The Collection Ex.Oriente.Lux – Experimentalfilmarchiv Ost 1976 bis 1989

The Collection Ex.Oriente.Lux – Experimentalfilmarchiv Ost 1976 bis 1989

On the History and Significance of the Archive of East German Experimental Films

Claus Löser
Gabriele Stötzer; A.R. Penck; Gino Hahnemann; Ex.Oriente.Lux; German Democratic Republic (GDR); amateur film; Super 8 film experimental cinema; performance art; archive.

The Ex.Oriente.Lux archive was brought to life in 1995. It is dedicated to the work of non-professional filmmakers in the GDR (German Democratic Republic), most of them visual artists, who, with the help of Super 8 film, expanded their work into the interdisciplinary field. The main difference to conventional amateur films is that these were not an attempt to imitate ‘real cinema’, but rather sought to create their own medial realities. As such, they were directly in line with international experimental cinema and DIY-culture; yet, because of the politically caused cultural isolation, there was no dialogue of any kind with that tradition. Consequently, unconscious replications of modern western efforts could not be avoided.

In the early to mid-1990s, a systematic reevaluation of alternative culture in the GDR had not yet begun; the events were still too recent. Karin Fritzsche and I became active with our archive very early on. The initiative began when Gerhard Wolf suggested releasing a book on the topic through his publishing house Janus Press. We decided not to produce a strictly analytical piece of work, but something more akin to a reader, where individual participants would look back on their creative work. Along with that came essays providing a frame.

Part of the work on the book consisted of compiling an inventory, as comprehensive as possible, of what was considered part of the artistic underground in the GDR. We documented film titles, their production years, participants, and background information. At the same time, we viewed the films. Thanks to the seed funding of the Stiftung Kulturfonds (Foundation for Culture Funds), we were able to copy the first films from Super 8 and 16 mm to video (BetaSP) and make them available to a wider public. This was the birth of the archive. Then, when the book Gegenbilder (Counter-images) had been published by Gerhard Wolf, it made sense to publish some of the films that were being discussed. Shortly thereafter, absolut Medien (Molto Menz) published a VHS with ten pieces by ten filmmakers, under the same title, Gegenbilder. This selection provided an initial view into our work in the archive.

Licence agreements have been arranged with the artists who decided to contribute their pieces of work to Ex.Oriente.Lux. Among the archived artists are such notable individuals as Lutz Dammbeck, Cornelia Schleime, Gino Hahnemann, Helge Leiberg, Gabriele Stötzer, or A.R. Penck, along with representatives of a younger generation, such as Cornelia Klauß, Thomas Werner, Via Lewandowsky, Tohm di Roes, Ramona Welsh, and Thomas Frydetzki.

The basic idea behind the archive was not the same as that of a commercial distributor, but it emerged from a pool of various interests who intended to represent the very diverse films and their individual signatures to the outside world. It was about bringing back to memory the heterogeneous structure of art or underground film in the GDR as a cultural-historical phenomenon, while also securing it and at the same time making concentrated access available.

In the past twenty years, the archive has worked in very diverse ways. Events and special screenings were held featuring films from the collection, in many of Germany’s large cities, as well as in Moscow, New York, Budapest, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Copenhagen, London, Paris. and many other places. Items have been loaned for exhibitions, TV shows have used film clips, and symposiums, seminars, and workshops have been dedicated to this topic. In addition, many academics, both young and experienced, have made use of the opportunity to deeply study the field at the Brotfabrik, where the archive can be viewed.

Film and performance

Film and performance were those kinds of areas where interdisciplinary approaches converged in the most effective way. Additionally, both forms of art offered the benefit of virtually blank slates. Whoever turned to non-professional film formats in the GDR to meet his or her aesthetic vision, had no line of tradition available either way. In East Germany – as opposed to Poland, Hungary and also, up to 1968, Czechoslovakia –, there was no practice of experimental film to which one might have referred. Examples from the modern west, not counting a few production photographs may also have been inaccessible as they were seldom if ever shown on West German TV stations (“West-Fernsehen”). Thus, one could in fact assume a ‘tabula rasa’ – a circumstance which came into effect as both an advantage and a disadvantage. In one way, one was able to proceed with the work totally unburdened by cultural history; on the other hand, this kind of impartiality led to the unconscious recurrence of several techniques that were already well-known in the west. Later, this often led to misunderstandings. Should GDR underground filmmakers emigrate to the west and show their movies to colleagues, they were smiled upon at times and not taken seriously, because of the allegedly ‘old-fashioned’ formal language. This recurred after 1989, when, for the first time, most of the non-state movies of the GDR became viewable in the whole of Germany.

