Moving Images on the Margins: Experimental Film in Late Socialist East Germany

Seth Howes, Moving Images on the Margins: Experimental Film in Late Socialist East Germany (London: Camden House, 2019), 280 pp.

Seth Howes opens his study with a quote from East Berlin filmmaker Cornelia Klauß. Klauß argues that due to their avant-garde-inspired aesthetics the smaller, primarily experimental films in the GDR were a nuisance to the industrialized film production of DEFA (Deutsche Film AG), the GDR’s state-run film and television company. Although these experimental films met with great resistance from the official side and were either banned or denied financial support, Howes describes them as a product of one and the same system.(The experimental film production discussed in Howes book is based on Super-8 technology, which emerged in the mid-1960s and which by the 1970s, while initially expensive, was readily available second-hand or new. Meanwhile video technology remained virtually inaccessible until the end of the GDR. However, some of the films analyzed by Howes, especially those by Yana Milev, were later transformed into videos. Since Super-8 technology was not supported by the DEFA film studio, it advanced to become the medium of choice for independent filmmakers, especially in the visual arts.) Because in the “real-existing socialism” of the GDR, art had to assume a social function, and because securing one’s livelihood was not a problem in the GDR even for artists who were not members of state cultural institutions such as the Verband der bildenden Künstler (VBK – Association of Fine Artists), such experimental film art could emerge even where it was not commercially viable.(Howes’ book is part of an effort in recent US scholarship on the GDR to replace the East/West dichotomy with a more nuanced picture. See also April Eisman, Bernhard Heisig and the Fight for Modern Art in East Germany (2018), or Sara Blaylock, Parallel Public. Experimental Art in Late East Germany (2022).)

The word “margins” in the title of Howes’ book refers not only to the marginalization of the artists he deals with, but also to the marginalization of the films they produced, particularly inasmuch as these crossed the boundaries of different artistic genres and media. The author views experimental film in the GDR as questioning “the stark boundaries between artistic media in the GDR – between painting and photography, performance and exhibit, word and image – that experimental film helped artists to transgress.” (p.3) Film is located in an inter-media field also in the sense that many artists who were painters, including A.R. Penck, Helge Leiberg, and Cornelia Schleime, also made experimental films. Additionally, experimental film became part of performances, painting, sculptural practices, and music. Beside all this, film served documentary purposes inasmuch as artists used film to record performances and exhibition openings.

The author focuses on four case studies: Lutz Dammbeck’s Heraklesmaschine;  experimental film and mail art; the films of the Dresden-based performance group Auto-Perforation Artists; and the artist Yana Milev, in each case analyzing the intellectual context and artistic milieu. Dammbeck made several animated and experimental films for DEFA beginning in the mid-1970s before leaving the GDR with his family, in 1986, for Hamburg. The focus of Howe’s interest in Dammbeck is the latter’s Heracles project, which he developed over a period of several years together with the dancer and performer Fine Kwiatkowski. The project, which consists of Fine Kwiatkowski’s dance elements, installation and musical elements, as well as photographic and film elements, focuses on Germany’s Nazi past and took on a different form with each performance over the years. It thus became a „time-limited, provisional transformation of a preexisting performance space with its own dimensions and audience capacity.” (p.65) The basis for their joint exploration of heroism, mediation, and political action in advanced industrial society is provided by Dammbeck’s intellectual engagement with the writers Heiner Müller, Peter Weiss, and Alexander Kluge.

In his second case study, Howes explores the relationship between mail art, experimental film, and art in the work of GDR mail artists Robert Rehfeldt, Oskar Manigk, Lutz Wohlrab, and Martin Bernhardt. The production of experimental films figured in their work as an artistic practice among many, but one that was able to absorb and remediate these other art forms. Their practice, by integrating different genres, led these four artists to connect everyday spaces and people, closely linking social practice—manifested by their connections with artists in all parts of the world—and aesthetic theories. Meanwhile, to them, the Super 8 camera took on a liberating and equalizing function. They found intellectual models in DADA, Surrealism and, of course, Fluxus, that “had brought ‘ideas about conceptual art actions, the broadening of [artistic] media, and the [found] object movement to Europe.'” (p.80) Therefore, Howes concludes, “[f]or Rehfeldt, as for Filiou … transforming the social situation of art in the long term is as crucial an issue as the emergence of a new artistic practice in the near future.” (p.79)

