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Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, better known as DEFA, was the state-owned film studio in the German Democratic Republic (in East Germany) throughout that country's history.
DEFA was founded in the spring of 1946 in the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany; it was the first film production company in post-war Germany. While the other Allies, in their zones of occupation, viewed a rapid revival of a German film industry with suspicion, the Soviets valued the medium as a primary means of re-educating the German populace as it emerged from twelve years of Nazi rule.
Headquartered in Berlin, the company was formally authorized by the Soviet Military Administration to produce films on May 13, 1946, although Wolfgang Staudte had already begun work on DEFA's first film, Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) nine days earlier. The original board of directors consisted of Alfred Lindemann, Karl Hans Bergmann, and Herbert Volkmann, with Hans Klering as administrative Secretary. Klering, a former graphic designer, also designed DEFA's logo. On August 13, 1946, the company was officially registered as a joint-stock company. By the end of the year, in addition to the Staudte film, it had completed two other feature films using the former Tobis studio facilities in Berlin and the Althoff Atelier in Babelsberg. Subsequently, its principal studio would become one in Potsdam originally built by Ufa in the 1920s.
On July 14, 1947, the company officially moved its headquarters to Potsdam, and on 13 November 1947, the company's "stock" was taken over by the Socialist Unity Party or SED, which had originally capitalized DEFA, and pro-Soviet German individuals. Soviets Ilya Trauberg and Aleksandr Wolkenstein joined Lindemann, Bergmann and Volkmann on the board of directors, and a committee was established under the auspices of the Socialist Unity Party to review projects and screen rushes.
In July, 1948, Lindemann was dismissed from the board of directors because of alleged "financial irregularities" and replaced briefly by Walter Janka. In October, 1948, the SED was instrumental in replacing Janka, Volkmann and Bergmann as corporate directors with official party members Wilhelm Meissner, Alexander Lösche and Grete Keilson. In December, the death of Trauberg and the resignation of Wolkenstein resulted in two more Soviets in their stead, Aleksandr Andriyevsky and Leonid Antonov.
In 1948, the division of Germany into zones controlled by the Soviet Union and by the Western Allies came into effect. The SED eventually became openly Communist, with a strong Stalinist orientation. On May 23, 1949, the Allies' Germany officially became the Federal Republic of Germany (commonly known as West Germany), and on October 7, 1949, the Soviet zone officially became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). All DEFA interests were incorporated into the new nation as its "people's" film monopoly according to the strictures of Stalinist Communism and socialist realism, and effectively an arm of the government. On June 23, 1950, Sepp Schwab, a hardline Communist, was appointed director-general of DEFA.
As Soviet-Communist-Stalinist influences took hold at DEFA, the definition of desirable and acceptable themes for films became narrower. A June, 1947, film writer's conference held in Potsdam produced general agreement that the "new" German cinema would disavow both subjects and stylistic elements reminiscent of those seen on German screens during, and prior to, the Nazi era. By 1949, expectations for scripts were codified around a small number of topics, such as "[re-]distribution of land" or "the two-year plan". As in the Soviet Union, the excessive control placed by the state on authors of screenplays, as against other literary works, discouraged many competent writers from contributing to East German film. Screenwriters could find their efforts rejected for ideological reasons at any stage in script development, if not from the outset. As a result, between 1948 and 1953, when Stalin died, the entire film output for East Germany, excluding newsreels and non-theatrical educational films, amounted to fewer than 50 titles.
In the 1960s, DEFA produced the popular Red Western The Sons of the Great Mother Bear, directed by Josef Mach and starring Gojko Mitić as the Sioux Tokei-itho. This spawned a number of sequels and was notable for inverting Western-cliches by portraying the native Americans as the "good guys", and the American army as the "baddies".
In 1992, after German reunification, DEFA was officially dissolved and its combined studios sold to a French conglomerate, Compagnie Générale des Eaux, later Vivendi Universal. In 2004, a private consortium acquired the studios. The films produced at the DEFA studios after World War II included approximately 950 feature films, 820 animated films, more than 5,800 documentaries and newsreels, and 4,000 German synchronisations of foreign language movies, which were acquired by the privatized version of the former East German film distribution monopoly, Progress Film-Verleih GmbH.
