The Industrial Worlds of DEFA Documentary Films

How the industry of the GDR is presented in DEFA documentary films

By DEFA-Foundation


Montage Adé (R: Ulrich Weiß) (1971) by Fotograf: Gerhard NiendorfDEFA-Foundation

The industrial worlds in DEFA films

From the mid-1950s onwards, the GDR presented itself as a modern socialist industrial state: heavy industrial plants, new technologies and high-quality processed goods were also the focus of DEFA films. Complicated technical processes were illustrated and it was emphasized that such achievements demonstrate the superiority of the socialist camp. The documentaries mostly showed the industry as a source of work in the socialist society and its development. There was strict control: industry - and thus workers' society - should be portrayed in a good light and not negatively. The films had to serve party ideology and convey the ideals of the working class. Popular film locations were found above all in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. These included Bitterfeld, Schkopau, Bernburg and Gerbstedt in Mansfelder Land.

Die Küche (R:Jürgen Böttcher) (1986) by Fotograf: Michael LoewenbergDEFA-Foundation

DIE KÜCHE (The Kitchen, 1986) by Jürgen Böttcher

Boxberger Skizzen (R:Armin Georgi) (1974) by Fotograf: unbekanntDEFA-Foundation

BOXBERGER SKIZZEN (Boxberg sketches, 1974) by Armin Georgi.

The picture is reminiscent of a scene from the feature film SPUR DER STEINE (Traces of Stone, 1966) by Frank Beyer. A lot of thought has been put into this pictorial arrangement of the group lineup, which emphasizes the men's cooperation.

Dokumentarfilme (1953) by Hans DumkeDEFA-Foundation


The documentary films focused on presenting industry through reports on technological innovations of the GDR and by portraying various branches of industry and work processes. They aimed to highlight industry as the root of socialist efforts and the central basis of the country's economy, with workers being the ones responsible for progress and building the future. These motifs are included in films such as TURBINE I (1953) by Joop Huisken and Karl Gass, STAHL UND MENSCHEN, (Steel and people, 1956) from the Austrian guest director Hugo Hermann, OFENBAUER (Furnace builders, 1962) by Jürgen Böttcher and REPARATURBRIGADE ZEMENTWERK (Repair Brigade Cement Factory, 1979) by Werner Kohlert and Rolf Richter. Like feature films, documentary films were controlled by the SED and approvers and were subject to cuts and bans.

Schmerzen der Lausitz (1989) by Karl FarberDEFA-Foundation

The environment was one of the most widely discussed topics, particularly from the 1980s onward. Despite several bans on films containing critical comments on the ideology of the SED—criticizing the idea of man ruling over nature—filmmakers found themselves under less and less pressure from the government, and were able to address this important issue and reflect the mood in the country in the last years of the GDR. In most cases, the films demonstrated citizens' responsibility over the natural world to stop impending disasters. This can be seen for example in popular science films by Günter Lippmann such as GOLDGRUBEN (Goldmines, 1981), VERSCHENKT & VERLOREN (Gifted and Lost, 1984), KOSTBARES NASS (Precious Hydration, 1987), Gitta Nickels WIE EIN FISCH IM WASSER (Like a fish in water, 1987), which portrays a fisherman looking at his situation of working in a fish pit contaminated by LPG from wastewater, Armin Georgis AN DER FEISSNECK (At Feissneck, 1985), which shows a group of young environmentalists, and Roland Steiners ZEIT-RAUM – 46 HA URWALD IN BÖHMEN (Over Time: 46 ha Forest in Bohemia, 1987), which reports on the Bohemian forest and the need to preserve it.

Wäscherinnen (R:Jürgen Böttcher) (1972) by Fotograf: Horst SperberDEFA-Foundation

The reportage DIE KARBIDFABRIK (The Carbide Factory, 1988/89) by Heinz Brinkmann presents another type of criticism around the working conditions in the factory. As crude oil was difficult to import, this factory had to fall back on outdated methods for carbide production. Although mild environmental criticism was voiced here as well—only 2 of the 10 furnaces were environmentally friendly—the focus is more on criticizing working conditions. It's a depiction that in turn points to the social and industrial issues of the time: the desire for change (in technologies) and a corresponding improvement in working and living conditions. In the same decade, worker displacement through lignite mining was also a hot topic. Although Konrad Herrmann had already dealt with this theme in his short film RUBLAK – DIE LEGENDE VOM VERMESSENEN LAND, the Lausitzer trilogy by Peter Rocha gained particular attention in the 1980's: HOCHWALDMÄRCHEN (Forest Fairy Tale, 1987), LEBEN AM FLIESS – W BLOTACH (Life on the Rover - W Blotach, 1989) and SCHMERZEN DER LAUSITZ (The Pain of Lusatia, 1989/90). These films focus on the members of the only remaining ethnic minority in East Germany and a unique landscape in Europe: the Spreewald, where many villages, fields, and parts of the forest fell victim to open-pit mining.

