of Socialist Realist film making came to the fore. In this second season of his career Maetzig changed, or was forced to change, from making edgy and angry Trȕmmerfilme to being the unwilling director of the hagiographical and propagandist Ernst Thȁlmann films, Ernst Thälmann – Sohn seiner Klasse (Ernst Thälmann – Son of his Class) 1954 and Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (Ernst Thälmann – Leader of his Class) 1955. Maetzig would later claim that the films gave him “red ears”[21] of embarrassment when he thought about them afterwards. He claimed that he had been selected to direct the film, rather than having chosen the project himself and that he simply set out to make a biopic about Thälmann. The result was somewhat different and the film was to bring him into gentle conflict with the General Secretary of the SED and the GDR’s leader Walter Ulbricht. As a convinced Stalinist, Ulbricht felt he had the right to involve himself in the production of the movies and such was his interference that Maetzig warned him that “if you are on the operating table and the doctor is about to make the first incision it is not a good idea to tell him where to make the first cut.”[22] Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalinism in 1956 and the slow puncturing of the Socialist Realism aesthetic allowed Meatzig to catch the New Wave of film making in the 1960’s and move in to his third season of film making.

picture 3 first_spaceship_on_venus_silent_star_1960

The 1960s and 1970s saw Maetzig change direction to direct East Germany’s first science fiction film, Der schweigende Stern (‘The Silent Star’) 1960 and end his career with his final film Mann gegen Mann (Man against Man) in 1976. As a film maker and part of the DEFA censorship process he is regularly quoted in the documents of the East German film censor but it is as the director of the 1965 film Das Kaninchen bin ich (‘The rabbit is me’) that he became most famous. The film, a love story which criticises the East German legal system fell foul of the SED when DEFA’s output was aggressively criticised at the now infamous 11th Plenum of the SED in December 1965. In his speech to the Plenum the future General Secretary of the SED, Erich Honecker, said “these works of art [... ]hinder the development of a socialist consciousness on the part of the working classes […]. The matter is quite straightforward […] we cannot afford to propagate nihilistic, defeatist and immoral philosophies in literature, film, drama and television.”[23] This blistering attack on DEFA and, in particular, Maetzig’s film caused most of DEFA’s 1965 output to be shelved. His film gave its name to all the shelved DEFA films, which are now commonly known as “Kaninchen” films. Despite this set-back, Maetzig continued. However his output slowly declined until he made his final film in 1976. His own “Kaninchen” film would remain unseen until 1990 when the collapse of the GDR allowed Das Kaninchen bin ich to be seen in public for the first time.

“Lest We Forget”

Paradoxically, the collapse of the GDR gave Maetzig a new career direction. The final season of his career was not as a film maker but as creative commentator and defender of DEFA film making in the new unified Berlin Republic. At the end of his life he became the de-facto spokesman for the DEFA, speaking at conferences and giving interviews explaining his career and the motives behind his films. This role of “representative” and practitioner of “critical cinema” make him a pivotal character in the narrative of post war German film making. The DEFA Stiftung, which controls and promotes the DEFA archive, in its obituary of him described him as a director whose works “reflect like no other the tumultuous history of GDR film and whose films reflect the shadows, arguments and fears of East German film makers”.[24] This description omits the fact that he was the most prolific of all the Trȕmmerfilm directors who’s own back story and early films cannot fail to remind Germans of the horrors of National Socialism and the daily consequences of the Holocaust.

This and other obituaries clearly forgot that his Trümmerfilme highlighted the old sins of National Socialism and pointed to a new socialist future of the “critical” citizen, this all at a time when socialism was seen as a positive choice for Europe’s citizens. His Trümmerfilme pushed Maetzig in to the front line of the battle for German memory, but by 1979 and the broadcast of Holocaust his confrontation with the past had seemingly been forgotten by the comfortable burgers of the Federal Republic. Memory is flexible but what is clear is that Maetzig’s Ehe Im Schatten powerfully presents the daily terrors of the Holocaust and that we dare not “forget to remember” his Trümmerfilme again.



Richard Mckenzie picture

Richard McKenzie studies at Reading University where his Phd, Looking at the foundations of a ‘New Germany’ – An investigation of East and West German genre films dealing with World War II, will investigate the Trümmerfilm genre on an East/West and gendered basis. Richard has published in United Academics and runs a resource in English reviewing German War films www.germanwarfilm.co.uk. He also speaks regularly on the subject at various film conferences around the UK. Richard’s MA examined two critical East German war films, Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt and Ich war neunzehn. He has studied in Reading, Göttingen and Kiev and relaxes by standing for election in unwinnable constituencies.


