The Forgotten Socialist Filmmaking of Slatan Dudow

René Pikarski
Loren Balhorn

Slatan Dudow's cinematic career took him from rural Bulgaria to working with Bertolt Brecht — making him one of the twentieth century’s most important socialist filmmakers. Yet the director's work has undeservedly been forgotten.

Slatan Dudow (L) and his cameraman Helmut Bergmann (R) on the set of Christine in 1963. (Herbert Kroiss and Waltraut Pathenheimer / DEFA Foundation)

The films of director and screenwriter Slatan Dudow (1903–1963) are rarely discussed today. Yet some of his films belong to the canon of German and international film history, while others were considered groundbreaking works by his contemporaries. Dudow conjured up succinct images that left a lasting impression through their harsh clarity, exaggerated caricatures, and, quite often, sensitivity to the everyday lives of ordinary people. Thematically, he focused on the living conditions of the German working class, the delusions and confusions of the petite bourgeois “little guy” and unreformed ex-Nazis, the struggle against fascism and for the reconstruction of Germany, and the emancipatory prospects of youth. Always political and socially critical, his films prompted a number of public debates to which Dudow himself often contributed with his own impassioned arguments.

Slatan Dudow’s most well-known work is probably the 1932 film Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?, released in the United States one year later under the title Whither Germany? It remains one of the most important “proletarian” films of all time and is often mentioned alongside movies like Piel Jutzi’s Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness or Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary films Strike and Battleship Potemkin. The many differences between these directors notwithstanding, all three shared the goal of using cinema to not only raise awareness of the social injustices of their era but actively contribute to remedying them by influencing the consciousness of their audience.

Similar motivations were behind the founding of the Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, or DEFA, on May 17, 1946, in Babelsberg, a district of Potsdam. As the first major postwar German company devoted to producing films, the publicly owned enterprise had a monopoly on cinematic production in the Soviet-controlled zone and later the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Prior to its dissolution after German reunification, the studio churned out an enormous catalog of roughly 700 movies, 2,000 documentaries, 950 animated films, and 6,700 German-language dubs of foreign productions, preserved in the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts. This year, it would have celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary.

Dudow completed six of his nine films at DEFA, and was known by practically everyone at the studio — as a director and screenwriter, but also as a mentor and dispenser of advice to his colleagues and someone who paved the way for many acting careers. He was well known for his positions on the social mission of cinema, representing a popular authority on the matter to some and a decidedly unpopular authority to others. He was infamous for his unscrupulous overspending on already tight movie budgets and ordering additional shooting days, as well as for his uncompromising and sometimes explosive personality.

A Communist Filmmaker

Slatan Dudow was born on January 30, 1903, in the Bulgarian hamlet of Tsaribrod (today Dimitrovgrad, Serbia), and later attended school in the capital, Sofia. Reports of Dudow’s early “politicization” ought to be taken with a grain of salt, however, as he tended to embellish legends about his own youth later in life. His father, Todor, was a railroad worker who opposed the tsar and the government and allegedly sympathized with the so-called Narrow Socialists, an organization founded in 1903 that would go on to become the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1919. Events like the severe impact of World War I in Bulgaria and the October Revolution probably also fueled Dudow’s enthusiasm for left-wing ideas. He moved to Berlin in 1922 and began taking acting classes in 1923. By 1925, he was studying theater under renowned theater scholar Max Herrmann and visiting the set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, released in 1927.

A crucial influence on his later film and theater work was his study trip to Moscow, undertaken in 1929 on Herrmann’s recommendation. Here he met both Sergei Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht. He subsequently became a member of Brecht’s working group and staged productions of Anna Gmeyner’s Heer ohne Helden and Brecht’s The Decision. The period between 1929 and 1930, during which he served as a director’s assistant at Berlin’s Weltfilm movie studio specializing in proletarian agitational films, was followed by his own directorial debut, the documentary How the Berlin Worker Lives, in 1930. He followed up with Kuhle Wampe two years later, produced collectively with Brecht, Communist playwright Ernst Ottwalt, and composer Hanns Eisler.

Depicting the unhealthy living conditions in Berlin’s working-class neighborhoods, the silent short film How the Berlin Worker Lives is often identified as an important preparatory step towards Kuhle Wampe. That should not, however, detract from the film’s own intrinsic value, such as its impressive and innovative montages contrasting Berlin’s dark and moldy slums with the suburban villas of Grunewald, often filmed at slanted angles.