Ofen im Eisenhüttenkombinat Ost an der Oder (1962) by Fotograf: unbekanntDEFA-Foundation


Director: Jürgen Böttcher, 15 min., black and white, documentary film, German Democratic Republic (GDR), DEFA studio for documentary films, 1962

Ofenbauer (1962) by Hans DumkeDEFA-Foundation

OFENBAUER (Furnace Builders) shows viewers a large-scale operation in the Eisenhüttenstadt steelworks near the River Oder which took place on August 10, 1962. A new blast furnace has to be moved to replace a burned-out furnace. The furnace weighs 2,205 tons and must be moved 60 feet. The following is clearly mentioned multiple times in the sports-like commentary: "Das Kommando hat jetzt Meister Klaus. Seinen Befehlen ist unbedingt Folge zu leisten!" (The command now is on Foremen Klaus. His orders must be obeyed!). The workers' faces and hands are closely followed using zoomed-in and close-up shots. Their efforts and exhaustion are hard to miss. The musical accompaniment of oblique notes, the sounds of screeching winds, and the tearing of strained steel cables gives the images shown a gruesome, oppressive tone. The workers are clearly in danger. It's a portrait of the worker in an almost impossible physical act with a successful ending: as mentioned in the commentary, the downtime was even reduced from 80 to 40 days.

Ofenbauer (1962) by Hans DumkeDEFA-Foundation

The film can be seen as a tribute to the workers: it shows them performing a heroic act which employs all their strength for the steelworks and the industry. In terms of the picture itself, this heroism is highlighted through the juxtaposition of images of the workers and the machines, which are filmed at angles that depict them as monstrous constructions. OFENBAUER aims to demonstrate the belief in the working class to viewers and evoke sympathy for the workers in the film. Jürgen Böttcher returned to the Eisenhüttenstadt steelworks a year later and filmed SILVESTER (New Year's Eve, 1963), a film portraying the New Year's Eve celebrations of the workers of the steelworks in the "House of Unions." Even during the night's big celebrations, hard work continues at the blast furnace. Like in OFENBAUER the operation is seen as a large socialist community where everyone sticks together—the perfect working-class society, in line with socialist thinking and party ideology.

Zementwerk (1978) by Werner KohlertDEFA-Foundation


Director: Werner Kohlert, 18 min., color, documentary film, German Democratic Republic (GDR), DEFA studio for documentary films, 1978–79  

Körperanstrengung (1978) by Werner KohlertDEFA-Foundation

„Landscape. Factory landscape. A typical environment for the people who work here every day.“
„The workers say that cement binds.“

The colour documentary film REPARATURBRIGADE ZEMENTWERK by Werner Kohlert starts with a loud, disturbing beep. This is followed by images of a factory: dusty, dirty, big machines—a sort of industrial chaos. It's a factory landscape that shows a typical environment for the people who work there every day, as mentioned at the start of the film's commentary. The documentary film reports on a repair brigade in a cement factory in Bernburg, Saxony-Anhalt. The workers need to get stationary rotary kiln number 5 operational in 10 days. In the film, they talk about their working conditions, problems with the work plans, and personal views on life. They give insight into their work processes and everyday lives.

Leiter des Zementwerkes (1978) by Werner KohlertDEFA-Foundation

The camera follows the events with precise observations and presentations of the physically demanding work of the laborers which calls back to the dusty, noisy working environment of the cement factory. The film not only shows the strenuous physical work but also the huge installations, evoking the idea of the machinery being almost threatening. Here, the workers are visually in the background and seem distant, and their relationship to the work itself comes to the fore. The camera acts as an independent entity exploring the cement factory. The audio accompanies this exploration, using "dirty" and dusty images to create an unpleasant atmosphere. It takes some effort for the viewers to make out what workers are saying above the loud sounds of the machines, making the working atmosphere tangible on a physical level.

