Mariana Ivanova: Cinema of Collaborations. DEFA Co-productions and International Exchange in Cold War Europe

Stefano Pisu: La cortina di celluloide. Il cinema italo-sovietico nella Guerra fredda

New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2019, ISBN 978-1-78920-343-1, 292 p.

Milan: Mimesis, 2019, ISBN 978-8-85755-502-7, 212 p.

​ ​ Karol Jóźwiak
​ ​Cold War culture; Iron Curtain; transnational cinema; film diplomacy.

The Cold War division of Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War still seems to be an underrepresented problem in the area of film studies requiring a more nuanced understanding. How is it possible that right after the traumatic experience of the Second World War, with its unimaginable level of sorrow, loss, violence, and mass murder, a new destructive tension began to grow and eventually led to another conflict? The tension arose in the very same areas that witnessed the bloodiest experiences of the war, “the Bloodlands” (as described by Timothy Snyder), extending throughout East-Central Europe, where the imperialist forces of Germany and Soviet Union collided. In these regions, the past is still present and affects not only disputes over history and evaluation of communism, but also politics, namely, the attitude towards Putin's regime and geopolitical instability in this part of Europe. In this sense, the division of Europe agreed upon by Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt in Yalta is still at stake, and to a certain extent governs the two, sometimes antagonistic, regimes of truth. This division, seemingly overcome when East-Central European countries entered the EU, has resurfaced with the recent culture wars and political clashes (e.g. the rise of the right wing Hungarian and Polish governments, which challenge countries’ integration within the EU). The European division, symbolised by the notion of Iron Curtain in the past, is still present, despite the fall of communism and european integration. That’s why reflections on the origins of this division, on the nuances, and dynamics that shaped it throughout the second half of the 20th century can shed light not only on the history of the conflict but also its present state. Mariana Ivanova's Cinema of Collaborations. DEFA Co-productions and International Exchange in Cold War Europe and Stefano Pisu's La cortina di celluloide. Il cinema italo-sovietico nella Guerra fredda help to grapple with these issues. Both books pay detailed attention to the marginal phenomena of European film culture of the second half of the 20th century against the background of the Cold War divide and the way the film industry dealt with it. Each book attempts to turn this marginal phenomena into a prism which allows one to gain a different and more nuanced perspective of the European film industry and the geopolitical impact of the Iron Curtain. I found that both of them achieve this goal, although through different approaches.

In her scholarship, Mariana Ivanova, Associate Professor of German Film and Media at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) and Academic Director of the DEFA Film Library, focuses on East German (GDR) cinema in relation to the transborder activity within the film industry, which is reflected in her recent book Cinema of Collaboration. The book considers the ways in which the film industry dealt with the Cold War division of Europe on a micro level of GDR cinema. The author focuses on three modes of collaboration: “film co-productions and exchange, artistic collaboration and cultural mediation” (Ivanova 2019: 3). For the discourse to stay concise and coherent, Ivanova decided to develop her analysis around the institutional history of DEFA, GDR's main film company, with the help of a long introduction, four chapters, and a concise epilogue. Each chapter is an individual study of a specific aspect of East German film production, but together they make up a consistent and chronological overview of DEFA’s international affairs. An in-depth analysis of its institutional practices and modes of production assists the author in drawing nuanced contours of geopolitical implications of GDR cinema.