In his third case study, Howes reflects on how the Auto-Perforation Artists produced images and reused them in their performances and films. Else Gabriel, Via Lewandowsky, Rainer Görß, and Micha Brendel met while studying stage design at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1980s. With their performances, which they created as a collective, they also broadened the art practice to include the university. Indeed, they were the first students to receive a university diploma in performance. In their artistic practice these artists transformed performances into experimental films and let them run in the background of other actions or shows, thereby “exploring the formative properties of the medium [film], reflecting at the same time on its capacity to translate bodies and their undergoings into two-dimensional images.” (p.117) Howes argues that with their ironic actions, the Auto-Perforation Artists “comment on a late Socialist everyday characterized not by revolutionary orientations of years past but by deceleration and ennui.” (p.122)

In his final case study, Howes examines Yana Milev’s intermedial approach in her art films, which anticipated key aspects of her later social-critical theory. Milev also studied at the Art Academy in Dresden, where she was especially interested in merging graphic art with performance and installations. Her films doublage fantastique and raster + psychewere later integrated into art actions. In the late 1980s, Milev became interested in the cybernetic concept of the “black box” and incorporated the concept in her artistic self-representation. Her later theoretical work, developed when she studied with Peter Sloterdijk, is primarily concerned with design anthropology, “an evolving undertaking of ‘applied spatial research’ which explores how bodies and subjects are situated, and how spaces are created, as elements of an inherently disciplinary design process that both occludes political possibilities and creates them, initiates flows and suspends them.” (p.138) Howes sums up Milev’s work as follows: “In this way, her intermedial work and its filmic derivates become understandable as working documents of applied spatial research – and therefore as advancing an intellectual program that is of a piece with the theoretical sociology Milev would first formulate in writing decades later.” (p.172)

Throughout his book, Howes ruptures the dichotomy between dissident art, on the one hand, and the official art of socialist realism on the other, which is unfortunately still too often invoked as the main explanatory framework in art historiography of the GDR. In doing so, he paints a picture of a vibrant art scene in the GDR bent on changing the conditions of artistic practice, and seeking to develop new experimental practices especially in the form of collective structures. Howes demonstrates how artistic work in the GDR was often interwoven with the official system whose boundaries it explored and expanded in order to create spaces for artistic freedom and experimentation. As the author noes, “it was in fact the institutions set up by the GDR government for the teaching and exhibiting of visual art … that came to provide many of the country’s experimental filmmakers with financial support, critical reception, and (eventually) grudging acceptance.” (p.9)

As the author points out, although the arts opened a space for critical discourse and for the articulation of alternative political views, artists in the GDR did not always stand in hostile opposition to the government, debunking the myths of the dissident created by Western critics and art historians, and clarifying “our understanding of ‘subversion’– in film, as in art and politics – allowing us to retreat even further from our lingering investment in binarisms redolent of Cold War thinking.“ (p.10) Howes understands experimental film as counterbalance to official discourse through its “insistent recurrence in East German art and letters, both as topics for debate in criticism and theory, and as thematic and stylistic resources for creative practice.” (p.20)

With experimental film, artists broke down the rigid boundaries drawn between the individual art genres in the GDR, which were also reflected in the division of the official Union of Artists into sections for sculpture, painting, printmaking, and so on. By examining experimental film and its institutional framing, Howes interprets this “softening of the boundaries between painting, performance, and film as a function of experimental film’s intermediality and as a subversion of the GDR’s art system. An important facet of Howe’s discussion of experimental film in the GDR concerns the latter’s relationship with the historical avantgarde. Outlining the reception history of the avant-garde in the GDR, Howe places the films he discusses within a larger historical framework, which is particularly productive since, in the perception of many, the art of the GDR still exists in isolation from the course of art history.

Constanze Fritzsch
Constanze Fritzsch holds a doctorate from the Catholic University in Eichstätt-Ingolstadt. She is a former assistant curator at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden. Currently she is working on a research project on post-socialist transformation in Eastern Europe.  She has also been on the academic staff at the Bauhaus University in Weimar and worked as an academic assistant at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris. She has curated exhibitions in Germany, France, and Croatia.