A similar fate – if very different when looking at various details – was laid out for performance art. Joseph Beuys was worshipped almost religiously in the East German underground scene. There, however, censorship meant that it was impossible for the artist to come across in any way close to his whole complexity, therefore, his anthroposophical background remained, for the most part, obscure. His art was mainly perceived through texts and photographs, and also smells und rumors. One hoped to approach this resulting myth through imitation. Technically, the presentation of performances was possible without much cost or effort. Important prerequisites were: a room, enough listeners and/or viewers, and a programme stimulating enough to keep the audience interested. So far, there has not been a monograph on performance art in the GDR; the topic has only been dealt with in biographical contexts or general texts. In the following, I want to draw attention to a selection of samples, which roamed the borderland between Super 8 film and performance art. Often, the borders dissolve. There are performances that were arranged for the camera, and there are movies that emerged out of performance activities.

A.R. Penck

Once again, we must remember the enormous significance of A.R. Penck in pushing established genre boundaries. Born in Dresden in 1939 as Ralf Winkler, and died in May 2017, by the late 1960s, this troublemaker already considered himself excluded from the official arts establishment. He was neither able to go to university, nor was he accepted in the VKB (Verband Bildender Künstler / Union of Visual Artists). This way, he was practically put under an employment ban. Whereas he became more and more acknowledged in West Germany by way of his association with his gallerist Michael Werner from Cologne, he mutated into a ‘persona non grata’ in the east. This caused an almost unbearable condition for the artist; because after all, he wanted to be included. Yet, from very early on, his ceaseless disregard for professional opinion raised suspicion in the eyes of the guardians of Socialist Realism. Along with that came the stigmatisation as an outcast, which strengthened his tendency to question solid categorisation even more so. As someone who was excluded, he was constantly looking for means of overcoming limitations, using it to work in a wide spectrum of artistic practice. Penck painted and made music, he wrote poems, books, and designed sculptures, while working with every conceivable kind of material. As early as the 1960s, he launched his interest in the medium of film. Mostly in cooperation with Wolfgang Opitz, they produced a series of Super 8 movies, although most of them have not survived. The few that have shown a strong tendency towards performance. This is also the case with “Terror in Dresden” (1978) – his only movie present in the archive Ex.Oriente.Lux, authorised by the artist for accompanied screenings (Fig. 1). This work can be read as a farewell letter to his home town Dresden, which he was forced to leave in 1980. There are two basic perspectives: Opitz recorded Penck encountering important places and people. Penck countered these sequences with his own contrasting shots: passersby wait at tram stations or hasten across intersections; Penck waits in a café, goes shopping in the Intershop, sits sketching on a park bench, climbs in the ruins of the Frauenkirche. Perceived superficially, “Terror in Dresden” seems to be a film sketch, where Opitz and Penck are recording each other while taking a walk through the city. On second viewing however, the work proves to be a performative self-dramatisation of an artist, who applies the measures of a well-trusted urban space in such a manner, that they reflect profound inner transformation processes.

A.R. Penck, “Terror in Dresden”, 1978. 20”, super-8-film, co-directed by Wolfgang Opitz © Archiv Ex.Oriente.Lux Berlin.

For a few years around the late 1970s and early 1980s Dresden, once the royal capital of Saxony, became the most important centre of independent culture in the GDR; not least thanks to Penck’s pioneering work. At the same time, HfBK (Hochschule für Bildende Künste / College of Visual Arts), an institution rich in tradition, played an important role as many young people came to study arts, especially from the southern regions of East Germany. The most curious of them quickly participated in Dresden’s very own biotope, where historic consciousness merged with insubordination. Within Penck’s immediate circle of influence, a whole group of art students drifted more and more towards subculture and were pulled along by the busy activities of their colleague, who was over ten years their senior. Among them were Helge Leiberg (*1954), Christine Schlegel (*1950), and Cornelia Schleime (*1953), all of whom also experimented with Super 8. Around 1980, Schleime worked closely together with her colleague Gabriele Stötzer from Erfurt, Thuringia.

Gabriele Stötzer

In autumn 1976, at the age of 23, Gabriele Stötzer signed the declaration protesting against the expatriation of Wolf Bierman. This led to her being arrested by the Mfs (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit / Ministry of State Security), exmatriculated from the university, and finally condemned to twelve months imprisonment without parole. The prison experience was an artistic rite of passage for her. After her release and subsequently being forced to work in a shoe factory, she purchased a weaving loom, applied for a trade certificate, and became self-employed. The work with textiles (weaving, sewing, colouring) made up an important part of her artistic endeavours, along with painting, photography, poetry, performance, and, most of all, film. The tie that binds all these occupations remained unchanging throughout: the social experiment, the trying out of shared forms of living and articulation within the informal “Erfurter Frauengruppe” (“Women’s group of Erfurt”). Many of their works are the result of collective relationships and a classic authorship is not always exactly traceable. Yet without Gabriele Stötzer, most of the group’s movies would not have existed. At the same time, it is safe to say that her degree of participation during the production process varied greatly.

