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Constructing the Mythic Present in the East German Cinema: Frank Beyer's Spur der Steine and the 11th Plenum of 1965

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Joshua Feinstein
New York University


Spurder Steine (Trail of Stones) is probably the best-known of the approximately two dozen East German films that were banned by state officials. Combining epic proportions with subversive humor, the picture still retains the ability to fascinate and amuse audiences well over three decades after its completion in 1966. In one scene, its most arresting protagonist, the foreman Balla, leads his small band of carpenters across the Iunar landscape of the chemical plant under construction, where the film is set. As martial music blares in the background, the “Ballas,” conspicuously dressed in the black corduroy suits traditionally associated with their trade in Germany, march against a sea of humanity streaming toward a political rally. They rudely shove people out of their way, grope women, and chug beer. Over a loudspeaker, the Communist functionary leading the rally proclaims, “We are already building the road leading into a bright future.” In response, Balla remarks to his cronies, “They comfort you with the future like the priests with the hereafter, but by the time you get there, you're already dead.”

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 1999

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1. There were a total of eleven films affected by the plenum. Two of these, Der Frühling braucht Zeit (Günter Stahnke, 1965) and Spur der Steine (Frank Beyer, 1966), had premieres before being banned. At least one other film, Denk bloss nicht ich heule (Frank Vogel, 1965), was shown to test audiences. The remaining films at the time of their production were screened only within the studio or before officials. Postproduction work on many was left uncompleted. These films included: Berlin um die Ecke (Gerhard Klein, 1966); Denk bloss nicht ich heule (Frank Vogel, 1965); Jahrgang '45 (Jürgen Böttcher, 1966); Das Kaninchen bin ich (Kurt Maetzig, 1965); Karla (Hermann Zschoche, 1966); Der verlorene Engel (RE: Ralf Kirsten, The Lost Angel, 1966); Wenn du gross bist, lieber Adam (Egon Günther, 1966); Fräulein Schmetterling (RE: Kurt Barthel, 1966); Hände hoch, oder ich schiesse (Hans-Joachim Kasprzik, 1966). Of these, the final two films have never been publicly shown and may be beyond reconstruction. Der verlorene Engel was released in 1971. Berlin um die Ecke experienced a handful of viewings in art cinemas in the late eighties. The remaining seven first premiered publicly after the fall of the Wall.

2. For a discussion of the 11th Plenum and its general significance for East Germany, see Günter, Agde, ed., Kahlschlag: Das 11. Plenum des ZK der SED 1965. Studien und Dokumente (Berlin, 1991).Google Scholar

3. For a detailed and nuanced discussion of art's role in GDR public discourse, see David, Bathrick, The Powers of Speech (Lincoln, NB, 1995)Google Scholar. For more on social communication generally in the GDR, see Simone, Barck, Martina, Langermann, Jörg, Requate, “Kommunikative Strukturen, Medien und Öffentlichkeiten in der DDR,” Berliner Debatte INITIAL 4/5 (1995): 2538Google Scholar; Marc, Silberman, “Problematizing the ‘Socialist Public Sphere’: Concepts and Consequences,” in What Remains? East German Culture and the Postwar Public (AICGS Research Report no. 5) ed. Marc, Silberman (Washington, DC, 1997) 137.Google Scholar

4. For a discussion of Utopieverlust, see the definitive study by Wolfgang, Emmerich, Eine Kleine Literaturgeichte der DDR (Frankfurt am Main, 1989) especially 269–81Google Scholar. For an excellent discussion of how one central East German author's work evolved in response to growing disillusionment with the Communist project, see Anna, Kuhn, Christa Wolf's Utopian Vision (Cambridge, UK, 1988).Google Scholar

5. Aktennotiz, 21 October 1964, DEFA Betriebsarchiv 0129 (now held at the Bundesarchiv Berlin-Lichterfelde). DEFA threatened the Television Studio Halle with legal action in order to prevent it from realizing a five-part serialization of Neutsch's film.

6. Frank Beyer, interview by author, tape recorded, Berlin, 26 February 1993.

7. The story of Spur der Steine's sabotaged release has been related by Beyer and other film-makers in numerous interviews. See, for example, “Gespräch mit Frank Beyer,” interview by Ralf, Schenk, in Regie: Frank Beyer, ed. Ralf, Schenk (Berlin, 1995), 8105, especially 52–61Google Scholar. See also VEB Berliner Filmtheater, Abt. Filmeinsatz/Presse/Werbung, 29 June 1966, and Abt. Kultur, Aktennotiz, 14 July 1966, both Stiftung Archiv und Massenorganisationen im Bundesarchiv (henceforth SAPMO) DY30/IV2/2024/36 (Büro Hager).These documents are consistent with artists' accounts of events.

