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Looking for DEFA 70

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter

Written by: Ingolf Vonau, Berlin, Germany Issue 58 - September 1999

I have been researching the DEFA 70mm film format and especially why 70mm films were made in the GDR (German Democratic Republic). Who was responsible for the development? What films and projects existed? And finally, how did the format, camera, printing technology, cinemas and the 70mm projectors work?

I grew up in East Germany and got into contact with cinema fairly early. I started projecting films at the age of 15 and at that time (1980), the topic of 70mm film was officially long dead in the GDR. But of 15 districts in East Germany only 2 didn't have a 70mm cinema. During my education as a cinema-technician there was a leaming-cinema that was equipped for all formats and also had some prints of imported films for teaching purposes. My passion for the 70mm format started to develop. But to be interested in DEFA productions I didn´t have the muse in this's “society of shortage”. The DEFA 70mm weren't a subject during that time because the films were not shown.
 

Further in 70mm reading:

9. Todd-AO 70mm-Festival 2013
Looking for DEFA 70
Widescreen Weekend 1999
Oslo 2007 70mm Festival
DEFA70 films

Internet link:

 

Mr. Andrew Thorndike on the filming of "Du Bist Mein"Picture from the press book.

The development of 70mm in the GDR had strong connections with the Walter Ulbricht-era when he was party leader and state secretary. When he was replaced by Eric Honecker in 1973, the importance of the wide-film production ended. Anyone interested in making a career in the political system had to stop paying any attention to the DEFA 70 film development.

After the reunification in 1993 I was able to organize a final public showing in 70mm of the DEFA science fiction films “Signale - Ein Weltraumabenteuer” (“Signals - A Space Adventure”) and “Eolomea” in the Delphi-Filmpalace, the cinema in which I have worked now for eight years. The event was a cost-covering success and one of my motives was that I wanted to see these two films on a big screen. After that, both prints went to the Federal Archive, from which they are not allowed to be used for public showings.

Several weeks after this event, a conversation was reported to me in which the directress Annelie Thorndike refused to allow Ulrich Gregor (organizer of the Berlin International Film Festival and manager of the art-house cinema Arsenal), to show her 70mm film Du bist min - Ein deutsches Tagebuch(“You are Mine - A German Diary”) in a 35mm version.

She absolutely insisted on the 70mm format "...either it's going to be shown in the right format or not at all!”, - she said. So it wasn't shown at all and Ulrich Gregor was very annoyed by her insisting on 70mm although there wasn't even an official 70mm print, and 35mm prints were already hard enough to get hold of. Besides, the Arsenal cinema doesn't have 70mm equipment. I found Mrs. Thorndike´s opinion extraordinarily courageous and it was my reason to start searching for a 70mm print of Du bist min - Ein deutsches Tagebuch”.
 
 
It was Andrew Thorndike's idea to introduce 70mm in East-Germany. He was the son of Andrew Thorndike III., a major share-holder of the UFA studios and the most important man around the media crew of Alfred Hugenberg in the Weimar Republic. Andrew Thorndike came from the upper middle class. He was general representative for the UFA-Advertising-Film during the 1930s and later cultural and industrial-director (in the sense of an art-director for cultural and industrial films). Imprisoned because of suspicion of “undermining defence-power” in 1942 and survivor of the war at the east-front as an ambulance man, he came back to Germany after four years of being POW in Russia. He became DEFA´s most famous and important documentary director and developed into a passionate and thoroughly convinced propagandist for the eastern world-view. Together with his wife Annelie, he filmed political documentaries that were shown in a lot of countries but encountered mostly rejection in West Germany.

Open-minded for technical improvements, and Russian experiments with 70mm wide-screen of the late 50s were made available to him. It was clear to him that if cinema were to have a chance for mass communication it would have to develop an improved form of presentation. And this was only possible with 70mm. Because of his acquaintance with head-of-state Walter Ulbricht he spoke up for starting East German 70mm production. That included the construction of a new 70mm studio camera and acquisition of Russian 70mm cameras as well, filming with 70mm ORWO raw stock, development of printing technology, construction of a six channel sound stage, and construction of own universal projectors for re-equipping cinemas or building new ones.

Please understand, it's very hard to get into contact with people who really know the facts about the DEFA 70 story. Either they have objections towards my research, don't return my calls or they are just “unavailable”. I never had contact with decision makers before, but somehow these people have a problem with their past. The DEFA 70 story is after all a political story. That goes with the system. It was, for example, possible for me (after being introduced) to talk to a man who held a position as economist in DEFA's head office. He bought Kodak film material for the GDR, including 70mm stock. He told me not to mention his name to anyone. Now, if that isn't nuts!
 
 
Mrs. Annelie Thorndike on the filming on "Du Bist Mein"Picture from the press book.

I managed to establish contact with Annelie Thorndike, and interview her. This is not as easily possible for the Federal Archive because Mrs. Thorndike is being harassed politically from various people and she naturally avoids having contact with them. She and her late husband, Andrew Thorndike, definitely belong among the most important documentary film makers of Eastern Europe. Their film “The Russian Wonder” alone, was shown in 80 countries. Briefly, the film Du bist min - Ein deutsches Tagebuch was the most expensive and large-scale documentary film-project of DEFA. And yet it only constitutes a small part to the most comprehensive 70mm project: to create a film about the German history. This project was known by the name “Germania und ihre Kinder” (“Germany and her Children”) but was later renamed into “Die Deutschen” (“The Germans”), a 70mm documentary film in two parts, filmed at the most important cultural sites of both East- and West Germany. This film was finished in the summer of 1968 but was never shown in public. The film was subsequently cut, torn apart and released later with a completely different intention under the title Du bist min - Ein deutsches Tagebuch.

That is the interesting story I came across. It was not known in German film history that a project existed that was filmed with 70mm in East- and West Germany, that produced excellent aerial photographs with a stabilized camera (like Steadicam later did). The footage was later destroyed and only certain reels survived in a secret air-raid bunker located on the Babelsberger film site. These reels are now stored in the Federal Archive for restoration after some people criminally damaged them while these reels were in interim storage.

Andrew Thorndike died in 1979. When I visited his wife she told me that she'd never thought anybody would be interested in 70mm after 38 years. Her husband, at that time, was always walking back and forth in the upper story of the house, saying “Todd-AO, that is what we need”.

I hope to tell the full DEFA 70 story in a future ..in 70mm – The 70mm Newsletter.
 
 
 
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Updated 22-12-16