First Run Features // 1975 // 57 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // January 20th, 2010
Animation before unification.
For nearly forty years, DEFA, the premier animation studio in East Germany, produced over 800 animated films that were only seen in that country (and sometimes not even there, due to government censorship). Though it was, like all other enterprises in the Socialist country, subsidized by the government, DEFA actually had considerably more freedom than many other artists in making political and social statements. Because they were "just making cartoons," they actually made some surprisingly trenchant and original critiques that subtly pointed out the failures of East Germany's government better than any protest could have.
Red Cartoons compiles sixteen animated shorts made by DFA between 1975 and 1990 (the year that Germany reunited), and they're fascinating to see. Because these are all shorts, none lasts longer than four minutes, and First Run has also shrewdly compiled the shorts that don't really have dialogue, so apart from a word or two, you won't need subtitles. The combination of short films with no dialogue may put off some viewers, and it's true that a few of these are more impressionistic than funny or endearing. Also, the animation quality is, with a few exceptions, deliberately crude and minimalist. Still, if you can get past some of the artier experiments, such as the smirky "Seven Rights of a Viewer," you'll see some fascinating cartoons. Some might be more interesting from a historical rather than an artistic perspective, but they're still worth watching.
The best cartoons are the ones that give a portrait of what life was like in East Germany. In "Mr. Daff is Shooting a Film," a group of stranded commuters is forced to endure foul weather while an arrogant bus driver refuses to let them board -- until he finally relents when he thinks he's being filmed. As a depiction of just how frustrating everyday life in East Germany could be for average citizens, it's extraordinary to see. Even more scathing is "The Breakdown," in which a tiny little Trabant (the only car ever made in East Germany) is the sole vehicle able to pull a giant government parade. That such a statement about the supposedly infallible government could be made so blatantly without recourse shows just how little animation was taken seriously by government censors. There are also several cartoons, such as "Consequence," "Sunday," and "The Full Circle," that have strong (though not preachy) environmental messages, serving as a surprising reproach to the government's manufacturing policies. Even the ostensibly milder cartoons have bite. "The Solution," about a little bird who refuses to face the same way as the rest of his flock, makes a sly statement about conformity. The overall portrait that emerges is of a people struggling to express their individuality in a rigid society that seems polluted and broken. In many ways, these cartoons are more revealing than a state-sponsored documentary would have been.
First Run Features has done a good job with this material. The full-screen transfer and mono mix are both impressive, looking and sounding quite clear. These cartoons are remarkably well-preserved for their age. The extras are all text-based but are quite informative, explaining the history of DEFA, biographies and filmographies of the directors, and a slideshow of photographs. These are all good, but since the disc clocks in at a meager hour, why not include more animation? In the slideshow and history there are several references of various other animated films, from claymation to feature-length films. Why not include some of those? True, they would probably entail the use of subtitles but anyone who is interested in these cartoons in the first place would be willing to accept those, and would also probably be knowledgeable enough about East German history to understand some of the possible references.
Nonetheless, it's a sign of how intriguing these cartoons are that you'll want to see more. They're generally interesting to watch even on their own terms, but if you're at all curious about how East Germans viewed themselves and their country, you'll find these even more revealing. These are not the anti-Western propaganda screeds you might expect, but interesting glimpses into East German society. Cultural historians should find these worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* PCM 1.0 Mono (German)
Running Time: 57 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Text Features
* DEFA Film Library