DEFA films are now enjoying a revival in Germany and the United States: in October 2005 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted a two-week DEFA festival, and several titles are now commercially available on DVD from US distributor First Run Features (see link below).
DEFA Film studios
- DEFA-Studio für Spielfilme in Potsdam-Babelsberg (studio for featured films)
- DEFA-Studio für Trickfilme in Dresden (studio for animated films)
- DEFA-Studio für populärwissenschaftliche Filme in Potsdam, Alt-Nowawes (studio for educational films)
- DEFA-Studio für Wochenschau und Dokumentarfilme in Berlin (studio for news reels and documentation films)
- DEFA-Studio für Synchronisation in Berlin-Johannisthal (studio for synchronization)
- DEFA-Kopierwerke in Berlin-Köpenick and Berlin-Johannisthal (factory for movie copying)
- DEFA-Außenhandel in Berlin (foreign trade)
Today the Progress Film-Verleih is the distributor for all DEFA-Movies for Television and Cinema. Icestorm Entertainment is the exclusive distributor for release for Video and DVD. DEFA films can be rented or purchased from the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts and many titles in NTSC format are now available on DVD from US distributor First Run Features (see links below).
- Allan, Sean Allan & Sandford, John, (eds.) DEFA: East German Cinema, 1946-1992. New York and Oxford, Berghahn Books, 1999
- Bergfelder, Tim; Carter, Erica & Goektuerk, Deniz, (eds.) The German Cinema Book. Berkeley: BFI/University of California Press. 2003.
- Berghahn, Daniela. Hollywood behind the Wall: the Cinema of East Germany. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005
- Beyer, Frank. Wenn der Wind sich dreht. Econ. 2001.
- Elsaesser, Thomas & Wedel, Michael. The BFI Companion to German Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1999.
- Gregor, Ulrich. Geschichte des Films ab 1960. Rowohlt. 1983.
- Habel, F.-B. Das grosse Lexikon der DEFA-Spielfilme, Berlin: Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, 2000
- Hake, Sabine. German National Cinema. New York. Routledge. 2002.
- Heiduschke, Sebastian. East German Cinema: DEFA and Film History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
- Jacobsen, Wolfgang [Ed.] and Kaes, Anton [Ed.] and Prinzler, Hans Helmut [Ed.]. Geschichte des Deutschen Films. J. B. Metzler Verlag. 1993.
- Knietzsch, Horst. Film: Gestern und Heute. Urania-Verlag. 1967.
- Knietzsch, Horst [Ed.]. Prisma: Kino- und Fernseh-Almanach 17. Henschelverlag. 1987.
- Manvell, Roger & Fraenkel, Heinrich. The German Cinema. Dent & Sons. London. 1971.
- Naughton, Leonie. That Was the Wild East: Film Culture, Unification, and the `New´ Germany. Ann Arbor. 2002.
- Wrage, Henning. "Die Zeit der Kunst. Literatur, Film und Fernsehen in der DDR der 1960er Jahre". Heidelberg 2009
- Pflaum, Hans Günther, & Prinzler, Hans Helmut. Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany. Bonn: Inter Nationes. 1993.
- Schenk, Ralf & Richter, Erika (eds.) apropos: Film 2001 Das Jahrbuch der DEFA-Stiftung. Das Neue Berlin. 2001.
- Schittly, Dagmar. Zwischen Regie und Regime: die Filmpolitik der SED im Spiegel der DEFA-Produktionen. Berlin. 2002.
- Silberman, Marc & Wrage, Henning, eds.: DEFA at the Crossroads of East German and International Film Culture. A Companion. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2014.
- East Side Story, a documentary that discusses DEFA's musicals
- Thomas Phelps, "Links wo das Herz ist", see footnote 39 Justus Liebig University Giessen (October 27–28, 1997). Retrieved November 29, 2011 (German)
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