Historical Witness - Egon Günther

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Egon Günther is known for the controversial, yet successful DEFA films he directed in the 1960s and 1970s. His films address truth and honesty as well as forbidden social themes such as gender and religion. The authorities reproached him for his subjectivism and skepticism. Consequently, they banned his films, such as Wenn Du Gross Bist, Lieber Adam (When you grow up, dear Adam, 1965) and censored others, such Der Schluessel (The Key, 1974).

Günther was born on March 30, 1927 in Schneeberg/Erzgebirge and grew up in a working class family. Initially trained as a mechanic like his father, he wass drafted in the army as a parachutist at 17 years of age. He was imprisoned in the Netherlands, but was able to escape.

At the end of World War II, he began his studies anew in Pedagogy, German and Philosophy under Ernst Bloch and Hans Mayer at the University of Leipzig. He worked briefly as a teacher and then, as a proofreader in publishing. In the mid-1950s, he published a volume of poetry, a novel, a play and short stories. Günther initially worked as a screenwriter for feature films at the DEFA studio in Potsdam-Babelsberg as of 1958 and penned a few screenplays, before directing his first film Lots Weib (Lot's Woman) in 1965.

He engageed with the theme of World War I in his next two films, Junge Frau von 1914 (Young Woman of 1914, 1969) and Erziehung von Verdun (Education at Verdun, 1973), and then turned to contemporary issues related to women and relationships in Der Dritte (Her Third, 1972) and Der Schluessel (The Key, 1974). After the intense censorship of Der Schluessel, Günther decided to film literary works, focusing on Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar (1974) and Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers (The Suffering of the young Werther, 1976).

In 1977, Egon Günther left the Association of TV and Filmmakers of the GDR (Verband der Film- und Fernsehschaffenden der DDR) and began working as a film director in the West the following year. Throughout the 1980s, his films were mainly TV films and realized at times in co-production with GDR TV. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Günther was able to return to directing feature films.

In this interview clip, Egon Günther explains that there is no relationship between his interest in literature (his studies at the University of Leipzig) and filmmaking. Instead he very much sees himself as someone who was given the opportunity to try his hand at filmmaking, while working as a screenwriter at the DEFA studio in Potsdam-Babelsberg. He had written a screenplay for a film called Lots Weib (Lot’s Woman) and the director of the film proposed that he take 14 days to film a small portion of his screenplay. Over the previous four years, he had applied himself to learning the craft of filmmaking and this was his chance to demonstrate his abilities. He was given the film crew to work with and completed about 50 percent of the film. Consequently, there was no turning back and the director of the film told him to finish the movie. In short, it is through this trial run with directing the film Lots Weib that Egon Günther, who considers himself an outsider to filmmaking, became a film director.