In the introduction, Ivanova reflects on the concept of ‘European cinema,’ and the way it was inherited by DEFA. This concept dates back to Franco-German ideas from the 1920s, which were subsequently picked up by Goebbels. His idea of ‘European Cinema’ was closely related to the questions of German supremacy, and only as such it would be able to oppose Hollywood. Pondering over this disturbing heritage, Ivanova shows the continuity between the former UFA, nationalised by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, and UFI, later transformed into DEFA during the Soviet occupation of postwar Germany and working until the collapse of the GDR in the early 1990s. The first chapter, “The Legacy of ‘Film Europe’: DEFA’s Coproductions with France,” deals with the early DEFA co-productions – a group of four films co-produced with France in the 1950s. Ivanova shows how through this collaboration with France, the GDR aimed at gaining international recognition as a legitimate state. She analyzes these co-productions as responses to the diplomatic contestation of West Germany in the time of Adenauer's uncompromising politics. The second chapter, “Film Exchange beyond the Bans: Erich Mehl’s Partnership with DEFA,” exposes the role of mediators who, despite the ban at the inner German border, managed to run a film exchange. The author is interested, among others, in the figure of Erich Mehl, “the big unknown of German cinema” (ibid.: 88), who distributed several hundreds of DEFA films “rendering the Berlin Wall permeable to the film business” (ibid.: 84). The following chapter, “Competing with the West, Running with the East: Creating Utopia in DEFA Artistic Production Units,” focuses on “a new course in the practice of co-production and film exchange involving solely socialist cinema” (ibid.: 125) which had been taken by the end of the 1950s and resulted in the development of typically East German film genres, such as ‘Indianerfilme’ and utopian films. At the same time, the socialist mode of production based around production units and how they collaborated with analogous units in other socialist countries are analyzed. The last chapter, “Writing Together: DEFA’s Biopics in the Context of European Cinema”, narrows down the problem of socialist co-productions to the specific genre of biopics. The author analyzes two films, Goya, oder der arge Weg zur Erkenntnis / Goya or the Hard Way to Enlightenment (Konrad Wolf, 1963, GDR, Soviet Union) and Die Besteigung des Chimborazo / Climbing the Chimborazo (Rainer Simon, 1989, GDR, FRG) presenting them in a complex interrelation between politics, diplomacy, transnational culture, economic, and commercial drives. The epilogue tackles rather present-day issues, such as DEFA’s heritage, its memory, and presence in the contemporary German cinema landscape.

The book would have benefited from a more in-depth analysis of the crucial geopolitical actant of Soviet bloc culture, namely, Moscow and the Communist Parties of both the Soviet Union and the GDR. I suppose, the transborder image of GDR cinema would be fuller if the point of view of the Kremlin and its political agenda imposed on cinema were further developed and included in the book. On the other hand, I understand the author's strategy to refrain from the “blunt equating of East German film with the GDR” (ibid.: 8) and hence stick to such terms as “mediation” and “interconnection”, rather than Cold War binaries and barriers. This is the reason why Ivanova shifts attention from the political and diplomatic issues to that of transnational culture, economy, and the film industry. In this sense, placing the focus on different aspects of the institutional history of DEFA proved to be a revealing and debunking approach to the issues and questions of Cold War culture.

The second book presents a different strategy in tackling the similar issue of cinematic exchanges across the Iron Curtain. Its author, Stefano Pisu, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cagliari and a guest lecturer at several other European universities. In his research, Pisu examines film festivals as sites for Italian-Soviet cultural diplomacy. In his book Cortina di celluloide, he focuses exclusively on the problem of Soviet-Italian film co-productions, the history of the development of the Soviet-Italian co-production agreement, and subsequent co-productions. Pisu locates the book within the broader context of cultural relations, diplomacy, and economic exchange between the two countries unfolding during the Cold War. Thus, the author's attention often shifts from purely cinematic and cultural issues to diplomacy, international trade, internal and external politics of both countries. In this respect, the overview and use of both Soviet and Italian documents and studies is impressive, complementing the main topic and proving the author's ability to transition between different subjects, while keeping the discourse consistent.

