Der Augenzeuge 1954/39 – PROGRESS Archive


PROGRESS FILM - A History Full of Stories

A grand vision propelled one man who returned to war-ravaged Germany after more than ten years in Soviet exile. Rudolf Bernstein (1896-1977) was a captivating, enigmatic figure – an official of the Communist Party of Germany with a Jewish background and, starting in 1925, an intelligence officer for the NKVD. His aim: to provide the still-young East Germany with films for information, enlightenment, and quality entertainment.

His partner in this venture was Georgii Nikolaevich Nikolaev, who later became the director of "Lenfilm." Together, these two laid the foundation for an extraordinary enterprise that even much later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has become a European institution.

PROGRESS: the name was no coincidence, as the institution strove to bring progress to cinemas with every film it released. Thus began the success story of a film distributor that would henceforth supply the East German cinema audience with DEFA productions and films from all around the world.

Modest Beginnings - Grand Impact

The hunger for culture and images that could transport people out of their daily lives propelled PROGRESS Film into significance as early as 1950. Despite economic scarcity, a deteriorating infrastructure, and cinemas often sporting nothing more than makeshift roof repairs, PROGRESS met its goal of providing East German cinemagoers with new films on a weekly basis.

PROGRESS quickly established itself as a reliable monopoly in East German cinema. As a distributor, PROGRESS aspired not only to bring DEFA films to theaters but also to ensure that international films made it into the cinemas of the socialist state. About one fifth of the films in a given year were DEFA productions, while the rest came from all corners of the globe.

Ehe im Schatten - PROGRESS - Copyright DEFA-Stiftung Kurt Wunsch
DEFA feature films
Children's films
documentaries & shorts

The Who's Who of Cinema

The list of films distributed by PROGRESS reads like the who's who of global cinema. From the famous early DEFA films like "The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum)", "Marriage in the Shadows (Ehe im Schatten)", or "The Kaiser’s Lackey (Der Untertan)" to Soviet epics like "Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosez Potemkin)" and "Ivan the Terrible (Iwan Grosnyj)" by Sergei Eisenstein, "Quiet Flows the Don (Der stille Don)" or "War and Peace (Krieg und Frieden)", PROGRESS showcased everything of repute.

In 1965 alone, PROGRESS brought 20 DEFA productions to East German theaters, even though this marked a bleak year in GDR film history. During the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED, which signified a major rupture in GDR cultural policy, many current DEFA productions were banned or shelved. Many of these films saw the light of day only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and only thanks to PROGRESS.

Although the GDR as a nation that has disappeared from the world map today, it lives on in 550 DEFA feature films like "Berlin - Schönhauser Corner (Berlin - Ecke Schönhauser)", "Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine)", "The Legend of Paul and Paula (Die Legende von Paul und Paula)", "Solo Sunny", or "Coming Out", 150 children's films like the mega-hit "Three Wishes for Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel)", 750 animated films, and 2,250 documentaries and short films, including the long-term project "Die Kinder von Golzow".

Affaire Blum - DEFA

The Blum Affair (Affaire Blum)

Anmut sparet nicht noch Mühe - DEFA
Berlin - Ecke Schönhauser (DEFA)

Berlin - Schönhauser Corner (Berlin - Ecke Schönhauser)

Coming out - DEFA
Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel - DEFA

Three Wishes for Cinderella (Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel)

Die Legende von Paul und Paula - DEFA

The Legend of Paul and Paula (Die Legende von Paul und Paula)

Spur der Steine - DEFA

Trace of Stones (Spur der Steine)

Solo Sunny - DEFA
Der Untertan - DEFA

The Kaiser’s Lackey (Der Untertan)

International Cinema in the GDR

In addition to the many important and often internationally acclaimed DEFA productions, PROGRESS ensured that the cinema audiences had access to the best global cinema had to offer. From Rostock to Pirna, from Frankfurt an der Oder to Halberstadt, films like Billy Wilder's "Witness for the Prosecution" and "Some Like It Hot" as well as Visconti's "Rocco and His Brothers" or American productions like "Cabaret," "The Color Purple," "Ragtime," or the seven-time Oscar-winning epic "Out of Africa" graced GDR cinemas. Even a West German comedy like "Loriot's Ödipussi" or Louis Malle's melancholic film "Goodbye, Children" found their way to GDR cinemas and their audiences through PROGRESS.

DEFA - Der Augenzeuge

More Than Just an Eyewitness

In addition to these films, PROGRESS brought news to cinema screens right from the beginning with "Der Augenzeuge" (The Eyewitness). With the last "Eyewitness" on December 19, 1980, over 2,000 newsreels had made their way to GDR cinemas. Initially, the motto before each newsreel was, "You see it for yourself, you hear it for yourself, you judge for yourself!" Alongside socialist-motivated propaganda evident in all political contributions, the newsreel also featured many segments intended as light entertainment.

Since 2019, the entire "Eyewitness" archive has been available through the historically curated online platform of PROGRESS Professional. Although the newsreel’s original intent may have been another, today it helps the past come alive as the basis for many documentary film productions.

The Past Holds the Future

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, PROGRESS was privatized and changed ownership multiple times. The DEFA collection held by PROGRESS is the only film collection in the world where the entire cinematic heritage of a country that no longer exists is preserved in a single collection.

Since April 2019, PROGRESS, in collaboration with the DEFA Foundation, has been digitizing and opening the complete DEFA collection, along with the collections of numerous other archives. PROGRESS Professional provides a research and licensing service that supplies many TV and cinema productions as well as cultural and historical exhibitions with valuable film material. All of PROGRESS's business areas share the ambition of preserving cultural, historical, and cinematic memory; in other words, of being not just an archive, but also a cultural heritage.

We all encounter bits of ourselves in PROGRESS’s archive, whether as fictional stories where we can explore our own consciousness or as the global history that has shaped generations. It's this universality that makes PROGRESS's collection the reflection of an era.