The Rebellious Realism of Zlatan Dudov

The Rebellious Realism of Zlatan Dudov

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Zlatan Dudov is one of the most significant socialist directors of the 20th century. However, the Bulgarian-German director is largely forgotten today. Undeserved.

Today, the films of director and screenwriter Zlatan Dudov (1903-1963) are rarely talked about. Still, his films are worth rediscovering. Some of them are part of the canon of German and international film history, while others were considered ground-breaking works for their time. Dudov recreates images that leave a lasting impression thanks to their stark clarity, exaggerated caricature, and often their closeness to everyday life of ordinary people.

The films deal with subjects such as the living conditions of the German working class, the delusions and mistakes of the petty bourgeoisie and unreformed ex-Nazis, the fight against fascism and that of rebuilding Germany, as well as the emancipatory perspectives found in the youth. Always politically and socially critical, his films provoke a number of public debates, to which Dudov himself often contributes with his fiery polemics.

Perhaps the most famous work of Zlatan Dudov is the film “Kuhle Wampe” or “To whom does the world belong?” (also “Empty Stomachs”), which was released in the US a year later. To this day it is one of the most important “proletarian” films ever made, and is often mentioned alongside films such as Pil Jutzi’s Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück and the revolutionary films Strike and Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein.

Despite the countless differences between these directors, all three are united by one goal – to use cinema not only to draw attention to the social ills of the era, but also to play an active role in their elimination, influencing first and foremost their viewers.

Similar motivations were behind the foundation of the German film company DEFA on May 17, 1946 in Babelsberg, a district of Potsdam. As the first major public German film company since World War II, DEFA held a monopoly on film production in the Soviet zone and the later German Democratic Republic (GDR).

The studio created a huge catalog of about 700 feature films, 2,000 documentaries, 950 animations and 6,700 dubbings for foreign productions, which is preserved in the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts. This year DEFA would have celebrated its 75th anniversary.

Dudov created six of his nine films at DEFA and is known to everyone in the studio as a director and screenwriter, but also as a mentor always ready to give advice to his colleagues; a man who paved the way for many successful acting careers. He also became famous for his stance on the social mission of cinema and became a recognized authority on the subject for some but not for others.

Dudov is also infamous for his unscrupulous spending despite small film budgets, ordering extra shooting days, as well as his uncompromising and hot-tempered character.

Dudov was born on January 30, 1903 in Tsaribrod, Bulgaria (now Dimitrovgrad, Serbia), and attended school in Sofia. We should be cautious about information about Dudov’s early “politicization”, as he often embellishes the legends about his youth. His father Todor, a railway worker, was against the king and the government and is supposed to have sympathized with the so-called “narrow socialists” who founded the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1919.

Significant political events such as the First World War or the October Revolution in Russia and their consequences for Bulgaria probably also fueled Dudov’s enthusiasm for left-wing ideas. He went to Berlin in 1922 and took acting lessons in 1923. In 1925 he studied with the famous theater researcher Max Hermann and visited the set of Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, which was released in 1927 .

His later film and theater works were strongly influenced by his trip to Moscow in 1929 on Hermann’s recommendation.

There, Dudov met Sergei Eisenstein and Bertolt Brecht. He subsequently became a member of Brecht’s working group and staged his play The Decision as well as Anna Gmeiner’s Heer ohne Helden.

The period between 1929 and 1930, when he was an assistant director at Berlin’s Weltfilm film studio, specializing in proletarian agitation films, was followed by his directorial debut, the documentary How Berlin Workers Live in 1930. Two years later later released “To Whom Does the World Belong?”, produced together with Brecht, the communist screenwriter Ernst Otwalt and the composer Hans Eisler.

Because it shows the dangerous living conditions in the working-class districts of Berlin, the silent short film “How the Berlin Workers Live” (“Zeitprobleme: wie der Arbeiter wohnt”) is considered a preparation for “To Whom Does the World Belong?”. But that doesn’t detract from the value of the film, whose strikingly innovative montages alternate dark and musty slums with suburban Grünewald cottages, often shot from an angle.

“To whom does the world belong?” also shows the miserable conditions in which workers, especially those out of work, lived during the Great Depression. The film is sometimes called “trendy”, but given the film’s fervent condemnation of social injustice, such a description is downright insulting.

