Obituary: Kurt Maetzig (25.1.1911- 8.8.2012)
Kurt Maetzig, one of the co-founders and pioneers of the east German film industry, DEFA, died early last month aged 101.
His life spanned Germany's eventful century.
Maetzig (pictured below) was born in Berlin in 1911 during the second empire and he was 18 years old when the country suffered the stock market crash and experienced the terror of the Hitler regime and the horrors of war.
He went on to play an important role in the cultural life of the GDR and experienced two decades of unified Germany.
Brought up in a left-liberal bourgeois family, Maetzig's interests in film were encouraged by his father, who owned a film printing lab. But his intention of joining his father's business after gaining his doctorate was thwarted by the nazis' racial laws, according to which Maetzig was half-Jewish, though his mother was a non-practising Jew.
Terrified of the Gestapo, his mother committed suicide.
Her son was luckier. His training and technical skills saved him and the chemical process he invented for the rapid development of film, which was especially useful to the medical profession, was considered important enough to keep him from being transported to the camps.
He joined the banned Communist Party of Germany in 1944, engaged in resistance work and narrowly escaped forced involvement in the People's Militia, the troupes of old men and children who were drafted in the last desperate days of the war, by feigning blindness.
After WWII, Maetzig found the support of like-minded people he needed to establish a film company in the Soviet sector of Berlin, where he began directing documentaries for a German audience unfamiliar with unprejudiced factual programming.
His determination to provide objective news reports led to a new series Watch For Yourself, Listen For Yourself, Judge For Yourself, the only news reports made by Germans for Germans. He subsequently worked in documentary film, producing some historically important works documenting the early days of the GDR.
Maetzig's first feature film in 1947 is one of his most admired. Marriage In The Shadows (pictured above), widely seen throughout Europe, was partly motivated by his mother's tragic death and was one of only a few east German films to consider the nazis' persecution of the Jews whose fate did not fit with the communists' historical analysis of fascism.
Subsequent films were staple GDR narratives in a variety of genres, from historical dramas to the first GDR sci-fi, and were intended to entertain and raise political consciousness.
In these, Maetzig often demonstrated both his ideological commitment to socialism and his artistic talents - though not always at the same time.
While films such as The Girls In Gingham (1949) and Council Of The Gods (1950) are classics of the early post-war years and distinguish East German film production from its often parochial counterpart in the federal republic, Maetzig also directed some unimaginative propagandistic pieces, notably the two-part Ernst Thalmann biopic (1954 and 1955), a hagiographical portrait of one of the GDR icons which the director largely regretted.
While the latter was regarded as his most important work by the party, post-'89 accounts have come to recognise another film as the more significant contribution to GDR film history. The theme of Rabbit Is Me (1964), produced at a time of relative liberalisation in the eastern bloc, suggested the possibility of greater political openness while the film's style reflected new aesthetic developments and trends.
It was not to be. Despite Maetzig's seniority and status the film, along with several others, was "withdrawn" and the director was forced into publishing a contrite public statement, albeit one that refused to accept fully the party's accusations.
This episode revealed both how paranoid the party was of any criticism and the influence of developments in Moscow, namely Brezhnev's ousting of Khrushchov and the subsequent return to Stalinist authoritarianism.
Unlike others similarly targeted by zealous functionaries, Maetzig was able to recover and continued making films until 1976.
Though his attachment to the party was terminally compromised by his experience in 1965, his commitment to democratic socialism remained.
He enjoyed a new level of acclaim and relevance after unification and continued - even as a centenarian - to attend conferences and interviews.
He proved a perceptive and not uncritical - even of himself - commentator in discussions about socialism, the GDR, film and politics.
If you appreciated this article then please consider donating to the Morning Star's Fighting Fund to ensure we can keep developing your paper.