A look at Bernburg Cement Factory today

Die Karbidfabrik in Schkopau (1987) by Jürgen Hoffmann (Kameramann)DEFA-Foundation


Director: Heinz Brinkmann, 25 min., color, documentary film, German Democratic Republic (GDR), DEFA studio for documentary films, 1987–88  

Luftaufnahme (1987) by Jürgen Hoffmann (Kameramann)DEFA-Foundation

Heinz Brinkmann's colour documentary film DIE KARBIDFABRIK starts with an aerial photo of a city, accompanied by the German folk song "An der Saale hellem Strande" by Franz Kugler. The image contrasts with the rest of the imagery: a beautiful green city versus a bare industrial landscape filled with machinery. This documentary film depicts the working conditions in the outdated carbide factory in Schkopau in the district of Halle. Described here is the carbide production process from raw materials brown coal and limestone, which was not environmentally friendly but was indispensable to the economy. The factory has to fall back on this process as the country can barely afford to import crude oil, and so carbide is used as a partial substitute. This process harms the workers and residents in Schkopau: energy consumption is immense, and the runoff wastewater treatment plant, exhaust fumes, and factory dust threaten the quality of life in the floodplains. In the film, 2 workers and a department chief talk openly about working conditions and criticize the lack of investment and future prospects of the factory. Out of anger and despair, one worker comments: "Die Leute fliegen zum Mond, nur hier ändert sich nichts" (People fly to the moon but nothing changes here). It gives insight into the mood of the last years of the GDR. The poor conditions of workers and the factory itself—a frightful image—are not only conveyed by the comments but also evoked by the camerawork of Jürgen Hoffmann and the editing. This is recognizable in the final scene, for example: gray figures moving behind layers of dust can be seen through spinning discs.

Arbeiter der Karbidfabrik (1987) by Jürgen Hoffmann (Kameramann)DEFA-Foundation

The film highlights the contrasts between reality and a fictitious idealized industrial world. The oft-depicted technological advances are barely featured here. The audiovisual contents of the film contradict the principle of Walter Ulbricht's chemistry program from 1958 which operated under the motto Chemie gibt Schönheit (chemistry creates beauty). DIE KARBIDFABRIK shows everything except beauty.
Heinz Brinkmann focused his work on the working class and admired filmmaker Jürgen Böttcher. He was marginalized in the film industry for a long time due to his participation in the protests against the expatriation of Wolf Biermann. It was not until DIE KARBIDFABRIK that he was able to return to his topic, and in 1991 he even shot a kind of sequel, DER LETZTE ABSTICH, (The Last Drop), marking the end of the carbide factory. After a small change—the quote from the department chief
Wenn man Fortschritte erzielen will, dann kann man nur eins machen: Andere Technologien entwickeln und die Karbidfabrik abreißen (If you want to make progress, then you can only do one thing: develop other technologies and tear the carbide factory down) was cut short—"Die Karbidfabrik" was approved by the state and enjoyed success at festivals in Leipzig and Neubrandenburg. Some time later, however, the general director of Buna came forward and expressed his dissatisfaction with the film. Although he couldn't do anything more against the approval, the film was banned from the festival in Oberhausen.

Beeindruckende Bilder aus der Arbeitswelt (1989-08-03) by Matthias SchlegelDEFA-Foundation

Newspaper article on DIE KARBIDFABRIK by Heinz Brinkmann in the newspaper Neue Zeit from 3 August 1989.

Karbid und Rhabarbersaft (2018-04-09) by Ralf SchenkDEFA-Foundation

Newspaper article on the film DIE KARBIDFABRIK by Heinz Brinkmann in the Berliner Zeitung from 9 April 2018.

A view into the Buna factory in Schkopau today

Credits: Story

Design: Lucy Pizaña
Text: Lucy Pizaña
Image selection: Lucy Pizaña
Technology: Lucy Pizaña
Editors: Stefanie Eckert, Juliane Haase, and Philip Zengel
© DEFA-Stiftung
Funded by the state of Saxony-Anhalt
In cooperation with the MA course in Film Heritage at Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF

For further information, please visit our Webseite

*Exhibition as part of a digitisation project

Finke, Klaus: Politik und Mythos. Kader, Arbeiter und Aktivisten im DEFA-Film, Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem, Oldenburg 2002.

Jordan, Günter: Film in der DDR. Daten - Fakten - Strukturen, Filmmuseum Potsdam, Potsdam 2013.

Jordan, Günter; Schenk, Ralf; Filmmuseum Potsdam: Schwarzweiß und Farbe. DEFA-Dokumentarfilme 1946-92, Jovis Verlagsbüro, Berlin 2000.

Schenk, Ralf: Karbid und Rhabarbersaft, in: Berliner Zeitung, Nr. 82 – Feuilleton, 09.04.2018.

Schlegel, Matthias: Beeindruckende Bilder aus der Arbeitswelt. Zum DEFA-Dokumentarfilm „Die Karbidfabrik“, in: Neue Zeit, Berlin 03.08.1989.

Audiovisuelle Materialien aus dem Archiv der DEFA-Stiftung und des Filmmuseums Potsdam.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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