Eisler’s uncompromising compositions pulsate to the rhythm of the “job hunt” of young workers in Berlin during the Great Depression. One of the highlights of the montage: a scene in which an unemployed young man sits silently at a kitchen table, staring into the camera, before he starts walking intently towards the window. Close-ups follow: he removes the precious watch from his hand and carefully replaces it, then carefully moves a plant from the window. His hand grabs the window frame, but his leap is only hinted at. A scream breaks the silence, but only for a moment.

The scene is quite clear: this is a well-thought-out suicide, as if it were a self-evident, everyday occurrence. The scene is not liked by the censors, who fear the “threat to peace and order”. Before 1958, Dudov recalled in the newspaper “Junge Welt”:

“To our surprise, it turned out that the censor studied the film very well… He could not object to the depiction of an individual fate, since suicides do happen. … But the film also shows the background that forces the young a person to resort to this act of desperation. Most of all, the film suggests how the unemployed can put themselves out of their misery. And that broke the bank.”

Despite the initial ban “To Whom Does the World Belong?” reached the audience thanks to protest actions and several cut scenes. The focus of the film becomes a scene with a sports festival in which thousands of workers sing the famous “Song of Solidarity” (“Solidaritätslied”), also written by Eisler and Brecht.

In exchange for their participation in the film, the thousands of extras received free travel and a hot sausage, recalls Erwin Geshonek, who has become one of DEFA’s most famous faces. “To whom does the world belong?” it ends with a conversation between the passengers in the compartment of a train: who exactly should change the world, they ask themselves.

The answer? “Those who don’t like it!” In retrospect, the scene of the masses of workers marching into a dark tunnel could be interpreted as prophetic – but those who ended up changing the world wore brown uniforms, not red flags.

To Whom Does the World Belong?” was banned in March 1933. After the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor and the threat of political persecution by the Nazis, Zlatan Dudov emigrated to Paris, where in 1934 he managed to complete his satirical film “Soap Bubbles” (” Seifenblasen”), which began filming in Berlin and saved from confiscation by the authorities.

The long-lost film satirizes the illusions of “minor clerk” Pripke (played by Danish actor Henry Lorenzen), who falls into extreme poverty after losing his job. He tries to hold on to the last vestiges of his past prosperity in an excruciatingly long and therefore tragic, but sometimes (self) ironic way. At a time when every job is valuable, clothes no longer make the man and necessity is no longer the mother of invention but of crime.

In France, Dudov worked with other actors in exile under the constant surveillance of the authorities. Often using improvised sets, he staged Brecht’s play “Señora Carrard’s Rifles” with Helene Weigel in the title role.

During his stay in France, he also wrote the play “The Coward” (“Der Feigling”), the script of which was confiscated by the Paris police, along with many other documents and letters. Expelled from France in 1939, Dudov moved to Switzerland and wrote other socially critical plays, including “Der leichtgläubige Thomas” and “Fools’ Paradise” (“Das Narrenparadies”).

In 1946 he returned to (East) Berlin with his wife Charlotte and their daughter Katharina and initially worked as an advisor and reviewer for DEFA film projects. His first work as a director in the GDR was Unser täglich Brot, which premiered on November 9, 1949.

The film soon became a showcase for socialist cinema and even made its way to American theaters in 1950. From that moment on, Dudov was considered a central, trailblazing figure in East German cinema and had a huge influence on DEFA’s feature films.

“Our Daily Bread” tells the story of a family in post-war Germany. At first, conservative father and former state bank teller Karl Weber is delighted with his son Harry, who manages to make a quick buck through generally shady dealings and who eventually becomes a criminal.

Meanwhile, his brother Ernst is one of the honest and enthusiastic heroes who are engaged in rebuilding the foundations of his working life, namely the destroyed factory. At the end of the film, the father, whose personal transformation is central to the film, recognizes the need for a more sustainable path to the future. The early depiction of socialist restoration in East Germany is enlivened by the work of cinematographer Robert Baberske and music by Hans Eisler. The music is again an active commentary rather than a background.

Dudov’s second feature film for DEFA will be released next year. Against the background of the simplistic juxtaposition of hopeless West Germany and promising East Germany, the film “Familie Benthin” tells the story of the problem of smuggling in the already divided country by the Cold War, before the construction of the wall. The screenwriters are all stars, among them Kurt Bartel and Em Welk, as well as the author of the text of the GDR national anthem and later Minister of Culture Johannes Becher.

DEFA’s catalog is notable for its many nuanced anti-fascist productions. Here we should also mention Dudov’s contribution, the drama “Stronger than the Night” (“Stärker als die Nacht”), filmed in 1954.

