Classical Music and Cold War : Musicians in the GDR
A film by Thomas Zintl
Featuring artists and contemporary witnesses including Peter Schreier, Kurt Masur, Jochen Kowalski and Siegfried Lorenz
German language (subtitles in Italian, English, French and Spanish)
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio: 16:9; PCM Stereo
ARTHAUS 101655 DVD [52:00]
The documentary is fascinating and frustrating in roughly equal terms. In some ways it’s a history of classical music in the GDR (East Germany) between 1945 and 1989, but it tells that story with the lightest of touches. It mentions issues such as the value the Russian occupiers put on culture and how quickly the cultural institutions of East Germany were built up after 1945 - and to what end - as well as the cultural consequences of the building of the Berlin Wall. However, it touches on all of these things only very lightly, and it often left me with more questions than answers. We are introduced to fascinating characters such as Walter Felsenstein, the intendant of the Deutsche Oper Berlin after it was rebuilt on Unter den Linden, but no sooner are their stories introduced than they are snatched away. I wanted to know, for example, about the extent of state intervention in programming and repertoire, but beyond a brief discussion on formalism there was very little about that at all.
The other main focus is on what it was like to be an artist during this period, and it explores a little of what it was like to be an internationally respected artistic institution in the GDR, such as the Staatskapelle Dresden or the Thomanenchor, and the issues that followed them on international tours. The highest profile individual featured is tenor Peter Schreier, who speaks of what it was like to be a soloist working in both east and west. Various musicians speak of the difficulties of getting permission to travel to the west, as well as the dilemmas surrounding defection. Most intriguingly of all, some spoke of being recruited by the Stasi as collaborators, but again this thread disappeared before it was properly explored.
The most interesting section, for me, dealt with the state recording company, Eterna/Deutsche Schallplatten. Its history and success makes for an interesting story, as is the tale of the company’s cooperation with Deutsche Grammophon - the companies would often reach an agreement where Eterna would release a recording in the Comecon countries and DG would license it everywhere else. One man who worked for Deutsche Schallplatten says, tellingly, that “in the GDR records were as important as food: people needed them to escape from their everyday problems.” They also talk briefly about Karajan’s Meistersinger recording in Dresden and the issues that surrounded that but, again, as soon as I was getting into the story I found them moving on to something else. The Wende and the collapse of the GDR are barely mentioned at all before the film ends. If this story is worth telling - and it surely is - then isn’t it worth taking more time to tell it properly?
Simon Thompson
If this story is worth telling - and it surely is - then isn’t it worth taking more time to tell it properly?