8. I am very much indebted for this insight as well as the details of my analysis in this paragraph to Rick Le Vert, who made available to me an unpublished essay on Frank Beyer's films of the early sixties.

9. It is interesting to note in this regard that the seven members of Balla's Brigade are often compared to the protagonists of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954), which also served as the model for John Sturges's western, The Magnificent Seven (1960).While Beyer has consistently denied borrowing from either of these pictures, the American movie had the highest attendance figures of any picture shown in East German theaters during 1963; thus he must at least have been aware of it.

10. For the standard account of this literature, see Michael, Rohrwasser, Saubere Mädel—starke Genossen: Proletarische Massenliteratur? (Frankfurt, am Main, 1974).Google Scholar

11. Wolfgang, Emmerich, Kleine Literaturgeschichte der DDR (Frankfurt am Main, 1989), 108–10.Google Scholar

12. Frank Beyer, interview by author, tape recorded, Berlin, 26 February 1993.

13. Klaus, Wischnewski, “Hoffnungen, Illusionen, Einsichten,” Interview with Wieland Becker, Film und Fernsehen 6 (1990): 3738.Google Scholar

14. Beyer, interview by author, 26 February 1993. See also Beyer to Mückenberger, n.d., DEFA Betriebsarchiv 274 (KAG Heinrich Greif).

15. Aussprache zum Film “Spur der Steine” in der Hauptverwaltung Film … am 11. März 1966, 7–8, SAPMO DY30/IVA2/2024/36 (Büro Hager).

16. Ibid., 11.

17. Heinz Kimmel, responsible for film in the Central Committee's cultural section, asked Hager for permission to arrange a showing of the altered version to the politburo in April; however, such a screening did not occur until late June, well after the film had been officially approved. Kimmel to Hager, 18 April 1966, SAPMO DY30/IVA2/906/124 (ZK Kultur).

18. See Abteilung Kultur, Information über den Verlauf der Beratung des Filmbeirates … zum, Film “Spur der Steine,” 16 August 1966, SAPMO DY30/IV2/2024/36 (Büro Hager).

19. Wilfried Maass and Horst Brasch to Hager, 14 May 1966, SAPMO DY30/IV2/2024/36 (Büro Hager).

20. Protokoll Nr. 73/66, 27 May 1966, Abnahmeakte for Spur der Steine, Bundesarchiv Filmabteilung Berlin.

21. Beyer was apparently satisfied with the film's final version. In contrast to other plenum films, Spur der Steine did not require reconstruction after the Berlin Wall fell. Moreover, Beyer has never to my knowledge complained that censorship seriously compromised his film.

22. Plans were already underway to delegate the picture as East Germany's official entry to the prestigious Karlovy Vary film festival. On June 16, the film even enjoyed a preview at the annual Workers'Art Festival (Arbeiter Festspiele) in Potsdam, an event which the official East German news agency, ADN, described with considerable enthusiasm.

23. Reinschnftenprotokoll, 28 June 1966, SAPMO DY30J IV 2/2–1064 (Politbüro). The details of the plan to limit the film's release were then approved by the ZK Sekretariat the following day. See Reinschriftenprotokoll, 29 June 1966, SAPMO DY30/J IV 2/3–1194 (ZK Sekretariat). See also addendum no. 6 to this transcript, HV Film, Für den Einsatz des Filmes “Spur der Steine” werden folgende Massnahmen angewiesen, 29 June 1966.

24. Indeed, the only reference to the screening I found in the archival record is an indirect one. The head of the ZK cultural section, Siegfried Wagner, wrote a letter to Hager to assure the latter that he had not revealed information about the screening, even when Konrad Wolf had pressed him to explain the sudden reversal concerning the film. See Wagner to Hager, 30 June 1966, SAPMO DY30/IVA/906/224 (ZK Kultur). The exact identity of the “leading comrades” and the date of the screening still remain a mystery, although it presumably occurred after June 24, when the ZK Cultural Section submitted a position statement, which, despite reservations, still recommended releasing the picture. See Standpunkt der Abteilung Kultur des ZK zum Film, “Spur der Steine,” 24 June 1966, SAPMO DY30/IVA/906/224 (ZK Kultur).

