“The legend of Paul and Paula”, “The Sons of the Great Bear”, Soviet films, but also Hollywood films and spaghetti westerns – everyday cinema life in the GDR was quite colorful.
Whether Kosmos in Berlin, Capitol in Leipzig or Gloria-Palast and Union-Theater in the provinces – for generations of former GDR citizens, names like these are associated with movie memories.
But especially beyond the larger cities, the East German film theater landscape has thinned massively in the past three decades. The GDR cinemas are documented on a digital map of the University of Erfurt.
The platform is the core of a study by historians and communication scientists on everyday life in the GDR cinema. 376 locations have now been documented on the online map since it was activated last autumn.
The scientists want to make visible a piece of everyday history in the GDR, which until now has hardly been the focus of contemporary historical research. ‘There is a lot of research on cinema politics in the GDR and the film bans after 1965,’ says the historian Christiane Kuller, who heads the project together with the communication scientist Patrick Rössler. ‘But everyday cinema life itself and the life experiences of GDR citizens with it are a real research gap.’ When it comes to film bans, it refers to the infamous XI. Plenary session of the SED leadership in 1965. As a result, almost a complete year of GDR feature films that did not fit into the ideological picture were banned.
According to the DEFA Foundation, which is preserving the cinematic heritage of the GDR, the Erfurt research project is so far unique, as spokesman Philip Zengel says. ‘I’m very curious to see how it will develop.’ The university can also fall back on its own pool of posters, programs or announcement photos of 4500 feature films shown in the GDR from the holdings of the former Progress film distributors.
However, East German amateur cineastes play a leading role: Former cinema-goers, projectionists and also people who have acted as extras in DEFA films enter former cinema locations in the online map, and also manage old tickets, posters, film programs and written reminders at. In connection with the platform, there was also a touring exhibition about Thuringia as a location for DEFA films. ‘She was supposed to be touring Thuringia, unfortunately the pandemic got in the way,’ said Rössler.
Cinema locations in today’s federal states of Thuringia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania are digitally recorded – and with them, in some cases, stories about the movie theaters. For example, it is noted for the former Alhambra Luckenwalde that operations ceased at the turn of the millennium and a bar was opened there. Tickets have been uploaded for the former Silvana light shows in Berlin-Baumschulenweg.
René Hube from Wünsdorf near Berlin is one of the “feeders” of the platform. For the 61-year-old who now works for an auto parts sales company, the cinema was “the greatest cultural experience there was in the GDR,” as he explains. ‘What else should you do?’ As a child he was drawn to the fairy tale films, as a teenager to the DEFA Indian films, and later to the western productions. “I queued for three hours at the Kallinchen campground for ‘Otto – der Film’,” he recalls. He also drove to a campsite especially for the film by the Swedish pop band ‘Abba’.
Movie screens on campsites, in company holiday homes, schools, country cinemas in villages and of course the regular movie theaters – ‘I find this variety of performance locations very interesting at GDR cinema,’ says the historian Kuller. However, cinema fans outside of Berlin, the central premier location, often had to wait a long time for new releases, reports co-project manager Rössler, who has come into contact with a number of people who used to work in the cinema through the platform. ‘When Berlin was through, it was usually the district towns and only then the small towns.’
The reason was the relatively small number of film copies ordered – at that time still made of celluloid on spools. ‘There was swap coil for coil between the locations.’ Contemporary witness Hube also remembers mandatory visits to the cinema with ideologically influenced documentaries or feature films during his school days. ‘But first and foremost, I was a cinema fan.’ For many of the contemporary witnesses involved in the research, the cinema was more than just entertainment, Rössler observed.
That was also shown in the organized film clubs and working groups in which cinema fans came together. Some still exist today. The scientists want to benefit even more from their knowledge and memories in the future.