Stötzer’s own Super 8 films, numbering around fifteen, all produced between 1983 and 1990, hardly functioned as ‘narratives’ that are in the widest sense subjected to a dramaturgy of suspense, but served as documentaries of work processes instead. Accordingly, these movies take on a special position within the independent, non-professional film scene. Stötzer does not reduce herself to the role of a documentarist, but rather becomes an acting element within the constellation at hand. The condition for this kind of trust was a long phase of preparation, during which artistic plans were cooperatively developed and brought to fruition. A good example of this is “Veitstanz / Feixtanz”, realised in 1988 (Fig. 2). For this project, the film producer asked friends and relations to choose a specific location, which was shown to have a biographical connection to the performer; there they were instructed to dance themselves into a trance. We witness women and men from her environment, who sink with increasing intensity into their inner space; and with that movement they turn their ‘problem zones’, which they find there, inside out. In no other film is the intended group therapy approach, which continues in her following film work, as obvious as here. In this constellation, the camera has been given the function of a medium in the original sense: it mediates between the people exposing themselves and the basically invisible film producer. The lens of her camera becomes transparent in both directions, working on one hand as a mirror for the actors, and on the other hand as a membrane; in this way it becomes an additional participant and instigator itself. Due to the tight, indeed intimate, relationship to the participants of the movie, the usual one-sidedness of filmic ways of communication dissolves. It was only consistent that for this film, in some segments, Stötzer gave up the seemingly secure position behind the camera, in order to participate in the “St. Vitus’ dance” herself.

Gabriele Stötzer, “Veitstanz / Feixtanz”, 1988. 25”, super-8-film, with Harriet Wollert, Silvia Richter, Frank Zieris, Ralf Gerlach, Siegfried Bauer, Monika Gießmann, Angelika Andres, Silvia Buchholz, © Gabriele Stötzer.

Gino Hahnemann

The first artistic underground film that Gabriele Stötzer watched – in East Berlin in 1983 – was made by Gino Hahnemann, who had already encouraged Cornelia Schleime into Super 8 filmmaking. The influence of Gino Hahnemann through his seemingly ingenuous behaviour and his multitrack activities in the expanding scene of the mid-1980s can hardly be exaggerated. Born in 1946 in Jena, he started out studying architecture in Weimar, then made a living as a model for the VEB Jugendmode (youth fashion), and later as an independent set designer. With his activities as a photographer, author, and filmmaker, he played the important part of an integrational player between the different subcultures of the GDR; not least because of his openly homosexual lifestyle. He connected the gay scene with the art scene, acted as an empowering factor for many of his contemporaries, and formally worked in extremely diverse ways. Between 1982 and 1989, he shot around 30 Super 8 films..

Gino Hahnemann, “September, September”, 1986. Super-8-film, 7”, with Gino Hahnemann, Heike Stephan, Sprecher: Peter Mario Grau, speaker: Peter Mario Grau, © Archiv Ex.Oriente.Lux Berlin.

Final Remark

This short essay omits many people who worked in the borderland between performance and film; most importantly, names like that of Lutz Dammbeck or the Dresden-based “Autoperforationsartisten” (“auto-perforation-artists”). A truly comprehensive presentation must wait for another time and place. However, the examples described here may perhaps imply just how important the orientation toward movement, the opening of space, and the offensive artistic self-presentation were. To overcome isolation and incapacitation, new concepts were needed. Performative and filmic approaches helped significantly in smashing the ‘black box’ in which young creative people were supposed to be kept. In this way, ‘interdisciplinary work’ (although nobody called it that at that time) really became something of a ‘trademark’ of the autonomous GDR art scene – if there had been the need of such a branding back then. For there was no market. In retrospect, this ‘lack’ proves to be hugely advantageous. Art came into being by its own appointment. Even organised exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, etc. did not take place in order to sell something or to position oneself in front of collectors – not even to kick start one’s own career – but above all because of the exchange itself. Mutual information on the same level was, considering state paternalism, necessary for survival. This may sound slightly idealising now, and it is so because there certainly were overtones and transitions. Yet this simplification may help emphasise the basic contrast in art production which came to surface around 1990. Here, as well, one simplifies. For the passage from the old to the new times did not fulfill itself abruptly, it took a different course of action in each individual. Some recognised the new situation faster and managed to adopt. Many others took longer. While some fell completely into silence.

Translated from German by Benjamin Löser

Claus Löser
BrotfabrikKino Berlin


Claus Löser is co-founder of the collection Ex.Oriente.Lux – Experimentalfilmarchiv Ost 1976 bis 1989, curator and film critic. Gegenbilder – Filmische Subversion in der DDR (ed. with Karin Fritzsche, Berlin: Gerhard Wolf Janus Press 1996), Behauptung des Raums – Wege unabhängiger Ausstellungskultur in der DDR (documentary film, with Jakobine Motz, 2009), Ornament & Verbrechen (documentary film, with Jakobine Motz, 2015).

Suggested Citation

Löser, Claus. 2020. “The Collection Ex.Oriente.Lux – Experimentalfilmarchiv Ost 1976 bis 1989. On the History and Significance of the Archive of East German Experimental Films (1976 to 1989).” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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