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The Story of a Young Couple (Roman einer jungen Ehe) (1952).

The Story of a Young Couple (Roman einer jungen Ehe) (1952)

Directed by Kurt Maetzig

Distributed by DEFA Film Library

99 minutes

A Berlin Romance (Eine Berliner Romanze) (1956)

Directed by Gerhard Klein

Distributed by DEFA Film Library

81 minutes

These two historical relics of the only film production organization of the now defunct German Democratic Republic have been available on VHS from the same source for over a decade but are now being promoted to the "permanence" of the digital format. The validation entailed by the transfer to disc is well deserved, for both are gems for the historian, the historical sociologist, and the film buff alike. The Story of a Young Couple (1952) and A Berlin Romance (1956) have much to share with contemporary audiences, representing as they do distant voices from across a vast frontier of decades passed, landscapes faded and governments discharged. Like all of the DEFA films available, in their images and sounds these films represent uniquely and invaluably the remaining shadow of the challenges and complexity of life and culture in the former GDR.

The Story of a Young Couple is an especially vivid example of DEFA propaganda cinema at the point of the Cold War when Stalinism was firmly establishing its grip on the artistic ethos of the GDR. The credits-over opening shots of Agnes Sailer making her way through a rubble-reduced East Berlin orients the audience to Germany at zero-hour, signifying the end and beginning of a nation's history. The romantic relationship between Agnes and Jochen Karsten is completely acquiescent (incidental, really) to the greater narrative of the film: the choices, commitment and sacrifices that should, and must, be made in constructing a new socialist society. Indeed, the strain that Agnes and Jochen's relationship is to endure is emphasized in the film as being rooted in their varying degrees of dedication to a socialist future for East Germany. While the unsullied and beatific Agnes displays the idealism and moral steadfastness of "chaste, pure and healthy" socialist art in her dedication to a collective future, her husband Jochen is a careerist actor and absent the ethical focus of Agnes leaving him full of doubt and prey to the inevitably underhanded business practices which increase in frequency with success in a capitalist market. To underscore this instruction, an elemental subplot of the film is the building of the Stalin-Allee, where the constructiveness of mutual aid and community service results in genuine personal fulfillment for Agnes as and is contrasted against the destructive forces of ego-driven wrangling, moral hypocrisy and compromise as depicted in the theater world of West Berlin.

As Katrin Sieg of Georgetown University states in her succinct notes, the discussions of art and theater that take place in the film illustrate the standard Stalinist concepts of cultural politics prevailing in the early to mid 50s. The Story of a Young Couple, while projecting narrow and politically motivated attitudes towards Western theater--Sartre's play The Dirty Hands is dismissed by Agnes in disgust as "cold, dirty and heartless" while Carl Zuckmayer's drama The Devil's General is characterized in the film as a purely apologetic view of the Nazi military--this nonetheless allows the audience a rare vantage point into the "salon" chatterings of artists and actors of the period. In this vein, particularly interesting are the conversations (and minor subplot) revolving around Hartmann, a director sympathetic to the Nazis, (modeled after Veit Harlan, director of the infamous Jud Suss) which demonstrates, unusual for DEFA films, an East German perspective on the debates surrounding artists complicit in Nazi policies.

A Berlin Romance also thematizes its characters disillusionment with the West. Here West Berlin is depicted as ruthlessly capitalistic and exploitive; indifferent to human concern. The free-for-all market lures the young from the Eastern sector with promises of sensational opportunities and glamour that, in the end, it is unable to deliver. The film is often visually arresting for its on-location shooting, offering a window into post-war Berlin as seen by the young. Of course, the DEFA seal-of-approval is evident in Wolfgang Kohlhaase's screenplay, which exudes, stodgily, the requisite socialist values. Nevertheless, there are many nice touches, both visually and in the narrative, where it is clear why the Klein and Kohlhaase collaborations are justly celebrated by DEFA aficionados. There are numerous moments in their films where a relationship can be drawn to the cutting-edge innovations in film form then current in Western European and American cinemas. A Berlin Romance is no exception. For example, the character development of Annekathrin Burger's Uschi conveys more depth and humanity as a soul-searching adolescent than Agnes does as a soul-searching socialist. Uschi, a tempted teenager surrounded by fashion and neon, conveys a vulnerability which balances her minxy bravado, much in the style of young free-spirited 50s cinema creations of the West, such as Romy Schneider or Audrey Hepburn.

But character development is not the only place in A Berlin Romance where Western cinematic tendencies are mirrored. In his study The Triumph of the Ordinary: Depictions of Daily Life in the East German Cinema, 1949-1989, Joshua Feinstein sees the film as a genuine, if admittedly inferior, example of neorealist technique. Reserved for scenes shot in the Western half of the city, the camerawork elicits the urban pathology of the West through contrasting, for example, the disorienting glitz and implied moral confusion of the famous commercial boulevard in West Berlin, the "Kurfurstendamm", with the stable and solid working class environment as portrayed in her home in East Berlin. The two worlds clash in the film strikingly, the West communicating danger and excitement while the Eastern sector is depicted as ordered and calm, even dull and gray as Uschi bemoans at the start of the film. So powerfully do these visual contrasts overwhelm the narrative, East German censors worried the film would encourage young East Germans to flee to the West.

The Story of a Young Couple and A Berlin Romance together make, for those with an interest in post war history, a most rewarding afternoon of viewing. Between these two films the viewer can experience the evolution of more insightful depictions of real people in DEFA cinema, made possible by the erosion of the most restrictive constraints on cultural production as the 1950s progressed. Gone is the bombast and pageantry depicted in the earlier film, replaced by a comparably softer and quieter focus on interpersonal relations and the romance and confusion of youth (something Klein and Kohlhaase would revisit in their magnificent Berlin--Schonhauser Corner (1957). The insights afforded here are unique and make an invaluable contribution our understanding of world cinema history. As the GDR and those who remember its earliest years become ever more remote from the present day, it is important to have these films available and we can continue to thank the DEFA library for providing the opportunity to still glimpse these extraordinary artifacts in all their luminescent black and white glory.

Scott Weiss

St. Francis College
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Author:Weiss, Scott
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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