AMHERST, Mass. -- It’s somehow fitting that many of the best movies made in East Germany are stored in an underground bunker designed to survive a nuclear attack.
These are the archives of the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts, the largest collection outside Germany of films made at Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, the state-run studio in the Babelsberg district of Potsdam, about 22 miles southwest of Berlin.
From 1946 until the collapse of East Germany in 1990, DEFA produced thousands of films, everything from cartoons, newsreels and other short subjects to full-length documentaries and theatrical features in nearly every genre, even the archetypal American western.
Despite the oversight and occasional interference from state censors, the studio made some good movies, particularly in the early years after World War II, when filmmakers had greater freedom to root about in the skeletons of the Third Reich than did their Western counterparts. Even in the midst of a crackdown on free expression in the 1960s, the studio produced some fine films, only to have them banned on a bureaucratic whim.
But how did so many of these films come to be housed in a warren of reinforced concrete storerooms hidden under a knoll in Massachusetts?
A look behind the curtain
The story began in 1978, when Barton Byg of Sioux Falls, S.D., a graduate student in German studies at Washington University in St. Louis, attended a program in West Berlin. One of the guest lecturers was East German director Erwin Stranka, who brought with him his new movie, “Sabine Wulff.”
“It’s about this nonconformist woman who breaks up with all the men she’s involved with because they’re jerks,” said Byg, 54. “It’s very irreverent about what it’s like to be a working-class woman in the [supposed] working-class paradise of East Germany. And I thought, this isn’t propaganda; this is pretty critical stuff. . . . It was kind of a revelation.”
He said it made him want to see more, and to learn how East German filmmakers negotiated the bureaucracy set up to make their work conform to a political and social agenda.
In 1989, now affiliated with the University of Massachusetts, Byg was in East Germany on a Fulbright Fellowship when he saw a documentary, “Winter Ade” (“Goodbye, Winter”), coincidentally also about women’s issues, that blew him away. He arranged to have it subtitled, then brought the movie, its director, editor and cinematographer to the United States for a tour of 23 colleges.
“That was the beginning of our cooperative network of distribution for academic purposes,” Byg said.
The touring group happened to be in Amherst when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
There followed agreements with the government and successor organizations to continue the arrangement, and finally to make UMass the North American repository for East German films.
It now has about 1,000 films, about 10% of the studio’s entire output, said Hiltrud Schulz, sales and outreach coordinator for the DEFA Film Library. Only the DEFA Foundation in Berlin, the nonprofit that owns the copyrights, has more.
Truly underground film
There are shelves of DVDs at the on-campus office, while the films are 4 miles away in a bunker built in 1963 to survive the nuclear war that never happened between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The former property of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Mass., was sold to Amherst College in 1992 and now serves as a secure archive for five colleges in the area.
The DEFA Film Library’s purpose, besides preservation, is to expose the best works of East German filmmakers to a wide audience. It creates touring exhibitions, such as “Rebels With a Cause,” a package of 21 films that played New York’s Museum of Modern Art and other venues from 2005 to 2007, and “Shadows and Sojourners: Images of Jews and Antifascism in East German Films,” a series of up to 17 titles that has toured since 2002. It also rents individual prints, tapes and DVDs to academic institutions and sells DVDs to the public.
The library sells DVDs to the public under an arrangement with Icestorm Entertainment in Germany and First Run Features in the U.S. Thus far, 84 features have been released in this country.
DEFA films are available online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other major retailers. Better prices are sometimes available at First Run Features’ website, firstrunfeatures.com. The DEFA Film Library also sells DVDs at www.umass.edu/defa.