Kuhle Wampe also addressed workers’ miserable living conditions, particularly those of the unemployed at the height of the Great Depression. The movie is sometimes referred to as a “tendential” film, which, given its impassioned condemnations of social injustice, is not only an understatement but almost an insult. Eisler’s uncompromising musical compositions throb along to the young people’s hunt for work in Depression-era Berlin. One highlight of the film’s many montages is a scene in which a young unemployed man sits silently at the kitchen table, his gaze locked upon the camera, before walking intently to the window. This is followed by close-up shots: he takes off a valuable watch and lays it down carefully, then he cautiously removes a flower from the windowsill. His hand grabs the window frame, but his leap is only hinted at. A scream breaks the silence, but only briefly.

The scene is quite clear: this was a well-prepared suicide, as if suicides were a common, everyday occurrence. The scene did not please the censors, who feared a “threat to peace and order.” Dudow recalled in the Junge Welt newspaper in 1958: “To our surprise, it turned out that the censor had really studied the film well. . . . He could not object to the portrayal of an individual fate, because suicides do happen. . . . But in the film the background that drives the young person to the desperate act is shown. Above all, however, it is also hinted at how these unemployed people could get out of their misery. And that went too far.”

Though initially banned outright, Kuhle Wampe was ultimately able to reach its audience thanks to public protests and a number of cuts to the film. The highlight of the movie is the sports festival scene, in which thousands of workers join in singing the famous “Solidarity Song,” also composed by Eisler. For their participation, the thousands of extras were given train fare and a warm sausage, as Erwin Geschonneck, who went on to become one of DEFA’s most famous faces, later remembered. Kuhle Wampe ends with a conversation between passengers in a train compartment: “Who exactly is supposed to change the world?” they ask. The answer? “Those who don’t like it!” In retrospect, the subsequent masses of workers marching into a dark tunnel could even be interpreted as prophetic — after all, those who actually ended up changing the world were not carrying red flags, but rather wore brown jackets.

Exile and Return

Kuhle Wampe was banned in March 1933. With the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of the Reich and the ensuing threat of political persecution by the Nazis, Slatan Dudow emigrated to Paris, where in 1934 he was able to complete his satirical film Seifenblasen (Soap Bubbles), which he had begun filming while still in Berlin and rescued from confiscation by the authorities. The long-lost film caricatures the illusions of the “little clerk” Priepke (played by Danish actor Henry Lorenzen), who descends into abject poverty after losing his job. He holds on to the very last shreds of his former prosperity in a conspicuously long and thus tragic, but now and then also (self-)ironic, way. Yet in a time when having any kind of job was precious, clothes no longer made the man and necessity was no longer the mother of invention — instead, it drove men to a life of crime.

In France, Dudow worked with other exiled actors under constant surveillance by the authorities. Often using makeshift sets, he staged, among other works, Brecht’s Señora Carrar’s Rifles with Helene Weigel in the leading role. During his time in exile, he also wrote the play Der Feigling (The Coward), the script for which was confiscated by the Paris police along with many other documents and letters. Expelled from France in 1939, Dudow moved to Switzerland and wrote other socially critical plays, including Der leichtgläubige Thomas (Gullible Thomas) and Das Narrenparadies (The Fool’s Paradise).

He returned to (East) Berlin with his wife Charlotte and their daughter Katharina in 1946, and initially worked as an advisor and reviewer for planned DEFA film projects. His first directorial work, Our Daily Bread, premiered on November 9, 1949, and quickly became a showpiece of socialist cinema, even making its way to American theaters in 1950. From then on, Dudow was regarded as a central, trendsetting figure in East German cinema, and exercised a significant influence on DEFA feature films.

Our Daily Bread tells the story of a family in postwar Germany. The conservative father and former clerk at a state-owned bank, Karl Weber, is initially full of admiration for his son Harry, who manages to earn “fast money” through more or less shady deals and, as a result, ends delinquent. His brother Ernst, meanwhile, is one of the honest and enthusiastic heroes who goes about rebuilding the foundation for their working life, the destroyed factory. In the end, the father — whose personal transformation is really at the heart of the film — acknowledges the need for a more sustainable path into the future. This early portrayal of socialist reconstruction in East Germany is enlivened in particular by Robert Baberske’s camerawork and Hanns Eisler’s music, which once again provides more active commentary than mere background.

Dudow’s second feature film for DEFA was released the following year. Familie Benthin (The Benthin Family) takes up — against the rather simplified, black-and-white backdrop of a hopeless West Germany and promising East — the smuggling problem in a Germany already divided by the Cold War, but nevertheless still enjoying an open border. The scriptwriting team was top-notch, including the authors Kurt Barthel and Ehm Welk as well as the man who wrote the lyrics to the GDR’s national anthem and later served as minister of culture, Johannes R. Becher.