The book is divided into six chapters, organized in a chronological manner. Pisu begins the first chapter with a general overview of the Soviet-Italian relations alongside the problems of Cold War culture as well as tracing a long and complex history behind the co-production agreement between the two countries. In the second chapter, Pisu focuses on the first spectacular result of this agreement – De Santis' war film Italiani Brava Gente / Attack and Retreat (1964, Italy). By following the history of the film from as early as the mid-1950s, Pisu demonstrates how complex and difficult the project of the first Soviet-Italian co-production was. As part of his detailed analysis, the author includes reports signed by both the Italian and Soviet Communist Parties, governmental contracts and negotiations related to the production of this film. Even an American producer as well as a Hollywood star were part of this complex puzzle. Because of the extremely delicate nature of the film topic (Italian participation in the German invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War), the negotiations inevitably touched on political and historical aspects. In the next two chapters, the author analyzes subsequent co-productions (1966–1970), including De Sica’s Sunflower (1970, Italy). In chapter 5, the problem of the KGB’s offensive in the field of cinema resulting in a co-production ban is analyzed mainly through Soviet reports, letters exchanged between producers and Soviet ‘apparatchiks’ as well as within the more general socio-political context of the early 1970s. Finally, with chapter 6, the author moves to the latest co-productions (1972–1979) and notices an esthetic and thematic decay manifested in the strange overlap of ‘commedia all'italiana’ and Soviet crude reality (‘Spaghetti po-russki’), or a morally disputable critique of the Salazar’s regime in Portugal. Although the films discussed in the book vary in genre, significance, and scale, they do make up a consistent corpus, which has its own features, evolution, and dramaturgy. What adds value to this study is the way it deals with the issue of the development of a new mode of film production, for which cooperation was required. Hence, the author pays attention to political reports, diplomacy including the Communist Parties, and governments as well as producers and filmmakers. The author shows that mutual expectations, requirements, and respective political conditions changed over time. The book comes across as a reliable and astute study. However, some elements in this bold reconstruction of the Soviet-Italian film exchange are missing. For instance, the role of Alessandro Blasetti in establishing relations with the Soviet film industry in the 1950s is almost completely omitted. This proves that the subject matter of the book is wider than one can expect and it should serve as a springboard for further studies.

Both books prove that neither was the Iron Curtain impermeable for the film industry, nor was the cultural Cold War always warlike. By examining studies, archives, unpublished reports, and correspondence, both authors reconstruct a peculiar and demanding process of negotiation and alignment of two different, though not necessarily irreconcilable, modes of production, politics of culture and socio-political conditions, which determine film industry at the crossroads between Western and Eastern Europe. Clashes, conflicts, and misunderstandings, which are inevitable elements of those relations, are not only simple historical facts but they also reveal the differences and peculiar features of both modes of production and socio-political conditions. They happen to be surprisingly similar, sometimes they completely upend the common perceptions of both Cold War cultures and the political division of Europe. I find both books extremely thought provoking and contributing to further development of similar studies. From a East-Central European perspective, especially nowadays as Europe is being redefined, I consider a nuanced understanding of relations governing the East-West cultural exchange to be of particular importance.

Karol Jóźwiak
University of Lodz


Karol Jóźwiak is a researcher and Assistant Professor at the Culture Studies Department of the University of Lodz. His main research areas address the issues of European transnational functioning of art and cinema in relation to the questions of memory, writing history, identity, and politics in the XX century. In addition to that, he works as an art critic and curator, collaborating with various cultural institutions in and outside Poland on exhibitions of XX century art. He currently supervises a three-year-research project titled “Philosovietism in Post-Fascist Italian Film Culture” (funded by Polish National Research Center), which examines diplomatic relations between Soviet Union and Italy during the Cold War in the field of cinematography.


Ivanova, Mariana. 2019. Cinema of Collaborations. DEFA Co-productions and International Exchange in Cold War Europe. New York, Oxford.

Pisu, Stefano. 2019. La cortina di celluloide. Il cinema italo-sovietico nella Guerra fredda. Milano.

Snyder, Timothy. 2010. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York.

Suggested Citation

Jóźwiak, Karol. 2021. Review: “Mariana Ivanova: Cinema of Collaborations. DEFA Co-productions and International Exchange in Cold War Europe nad Stefano Pisu: La cortina di celluloide. Il cinema italo-sovietico nella Guerra fredda.Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 13. DOI:


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