Kurt Maetzig: Acclaimed socialist film director

 

Described by The International Film Encyclopedia as "one of the most important figures in postwar East German cinema", Kurt Maetzig declared: "I have never been a specialist for one particular genre, I have always been keen to open a window and see what happens", and throughout his 30-year career as a film director he displayed a satisfying versatility. Although a lifelong socialist whose loyalty won him the GDR's state award four times, he possessed an independence of spirit that resulted in his incisive 1965 "youth" subject Das Kaninchen bin ich being banned for nearly 15 years.

Maetzig was born to the proprietor of a film duplication facility and a mother who came from a family of wealthy tea merchants. The first film he saw was Chaplin's The Kid, which he instilled in him "a very childlike moral desire to be on the side of the weak". Having gained a working knowledge of film technology during the holidays working at his father's factory, he studied chemistry, business administration and political economics in Munich and sociology, psychology and law for a year at the Sorbonne before graduating with a degree in business in 1935.

He had begun shooting his own films in 1932 and on graduation founded an animation studio, Radius. He was barred from the film business in 1937 because his mother had Jewish ancestry (she died fleeing Germany), but his expertise enabled him to retain a foothold in the industry.

In 1944 he joined the Communist Party and in 1946 was a founder-member of the state-owned film production company, DEFA. He established a weekly newsreel and made an auspicious feature film debut with Ehe im Schatten (Marriage in the Shadows, 1947), based on the actor Joachim Gottschalk, who killed himself in a suicide pact with his Jewish wife in 1941. The first film to be shown in all four occupied zones of Berlin, it was a huge critical and commercial hit.

His second film, Die Buntkarierten (1949), the episodic saga of a family of labourers from 1884 until the present, was the first East German film entered at Cannes. The postwar Soviet administration had initially permitted a reasonable amount of artistic licence, but that changed with the creation of the GDR in 1949.

Maetzig was approached to undertake an epic biographical film about Ernst Thälmann, the Communist leader shot at Buchenwald in 1944. Five years of bureaucratic wrangles followed until the film hit the screens in two parts in 1954 and 1955, ablaze with red banners and impassioned speeches. "It is a film which you can no longer watch today. It is terrible. When I saw it once again I had red ears and was ashamed", Maetzig confessed in 1996.

For his next film, Schlösser und Katen (Castles and Cabins, 1957), a portrait of an East German village between 1945 and 1953, "the style and everything is totally different," he said. A couple of years later came DEFA's first venture into science fiction: Der Schweigende Stern (1960); an East German-Polish co-production vividly designed in colour and with an interracial cast, based on the novel Astronauci by Stanislaw Lem.

Under cover of a romantic-triangle drama, Septemberliebe (1961), was one of the first DEFA productions to allude to the political divisions with which Germany was riven before the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. Maetzig took advantage of the fleeting Khruschev thaw to drop a resounding brick with Das Kaninchen bin ich (The Rabbit is Me), a deft and witty drama recounting the tribulations endured by a girl (Angelika Waller) thwarted by political and legal circumstances from completing her studies.

Its sardonic take on the seamier side of East German society caused it to be banned and singled out for condemnation at the Party Congress in 1965. The newspaper Neues Deutschland carried an open letter to Maetzig penned by the head of state Walter Ulbricht attacking his film for "the sullying of our state". Maetzif later observed: "I was not so very surprised that it was banned, but the really surprising thing was that the film could be made at all," Maetzig recalled. It eventually opened to deserved acclaim in 1990.

Maetzig's later films included Das Mädchen auf dem Brett (The Girl on the Springboard, 1967), depicting crisies in the life of a young sportswoman and Januskopf (1972), a medical drama. In 1954 he was founding dean of the Deutsche Hochschule fur Filmkunst in Potsdam.

Richard Chatten

Kurt Maetzig, film director: born Berlin 25 January 1911; three children. Died Wildkuhl, Mecklenburg 8 August 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project