DEFA was founded in the Spring of 1946 in the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany as the first film production company in post-War Germany. While the other Allies, in their zones of occupation, viewed a rapid revival of a German film industry with suspicion, the Soviets valued the medium as a primary means for re-educating the German populace as it emerged from twelve years of Nazi rule and mindset.
Headquartered in Berlin, the company was formally authorized by the Soviet Military Administration to produce films on May 13, 1946, although Wolfgang Staudte had already begun work on DEFA's first film, "Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns" ("The Murderers Are Among Us") nine days earlier. Original company board of directors consisted of Alfred Lindemann, Karl Hans Bergmann and Herbert Volkmann, with Hans Klering as administrative Secretary. On August 13, 1946, the company was officially registered as a joint-stock company. By the end of the year, in addition to the Staudte film, it had completed two other feature films using the former Tobis studio facilities in Berlin and the Althoff Atelier in Babelsberg. Subsequently, its principal studio would become the one in Potsdam originally built by Ufa in the 1920s.
On July 14, 1947, the company officially moved its headquarters to Potsdam and on 13 November, 1947, the company "stock" was controlled by the Socialist Unity Party or SED, which had originally capitalized DEFA, and pro-Soviet German individuals. Soviets Ilya Trauberg and Aleksandr Wolkenstein joined Lindemann, Bergmann and Volkmann on the board of directors, and a committee was established under the auspices of the Socialist Unity Party to review projects and screen rushes.
In July, 1948, Lindemann was dismissed from the board of directors because of alleged "financial irregularities" and replaced briefly by Walter Janka. In October, 1948, the SED was instrumental in replacing Janka, Volkmann and Bergmann as corporate directors with official party members Wilhelm Meissner, Alexander Lösche and Grete Keilson. In December, the death of Trauberg and the resignation of Wolkenstein resulted in two more Soviets in their stead, Aleksandr Andriyevsky and Leonid Antonov.
In the meantime, throughout 1948 the separation of directions for Germany between the Soviet zone and the zones controlled by the other Allies blossomed. The SED eventually determined to become openly Communist and, even more so, Stalinist. On May 23, 1949, the Allies' Germany became officially the Federal Republic of Germany, popularly known as West Germany, and on October 7, 1949, the Soviet zone became the official country, the German Democratic Republic, popularly known as East Germany. All DEFA interests were now incorporated into this new nation as its "people's" film monopoly according to the strictures of Stalinist Communism and socialist realism, and effectively an arm of the government. On June 23, 1950, Sepp Schwab, a hardline Communist, was appointed director-general of DEFA.
As the Soviet-Communist-Stalinist influences more and more infected DEFA, the definition of desirable and acceptable themes for films became more and more narrow. Even as early as June, 1947, a film writer's conference held in Potsdam produced general agreement that the "new" German film needed to disavow and avoid both subject and stylistic considerations reminiscent of those common during, and before, Nazi rule on German screens. By 1949, expectations for scripts were codified around a small number of topics such as "[re-]distribution of land" or "the two-year plan". As in the Soviet Union, the excessive control placed by the state on authors of screenplays, as against other literary works, put off many competent writers entirely from contributing to East German film, while others found their efforts rejected for ideological reasons at any stage in script development, if not from the outset. As a result, between 1948 and 1953, when Stalin died, the entire film output for East Germany, excluding newsreels and non-theatrical educational films, amounted to fewer than 50 titles.
In the 1960s, DEFA produced the popular Red Western The Sons of the Great Mother Bear, directed by Josef Mach and starring Gojko Mitić as the Sioux Tokei-itho. This spawned a number of sequels and was notable for inverting Western-cliches by portraying the native Americans as the "good guys", and the American army as the "baddies".
In 1992, after German reunification, DEFA was officially dissolved and its combined studios sold to a French conglomerate, Compagnie Générale des Eaux, later Vivendi Universal. In 2004, a private consortium acquired the studios. The films produced at the DEFA studios after World War II included approximately 950 feature films, 820 animated films, more than 5,800 documentaries and newsreels, 4000 German synchronisations of foreign language movies, which were acquired by the privatized version of the former East German film distribution monopoly, Progress Film-Verleih GmbH.
DEFA films are now enjoying a revival in Germany and the United States: in October 2005 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted a two-week DEFA festival, and several titles are now commercially available on DVD from US distributor First Run Features (see link below).
Today the PROGRESS Film-Verleih is the distributor for all DEFA-Movies for Television and Cinema. Icestorm Entertainment is the exclusive distributor for release for Video and DVD. DEFA films can be rented or purchased from the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts and many titles in NTSC format are now available on DVD from US distributor First Run Features (see links below).
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