[1] Source: Julius H. Schoeps, “Angst vor der Vergangenheit? Notizen zu den Reaktionen auf ‘Holocaust’” [“Fear of the Past? Notes on the Reaction to ‘Holocaust’”]; reprinted in Peter Märtesheimer and Ivo Frenzel, eds., Im Kreuzfeuer. Der Fernsehfilm ‘ Holocaust.’ Eine Nation ist betroffen [In the Crossfire. The Television Film ‘Holocaust.’ A Nation is Moved]. Frankfurt am Main, 1979, pp. 325-27. Translation: Allison Brown

[2] Brady, Martin (1999) Discussion with Kurt Maetzig: In Allan, Seán and Sandford John (Eds)DEFA East German Cinema 1946-1992, New York and London, Berghahn Books p 78

[3] Spiegelonline.de, (1947 ), Stimmen aus Parkett und Rang, Man Mag keine Ruinen, http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-38936605.html (Accessed 23/6/2012)

[4] Spiegelonline.de, (1947), Ein Auto fährt durch zwölf Jahre Menschen in unmenschlicher Zeit http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-41122894.html (Accessed 29/09/2012)

[5] Spiegelonline.de, (1947), Von der krummen Tour auf den Kran,Und über uns der Himmel http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-41123921.html (Accessed 29/09/2012)

[6] Berghahn, Daniela, (2005), Hollywood behind the Wall, The cinema of East Germany, Manchester, Manchester University Press. p 38

[7] Allen, Seán (1999) DEFA: An Historical Overview: In Allan, Seán and Sandford John (Eds) DEFA East German Cinema 1946-1992, New York and London, Berghahn Books p 3

[8] The Zentralverwaltung für Volksbildung consisted of: Carl Haucher, Willy Schiller, Kurt Maetzig, Alfred Lindemann, Adolf Fisher and Hans Klering . FIlmaktiv also included the above plus Fredrich Wolf, Gerhard Lamprecht, Wolfgang Staudte, Georg Klaren and Peter Pewas.

[9] Kunert, Joachim (2010) Letter to author

[10] Brady, Martin (1999) Discussion with Kurt Maetzig: In Allan, Seán and Sandford John (Eds) DEFA East German Cinema 1946-1992, New York and London, Berghahn Books p 84

[11] Brady, Martin (1999) Discussion with Kurt Maetzig: In Allan, Seán and Sandford John (Eds) DEFA East German Cinema 1946-1992, New York and London, Berghahn Books p 81


[13] Spiegelonline.de, (1948), Butter frisch vom Gras Zonengebundene Heiterkeit http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-44417116.html (Accessed 29/09/2012)

[14] Spiegelonline.de, (1948 O), Kompensation auf weißer Wand, Premiere mit Zwischenfall http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-44416428.html Accessed 21/11/12

[15] (Foreign Office (1947-1950) FO1056/266)

[16] Brady, Martin (1999) Discussion with Kurt Maetzig: In Allan, Seán and Sandford John (Eds) DEFA East German Cinema 1946-1992, New York and London, Berghahn Books p 81

[17] Spiegelonline.de, (1949), Siebzig Jahre mit Buntkarierten, Vom Funk auf die Leinwand http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-44437283.html (Accessed 29/09/2012)

[18] Spiegelonline.de, (1950), IG-FARBEN, Die volle Wahrheit http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-44448749.html (Accessed 29/09/2012)

[19] Brady, Martin (1999) Discussion with Kurt Maetzig: In Allan, Seán and Sandford John (Eds) DEFA East German Cinema 1946-1992, New York and London, Berghahn Books p 83

[20] Ibid

[21] Brady, Martin (1999) Discussion with Kurt Maetzig: In Allan, Seán and Sandford John (Eds) DEFA East German Cinema 1946-1992, New York and London, Berghahn Books p 84

[22] Kurt Maetzig: Stalinistische Ästhetik im zweiteiligen Propagandafilm über Ernst Thälmann, Gedächtnis der Nation Youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOCEZvA30HU&feature=relmfu accessed 14/11/12

[23] Allen, Seán (1999) DEFA: An Historical Overview: In Allan, Seán and Sandford John (Eds) DEFA East German Cinema 1946-1992, New York and London, Berghahn Books pp12-13

[24] Defa Stiftung http://www.defa.de/cms/docs/attachments/95afb5b5-7260-4396-9cbb-09291687d2af/PM-Kurt-Maetzig-8.8.2012.pdf Accessed 20/11/12

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