Kurt Maetzig: Acclaimed socialist film director


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The Independent Online

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.