How historical feature films reproduce the hegemonic GDR discourse


Historical memory is a battlefield, where different stakeholders fight for the power, in order to define how the past should be remembered. In these “memory wars” media plays a crucial role. Covering the past, history books and religious texts, TV documentaries and movies, newspapers and museums become memory agents. They generate images and construct narratives, provide interpretations and perspectives on historical actors and events and, thus, shape the collective memory.

Using the example of the GDR, the present study, first, investigates how historical feature films represent the past and what power structures lie behind them. Second, we question how hegemonic GDR narratives delivered by movies and other mass media affect the professional biography and the memories of those media professionals, who lived, studied and worked under socialism and, therefore, witnessed the past.

There are two main reasons in case of the GDR to be taken into account. First, the former GDR citizens had to (re-)build their national identity in the united Germany. With the collapse of the system, people woke up to a whole new reality as the political, ideological and economic landscape had changed almost overnight. Since the unification of East and West, people have contradictory memories of their controversial past and look at the life under communism in different ways. Second, choosing the GDR as an example, is the key role of the media in the “memory battle.” The leading German media outlets remember the GDR almost exclusively as a dictatorship, a state of lawlessness, Stasi, economic mismanagement and missing freedoms.

Historical films can be analyzed for their special role in the memory-shaping process. The German cultural scientist Astrid Erll defines film as the leading medium of collective memory. Our study focuses on film narratives, political and social contexts, in which films are produced and received, and stakeholders participating in “memory wars”, such as film funders and distributors.

The present study is based on the Assmann’s theory of Collective Memory and on the (Critical) Discourse Analysis, as practiced by Foucault, Fairclough and Jäger. The empirical work includes, firstly, the qualitative analysis of 20 core films dealing with the GDR past and produced between 1990 and 2020. Secondly, we have interviewed 16 leading East-German journalists, who were trained to become communist party propagandists back then about their memories, role perceptions and career path.

The study shows, first, how the filmic discourse has changed over time transforming from melancholic movies of the last generation of DEFA filmmakers through the GDR “ostalgia” to “creepy tales” about the GDR secret police and escape attempts. Second, one key outcome of the study is that the success of media professionals depends on how one constructs his/her very own GDR biography. To be more concrete, to climb the career ladder, East-German journalists should see themselves as part of the former opposition. Third, the hegemonic discourse silences alternative voices. Journalists who could tell a different GDR story stay in shadow, since they are afraid to be confronted with their communist past.