Cinemadope: East Meets West

When we think of the local film scene here in the Valley, we often think, naturally, of the many small theaters that still dot the area, providing college towns a central hub for both arts and community get-togethers. We’re lucky enough still to have the community to support that kind of business model, even if it has slimmed down in recent years. But mixed in among the theaters—and often helping flesh out the screenings at those houses—are a surprising variety of academic film programs that too often go overlooked by the general public.

By nature, the films these programs present tend to be narrowly focused in one way or another: perhaps they are hosted by a student group devoted to social justice, or maybe by an English department hoping to get people to actually read some of the books that inspired those Baz Luhrmann adaptations. This week, one of the best local programs celebrates a milestone: the DEFA Film Library at UMass Amherst, an archive and study center devoted to the art of East German filmmaking, is turning 20.

The DEFA library (short for Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft) was founded in the early 1990s by film professor Barton Byg with the goal of bringing the work of those state-run East German studios to a wider American audience. From there the program has matured into a true powerhouse, helped along by a 1997 growth spurt that brought the Amherst campus the largest collection of 16 and 35mm DEFA prints outside of Germany. It was a coup, but the program has never rested on its laurels; it’s hosted multiple touring film series, international conferences, and a collaboration with MOMA in the years that followed.

To mark the moment, the DEFA has teamed up with Amherst Cinema to present a free screening of I Was Nineteen, director Konrad Wolf’s 1968 film exploring the postwar dilemma of what it meant to be German in the years after Hitler. In it, young Gregor Hecker (Jaecki Schwarz) is a German-born soldier fighting alongside the Soviet troops; his left-wing parents fled from Hitler when Gregor was still a boy. Now he marches on his own defeated homeland, encountering other young Germans along the way and struggling to make sense of what it means for him to be not only the victor, but one of the vanquished.

Dr. Byg will be on hand to introduce the film, which screens Monday night at 7 p.m. Tickets are only available at the box office, and will be released on a first-come, first-served basis.


Also this week: the young adult novel Ender’s Game finally comes to the big screen after years of false starts, but not without some controversy. LGBT group Geeks Out—which hopes to foster a more inclusive geek community—has called for a boycott of the film (a sci-fi fantasy in which a young boy proves to be a master war strategist) due to author Orson Scott Card’s extreme views on homosexuality and gay marriage. Card, who until recently sat on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, penned a widely read 2004 op-ed in which he frothed about “the fanatical Left,” and wrote that gay couples getting married would “just be playing dress-up in their parents’ clothes.” (Sadly, those are two of the tamer examples in a screed that would go on to suggest that “the dark secret” of homosexuality is that it is a result of rape or molestation, among other things.)

Now that his hit book is on the silver screen, the author is backpedaling just a bit; he recently released a statement in which he writes that “it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.” (For a writer, he has an oddly politician-like definition of tolerance.) It’s always a conundrum when a popular artist holds extreme views, and in most cases I tend to err on the side of the art. This time, I don’t think I can—but if you’d like to decide for yourself, you can find Card’s column under the title “Homosexual ‘Marriage’ and Civilization.”•

Jack Brown can be reached at

Author: Jack Brown

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