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Germany in the Cold War

9.01.2011

In other parts of the world, film was undergoing a difficult transformation during the Cold War era. In the years immediately after the Second World War and Germany’s defeat, the cinema in Germany, not surprisingly, underwent a major metamorphosis. The Allies broke up the giant film production consortium UFA, and many smaller production houses were licensed to make films. In addition, American movies, which had been banned for much of the war, now flowed freely onto German screens. Many of the German movies of the immediate postwar period were known as Trümmerfilms (“rubble films”). They depict a Germany in ruins following the collapse of the Third Reich, as ordinary citizens struggled simply to survive under the Allied occupation. Wolfgang Staudte’s Die Mörder sind unter uns (Murderers Are Among Us, 1946) and Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s Liebe ’47 (Love ’47, 1949) are typical of the period in their bleak pessimism and acidulous view of the perils of human existence.


The vast majority of films of the 1950s in Germany were simply escapist entertainment, designed to take people’s minds off the privations of daily living. But after 1955, as rearmament was finally permitted, German movies began to reflect a revisionist history of World War II, in which average citizens were simply the pawns of the Nazi hierarchy. Films that depicted acts of resistance against the Nazi regime, as well as the futility of war, were also being produced, as Germany struggled to find its moral compass in the Cold War era. One such antiwar film was Bernhard Wicki’s Die Brücke (The Bridge, 1959), set in the last days of the Nazi regime, as a group of Hitler Youth try to defend a bridge from Allied attacks in an act of complete use-lessness; the film won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In East Germany, a series of highly popular musicals kept audiences entertained, such as Hans Heinrichs Meine Frau macht Musik (My Wife Wants to Sing, 1958), which mixed escapist entertainment with mild doses of ideological propaganda. In addition, West Germany was becoming a thriving low-cost production center after the end of the war and hosted at least one American television series, “Flash Gordon,” for thirty-nine episodes from 1954 to 1955.


In Czechoslovakia, the animator Karel Zeman created a series of elegantly crafted feature films that deftly mixed live action, animation, and stop-motion figures to create a blend of realism and fantasy in Poklad Ptacího ostrova (The Treasure of Bird Island, 1953), Cesta do praveku (Journey to the Beginning of Time, 1955), and Vynález zkázy (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, 1958), which received international distribution. The last film is an especially intriguing project, combining live action with a series of steel-engraved backdrops to give the illusion of a nineteenth-renowned short films that featured state-of-the-art stop-motion animation along with live-action photography, such as O zlaté rybce (The Golden Fish, 1951), Dobry voják Svejk(The Good Soldier Schweik, 1955), and Sen noci sva-tojanske (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1959). In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s death led to the beginnings of a new openness in Russian cinema, with Grig-ori Chukhrai’s Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959) one of the most popular films of the era, both at home and abroad.


In Poland, Andrzej Wajda’s Popiól i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958) gave a new face to postwar alienation, that of Zbigniew Cybulski, whose brooding performance in the film earned him the nickname “the Polish James Dean.” Set on the last day of the war in May 1945, Ashes and Diamonds focuses on the conflict between the Nationalists, guerrilla fighters who want to take back the country for Poles, and the Communists, who seek to add Poland to the ever-expanding Soviet Bloc. As the Nationalist trigger-man Maciek, Cybulski conveys a sense of existential despair in all his actions, despite his love for another Nationalist sympathizer, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), with whom he spends a few stolen hours in a vain attempt to lend some meaning to his life. Maciek’s assignment is to shoot Szczuka (Wac-law Zastrzezynski), the Communist Party secretary.


 When Maciek finally catches up with Szczuka and shoots him, the sky above Maciek suddenly explodes in a barrage of fireworks, as an ironic counterpoint to the murder Maciek has just committed. At the film’s end, however, Maciek falls to his death in a gesture of ultimate futility; in Wajda’s film, violence begets only violence and solves nothing. Wajda’s other 1950s films in Poland, including his debut film Pokolenie (A Generation, 1955) and Kanal (1957), are similarly fatalistic. A Generation deals persuasively with the alienation of postwar Polish youth, while Kanal deals with the last days of the September 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Nazis in a typically brutal fashion. Wajda would later become a key filmmaker in Poland’s Solidarity movement in the early 1980s with his film Czlowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron, 1981), which favorably depicted the pro-democracy movement’s formative days.



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