The film tells the story of the resistance of the Lönnings family (played by Wilhelm Koch-Huge and Helga Göring), who, even after Hitler came to power, continued to sabotage German arms production and distribute leaflets against the fascist regime, despite long prison terms and the risk of death.

Even if at times too pathetic, the film is much more moderate than Kurt Metzich’s films about the Nazi-killed Communist Party leader Ernst Thelmann (“Sohn” and “Führer seiner Klasse”), made at the same time.

Two months after DEFA was founded, Dudov formulated his artistic aspirations in the Tegliche Rundschau newspaper:

“From the very beginning of my creative activity, I was mainly interested in the social problem. Later I wanted to capture life. I have always been against films that aim to escape from reality. … You have to catch the viewer where he cannot escaped, that is, to human problems.”

This pursuit of realism is a bit vague and even naive, but in a positive way. Because it is precisely this indeterminacy that facilitates the reconciliation of different realistic styles and ideas in Dudov’s work. These are mainly epic and neorealist styles, which do not always coincide with the then still inconsistent and more politically than artistically motivated ideals of the so-called. “socialist realism” demanded by cultural functionaries and film studios in the GDR at the time.

Dudov himself gives fiery speeches about socialist realism — this is not a vulgar and simplistic “political morality”, but the only “complex artistic method” available to socialist artists. He aims to reclaim the right to interpret socialist realism from “dogmatists and other stupid people” (here he means cultural functionaries who do not understand art, but also other filmmakers in the GDR) in order to keep it open to new impulses.

If we keep in mind that this “method” often requires a concrete and sober representation of reality, as well as a plot dedicated to the socialist utopia with a positive character at the center of the film, then from today’s point of view “socialist realism” seems too limited to answer of Dudov’s high realistic expectations. But others in DEFA share his ambition.

This nuance is particularly prominent in his film “Frauenschicksale”, describing the stories of several women in East and West Berlin. Renate, Barbara, Annie and Isa fall in love with the seductive bon vivant Connie (played by Hans Groth). Because of the focus on this character, some critics at the time missed the emancipatory impulses that otherwise distinguished Dudov’s work.

At one of the film conferences of the ruling German United Socialist Party, where the ideals of socialist art are discussed, “Women’s Fates” was subjected to a lot of criticism because of the absence of a positive character in the film.

Dudov defends himself by pointing out the four heroines in his film: “Let’s not forget the most important thing, namely that women, not men, are at the center of the film. All my artistic love is dedicated to them.” The Democratic Women’s Union of Germany claims that the four “destinies” in the film are not typical of modern women.

This reference to the “atypical” is a kind of accusation against Dudov for making an unrealistic film. Dudov replies that the realism of his film can be found in the fact that it refers to real trends in society. That was his aim, not to depict the real lives of women. Such an understanding of realism requires exaggeration, especially when it comes to political art. Even after his conflict with the Women’s Union, the tension between Dudov’s realism and the party line often rose, especially in discussions of the meaning of “typical”.

Another example of this tension is Dudov’s struggle to gain recognition for realistic satire, which was particularly neglected in East German cinema. Satire, with its self-critical pretension, is often branded as unnecessary, outdated or politically harmful.

The many officials who share this point of view welcome satire only if it serves to mercilessly denounce the “class enemy”. The East German public of the time, however, had already had enough of these one-sided “ghosts from the Rhine painted on the wall by the GDR media”, as Hans-Jörg Rotter calls them.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Dudov directed only one satirical film about DEFA. “The Captain from Cologne” (“Der Hauptmann von Köln”) was released in 1956. The action takes place in West Germany, where a young waiter (played by Rolf Ludwig) looking for work is mistaken for a former captain who served in the German army on time of Nazism. But instead of causing him problems, this confusion unexpectedly opens many doors for him that lead all the way to the highest political positions. Through grotesque exaggeration, the film comments on the revelations about ex-Nazis in high positions in the West German government at the time.

Particularly interesting is the scene showing the release of a German war criminal who is released from prison, accompanied by a group of journalists. A representative of the media asks him what he talked about with former generals in his cell: “About the prospect of achieving peace, of course!”, he answers sarcastically. His welcome gift is an absurd cake decorated with an oversized cannon. The image has nothing to do with realism, the audience is expected to understand the message on their own.