25. “Werktätige gegen ‘Spur der Steine,’” 5 July 1966, published in Regie: Frank Beyer, ed. Schenk, 110–12. Fröhlich may well have had a hand in the film's banning. The ZK Cultural Section contains an informational report about the film prepared for Fröhlich by his office that was apparently also routed to Honecker. See SED Bezirksleitung Leipzig, Information für Genossen Paul Fröhlich, 24 June 1966, SAPMO DY30/IV2/2024/36 (Büro Hager).

26. Reinschriftenprotokoll, 29 June 1966, SAPMO DY30/J IV 2/3–1194 (ZK Sekretariat).

27. See Information über eine Beratung der Abteilung Kultur des ZK mit Genossen der Zentralen Parteileitung des DEFA-Studios für Spielfilme, 24 August 1966, SAPMO DY30/IVA2/906/123 (ZK Kultur).

28. Ibid. That Honecker was consulted on this matter is indicated in a letter from Siegfried Wagner to Kurt Hager, 1 September 1966, SAPMO DY30/IVA/906/124 (ZK Kultur).

29. Franz Bruk to Siegfried Wagner, 25 July 1966, DEFA Betriebsarchiv A/240.

30. Copies of Wolf's letter to the Party Activist's Convention and an official summary of his self-criticism are contained in Regie: Frank Beyer, ed. Schenk, 119–23.

31. Interview by author, tape recorded, Berlin, 26 February 1993. Original quote: “Wir zogen alle an demselben Strang. Nur nachher merkten wir, dass es in verschiedenen Richtungen war.”

32. For example, medieval kingdoms tended to posit a strict separation between the true history of eschatological time and the finite, repetitive nature of secular existence, whereby the monarch's authority derived from the divinely-endowed, inherently mysterious ability to mediate between the two realms. In contrast, modern republican states focus on the short-term vicissitudes of time, which are held to be masterable by reason, given the integrity of the polis. Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, 1975)Google Scholar; Kosselleck, Reinhart, ”Vergangene Zukunft der frühen Neuzeit,” in Epirrhosis: Feslgabe für Carl Schmitt, ed. Barion, H., E.-W., Böckenförde, Forsthoff, E., Webers, W. (Berlin, 1968)Google Scholar, as republished and translated in Future's Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge, MA, 1985), 3–20. I have collapsed and vastly simplified the two authors' arguments here. Although their conclusions are often analogous, their points of departure are different. Pocock's study is more narrowly focused on the development of the early modern republican tradition. Koselleck's more general analysis of how notions of time evolved together with political forms during the same period are found in an essay primarily concerned with the development of the modern notion of progress.

33. Koselleck, “Vergangene Zukunft,” 6–8.

34. Sigrid, Meuschel, Legitimation und Parteiherrschaft in der DDR (Frankfurt am Main, 1992), 221–29Google Scholar; Dieter, Stantz, Geschichte der DDR (Frankfurt am Main, 1985), 198214.Google Scholar

35. Staritz, Geschichte der DDR, 214–20.

36. Joshua, Feinstein, “The Triumph of the Ordinary: Depictions of Ordinary Life in the East German Cinema, 1956–1966” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1995).Google Scholar

37. For a more detailed overview of the changes in cultural policy that accompanied Honecker's accession to power, see Manfred, Jäger, Kultur und Politik in der DDR. 1945–1990 (Cologne, 1995), 139–54.Google Scholar

38. Feinstein, “The Triumph,” 274–78.

39. Among the most important of these were Heiner Carow's Die Legende von Paul und Paula (1973), Konrad Wolf's Der nackte Mann auf dem Sportplatz (1974), and Solo Sonny (1980), as well as Frank Beyer's Das Versteck (1979).

40. Ironically Böttcher himself was only able to participate in these developments indirectly. Jahrgang '45 proved to be his first and last feature film. Banished from the studio, he resumed a career as a documentarist. Despite repeated political run-ins over the next twenty years, he would hone an extreme minimalist, avant-garde style, which in many of his works transforms a fascination with the ordinary into an exposition of pure form.

41. Cf. Meuschel, Legitimation, 124–27.

42. For more on the poetic function of art in socialist society, see Boris, Grays, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (Munich, 1988).Google Scholar

43. Feinstein, “The Triumph,” 213–18.

44. Marlen, Köhler, “Wie ‘Spur der Steine’ verschwand und Spuren in Menschen blieben,” Die Freiheit (Halle), 27 11 1989.Google Scholar

45. “Aktual aber leider zu spät,” BZ am Abend, 21 June 1990.

46. Michael, Hanisch, “Eine gefährliche Krankheit: Der einst verbotene DEFA-Film ‘Wenn du gross bist, lieber Adam,’” Neue Zeit (Berlin), 24 10 1990.Google Scholar