DEFA’s entire oeuvre stands out for its many nuanced, anti-fascist productions. Here we should also remember Dudow’s contribution Stärker als die Nacht (Stronger than the Night), a drama which was filmed in 1954 from a screenplay by Jeanne and Kurt Stern. The film depicts the resistance struggle of the Lönings (played by Wilhelm Koch-Hooge and Helga Göring), who, even after Hitler seizes power, continue to sabotage German armament production and distribute leaflets against the fascist regime despite long spells in prison and the threat of death. Though it may come across as melodramatic at times, it was much soberer than Kurt Maetzig’s films about martyred Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann (Sohn and Führer seiner Klasse), produced around the same time.

Capturing the Problems of Life

Two months after DEFA was founded, Dudow laid out what drove his cinematic work in the Tägliche Rundschau newspaper: “From the beginning of my artistic work, I was primarily interested in the social problem. I was also concerned with capturing life. I have always been an opponent of film that served as an escape from reality. . . . You have to grab the viewer where he can’t evade you, that is to say with human problems.”

This commitment to realism was vague and even naive in a positive sense. For it was precisely this generality that facilitated Dudow’s integration of various realist styles and ideas — above all, epic and neo-realist styles, which did not always sit well with the then inconsistent and more politically than artistically driven ideals of so-called socialist realism demanded by cultural functionaries and film studios in the GDR at the time.

Dudow made fiery speeches arguing that socialist realism was no vulgar, simplistic “political morality” but rather the only “complicated artistic method” socialist artists could utilize. He even sought to reclaim the definition of socialist realism from the “dogmatists and other unwise people” (by which he meant cultural functionaries without an understanding of art, but also filmmakers in his own country) in order to keep it open to new impulses. However, if we take into consideration that this method required a largely concrete and sober depiction of reality, and often demanded a plot dedicated to realizing the socialist utopia with a positive hero at its center, then from today’s perspective, “socialist realism” appears too narrow to meet Dudow’s realist aspirations. He was anything but alone in this at DEFA.

This nuance is particularly evident in his 1952 film, Destinies of Women, which tells the stories of various women in East and West Berlin. Renate, Barbara, Anni, and Isa all fall for the seducer and bon vivant Conny (played by Hanns Groth). Precisely because of this character’s central role in the film, some critics at the time complained about its lack of emancipatory impulses that otherwise distinguished Dudow’s work. At one of the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s film conferences, where the guiding ideals of socialist art were deliberated upon, Dudow’s Destinies of Women came under fire for lacking a positive hero.

Dudow defended himself, pointing to the four heroines in his film: “Let’s not forget the most important thing, that it is not the men but the women who are at the center of the film. All my artistic love belongs to them.” The Democratic Women’s League responded, stressing that the four “destinies” depicted in the film were anything but typical of modern women. This reference to the untypical constituted an attack on Dudow for making an unrealistic film. Dudow replied that the realism of his film could be located in the fact that its characters referred to real tendencies in society. This, he said, was his goal, more so than depicting women’s actual lives. Such an understanding of realism required a degree of exaggeration, especially when it came to partisan art. Even after his spat with the Women’s League, tensions between Dudow’s realism and the party line would arise repeatedly, particularly in discussions about what constituted the “typical.”

Another indication of this tension was Dudow’s struggle to win more recognition for realistic satire, which was largely overlooked in East German art. Satire, with its often self-critical pretensions, was at times decreed unnecessary, obsolete, or politically damaging. The many officials who held this viewpoint welcomed satire, if at all, as a merciless indictment of the class enemy. East German moviegoers, however, had long since grown tired of these one-sided “phantoms from the Rhine painted on the wall by the GDR media,” as film critic Hans-Jörg Rother once aptly described them.

It is thus little surprise that Dudow directed only one satirical piece for DEFA. Released in 1956 and set in West Germany under Konrad Adenauer, The Captain from Cologne tells the story of a young, job-seeking waiter (played by Rolf Ludwig) who gets mistaken for a former captain who served in German Army under the Nazis. Yet rather than cause him problems, the mix-up brings him unexpected career opportunities leading all the way to the highest political offices. Through grotesque exaggeration, the film commented on the revelations of former Nazis employed in important positions in the West German government at the time.

Particularly noteworthy is a scene portraying the release of a German war criminal who, accompanied by a clutch of journalists, strides enthusiastically out of prison. A member of the press asks him what he talked about with former generals in his cell: “About the prospects of peace, of course!” he responds sarcastically. His welcome gift is an absurd cake adorned with an inordinately large cannon. The image has little to do with a realistic depiction, but instead relies on the audience’s ability to understand the underlying message.