Dudov’s realistic productions always play with the fine line between reality and fiction, as can be seen in his use of devices such as exaggeration, stylization of the environment and the repeated appearances of the same actors in similar roles.

This is probably due to his early ideas and attempts at satire. After all, times of crisis are also times of satire: “There was a terrible war going on outside, … and I was sitting somewhere in trembling Europe writing comedies.” With these words begins the play that Dudov wrote in Switzerland – “Paradise of Fools”. “Mockery kills. And we might add, laughter shows that we see through things and have reached their true nature.”

Dudov is perfectly aware of how quickly this socially critical laughter can turn into dumb giggles, stupidity and, in the worst case, into pointless, boring boredom for the audience. According to his relatives, he was terribly tormented by the fact that “The Captain of Cologne” in places reveals this danger, and by the suspicion that he might have created a satire that was out of step with the times. Such a failure is not only contrary to his artistic aspirations, but is also an expression of the exaggerated and formulaic realism that Dudov himself has always criticized.

Dudov later carried this idea of connecting art with reality in his serious dramas. His focus on social cinema was never directed against laughs, but against the inappropriateness of films that aim only to entertain.

Dudov’s understanding of “life” coincides with his adherence to the everyday, which he opposes in a deliberate (and particularly unfair) polemic against “French gaiety” and “West German love”: “Tear films turned out to be a path to petty-bourgeois ideology,” writes Dudov in 1958 in Neues Deutschland, the organ of the ruling party.

His call for feature films to depict everyday life was clearly inspired by Italian neorealism, which could have given Dudov’s “socialist realism” a bit more grit and persuasiveness. More daring in this respect are his friends and colleagues Wolfgang Kohlhaas and Gerhard Klein, or his student Heiner Karov.

It is remarkable that in “Verwirrung der Liebe” (“Mistakes in Love”) – a comedy from 1959 – Dudov still believes that it is possible to use gaiety, carefree laughter and youthful frivolity to create a topical and problem-oriented movie. The film tells the story of four young East Germans: Sonja (played by Annekatrin Bürger), an art student who is in a relationship with the doctor Dieter (Willy Schrade), who, after a mix-up at a lavish carnival, falls in love with the young worker Ziggy (Angelica Domröse). Ziggy’s bricklayer friend Eddie (Stefan Lisewski) and Sonya also flirt, so until the end of the film it remains a mystery who will marry whom.

Despite the seriousness of the social context and the feelings of the characters, Dudov’s “Relatives by Choice” is refreshingly liberal and devoid of the agitation and political content that at the time had already led to a sharp decline in the attendance of DEFA films. Of course, this is exactly what is proving to be a problem for some critics: the nude bathing, the romantic sunsets, the young people avoiding serious commitment: the film “might as well have been shot in France, Italy and even West Germany”.

Today, these words of Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, who later became the chief commentator on GDR television, sound like a wonderful compliment. But back then, they could ruin someone’s career in a hurry. Dudov feels obliged to defend the film, his faith in East German youth, and the absence of the “disgusting pointer” waved at audiences to teach them how to think.

Whether all of Dudov’s films manage to “grab the viewer” is a matter of personal opinion. The history of their reception by the general public is mixed regarding the impact of his films. In 1974, the critic Jutta Voigt wrote about his last film project of 1963 in Sontag magazine:

“Dudov has the audacity to turn into Madonna a woman who would otherwise be called anti-social.” Here Voigt talks about the film “Christine”. The young farm worker, played by Annette Voska, has four children by four different fathers. The film examines the tension between society’s expectation of independent living and the opportunities – or lack thereof – to achieve that ideal.

Dudov’s project remained unfinished due to a fatal car accident on July 12, 1963, but it is currently being prepared for exhibition as a fragment on behalf of the DEFA Foundation. It’s hard to say what the impact of the finished film would have been. The available materials will give us an idea of how and especially with what new ideas Dudov would have approached the problems of his time.

Last year, his assistant director Krista Muller wrote about the film: “When Christine is in the frame, all the light comes from her: from her bright dress, from her white blouse, from her expectant but sad face. Even in her pain and despair, the heroine stands for unwavering faith in life.”

Even in this unfinished fragment Dudov’s ambition to turn his films into a mirror for all the contradictions of life shines through.

René Piekarski is a researcher at the DEFA Foundation in Berlin, dedicated to the preservation of East German film heritage. Together with Ralf Schenk and other scholars, he is working on a book about the life and work of Zlatan Dudov. He is currently completing his doctorate in philosophy in Munich.

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