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East Meets West

December 18, 2014

Barton Byg

Photo courtesy Hiltrud Schulz/UMass Amherst.

Professor, author, scholar, archivist, and founder of the East German Film Archive at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Barton Byg has been pretty busy since graduating from Drake in 1975. Today Byg is the director of the DEFA Library. Named after an East German film studio, the library recently celebrated its 20th anniversary as the only archive and research center located outside Germany devoted to East German cinema. We spoke with Byg about his work in the film library, how he became interested in East German cinema, and what’s next for the German film industry.

1) How did your time at Drake spur your interest in film and German studies?

As a German and English major, with minors in theater and French, many aspects of my Drake experience shaped my career. I had amazing professors across the liberal arts, including [retired faculty member] Richard Abel, who is one of the prominent authorities on film. I remember seeing internationally renowned German, Austrian, American, and French poets on campus, and I was able to speak with them one-on-one or in small groups.

I also got to experience cinema right across from campus. The Varsity Theater showed The Sorrow and the Pity, and that was my introduction to European cinema and the importance of the collective experience, of an audience watching a film together.

Study abroad was crucial. I happened to be studying in Freiburg, Germany, through Drake during the emergence of what would later become known as "New German Cinema.” It was amazing at a relatively small university to have the depth and breadth of exposure to these fields and issues.

2) What are some of the challenges and rewards of working with the DEFA Library?
DEFA Library is named after the East German DEFA film, which produced more than 7,500 films between 1946 and 1992. About half of the DEFA films made in the first decades have never been preserved. They are gone—with a few perhaps yet to be re-discovered. The challenge is money and interest; there needs to be enough financial and popular support for the idea that the films should be preserved and distributed.

As for the rewards, Germans come to appreciate aspects of their own film culture in new ways by seeing how Americans view them. Former East German filmmakers often remark also that seeing their films again with U.S. students is an eye-opening and unexpected pleasure. All this is also extremely rewarding to be a part of or even a witness to. I’d say that getting to talk with students about film and all its nuances and see them discover interesting and unexpected ideas is the most rewarding part.

3) It’s been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall—and 20 years since you founded the DEFA library. What’s changed in German cinema over the years?
Germany and the German cinema have both become more "American" in many ways. German film culture and the German film business struggles to distinguish itself as part of the global media market. This is interesting—and is still unfolding. Twenty-five years is not very long.

4) For those interested in learning more about East German cinema, are there films you recommend as an introduction?
Fourteen DEFA films were on the German critics' list of the 100 most important German films of all time, and that’s a great place to start for some compelling films. Beyond those classics, the unexpected genre films such as the Westerns, musicals, or comedies are worth a look. For me personally, Solo Sunny and I Was Nineteen are two of the films that really got me interested in East German cinema. There’s also The Legend of Paul and Paula, which has been immensely popular.