The Cultural Appropriation of Beethoven in the GDR, Reflected in the Two East-German Beethoven Films

Nico Schüler, Texas State University

The cultural politics of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), commonly referred to as East Germany, was based upon the humanism and classical realism of Goethe and Beethoven. Several scholars have discussed Beethoven's importance in East Germany (for example, Kelly 2014). Even in East German school textbooks, Beethoven was portrayed as art-focused "brain owner," as opposed to a material-focused "land owner" (in reference to a letter exchange between Beethoven and his brother Johann). This paper specifically focuses on the two Beethoven films that the East German film studio DEFA produced: Ludwig van Beethoven (1954, directed by Max Jaap) and Beethoven - Tage aus einem Leben [Days of a Life] (1976, directed by Horst Seemann). While the first film was one of East Germany's first full-length documentaries that combined original documents, letters and drawings with musical excerpts from Beethoven, the second film was a poetic feature film that explored the emotional and artistic ups and downs of Beethoven while working on his Ninth Symphony. This paper is linking primary source material, such as official statements of the Kulturbund [Culture Association] and of the East German socialist party (SED), to the portrayal of Beethoven in these two films to interpret the cultural foundation of East Germany's political system. For example, the 1976 film is not a traditional biography, but portrays Beethoven (partly fictional) as an exceptional human being who supports revolutionary and humanist ideas and who disregards conventions.

Reference: Kelly, Elaine. 2014. Composing the Canon in the German Democratic Republic. New York: OUP.