Dudow’s realistic productions always treaded a thin line between reality and fiction, as seen in his use of exaggeration, stylization of the environment, and typecasting of characters. In doing so, he was perhaps guided by his early ideas and attempts at satire. After all, times of crisis are also times of satire: “Outside, war was raging . . . and I sat somewhere in quivering Europe and wrote comedies.” These words open Dudow’s play, Das Narrenparadies, which he drafted in Switzerland: “Ridiculousness kills. And we could add that, by laughing, a new insight is identified as a sign that we see through things and have exposed them in their inner core.”

Dudow was well aware of how quickly this socially critical laughter could morph into dull guffaws, sheer stupidity and, in the worst case, meaningless, jaded boredom on the part of his audience. According to some of his peers, the fact that The Captain of Cologne hinted at this in places and that he had perhaps created a satire out of sync with the times hit him hard. Such a failure was not only contrary to his artistic aspirations but also an expression of the kind of forced and pithy realism that Dudow himself always criticized.

Dudow later transferred this idea of anchoring art in reality to his serious dramas. His focus on cinema devoted to social problems was therefore never directed against laughter, but against the irrelevance of films that exclusively sought to entertain. Dudow’s notion of what constituted life dovetailed with a closeness to everyday existence, which he counterposed in a deliberate (and quite unfair) polemic against “French joviality” and “West German love”: “The schmaltzy films proved to be a gateway to petite bourgeois ideology,” he wrote in the ruling party’s central organ, Neues Deutschland, in 1958. His call for feature films to depict everyday life was clearly inspired by Italian neorealist cinema, the influence of which perhaps could have lent his socialist realism more steadfastness and persuasiveness. More courageous in this respect were his friends and colleagues Wolfgang Kohlhaase and Gerhard Klein, or his student Heiner Carow.

It is remarkable that in his 1959 comedy Love’s Confusion, Dudow ultimately still thought it possible to create problem-oriented and true-to-life cinematic art while deploying joviality, light-hearted laughter, and the levity of youth. The film tells the story of four young GDR citizens who find themselves in the middle of life: Sonja (played by Annekathrin Bürger), an art student in Berlin, has been dating Dieter (Willi Schrade), a medical doctor who, due to a mix-up at an opulent carnival party, falls for Siegi (Angelica Domröse), a young worker. Siegi’s friend, the bricklayer Edy (Stefan Lisewski) and Sonja also flirt with each other, so that who will marry who remains unclear until the film’s conclusion.

Despite the seriousness of the social setting and feelings it depicts, Dudow’s elective affinities are refreshingly free-spirited and devoid of the agitation and political content that had long since caused the attendance numbers of DEFA films to plummet. As expected, this was precisely the problem for some critics: nude bathing, romantic sunsets, noncommittal youth: the film “could just as well have been shot in France or Italy, or . . . even in West Germany.” Today, these words from Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler — later GDR television’s chief commentator — come across as a big unintentional compliment. But at the time, they could have ended a filmmaker’s career. Dudow felt compelled to advocate for Love’s Confusion in the press, defending its faith in East German youth and lack of a “loathsome index finger” wagging at audiences and telling them how to think.

An Unfinished Legacy

Whether all of Dudow’s films succeed in grabbing the viewer is a question of personal taste. The history of their popular reception leaves an ambivalent impression of the impact and power of his films. In 1974, critic Jutta Voigt commented on Dudow’s last film project in the magazine Sonntag: “Dudow makes, audaciously, a Madonna out of a woman who elsewhere would have been called antisocial.” The film she was talking about was Christine. The young farmworker, played by Annette Woska, has four children from four different fathers. As hinted at, the film focused on the tension between society’s search for a good, self-determined life, and the opportunities — or lack thereof — to achieve it.

Dudow’s project remained unfinished due to a fatal car accident on July 12, 1963, and is currently being restored as a fragment on behalf of the DEFA Foundation. It is difficult to say what effect the finished film would have had. The surviving materials, however, will at least allow us to get an idea of how, and above all with what new ideas, Dudow would have dealt with the opportunities and problems of his time. His assistant director Christa Müller wrote about the film last year: “Where Christine is in the picture, all light emanates from her: from her bright dress, a white blouse, from her expectant and yet sad face. The character insists — even in pain and despair — on an unshakeable faith in life.”

Even in this unfinished fragment, we find reflected Dudow’s ambition to capture life in all its contradictions.

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René Pikarski works as a researcher at the DEFA Foundation in Berlin, dedicated to the preservation of East Germany’s cinematic heritage.

Loren Balhorn is a contributing editor at Jacobin and coeditor, together with Bhaskar Sunkara, of Jacobin: Die Anthologie (Suhrkamp, 2018).

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