Red Cartoons, a collection of animated short subjects from East German filmmakers that spans the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, is just one more reason to be thankful for the fall of communism, in case anyone was looking for that. Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, a bit flip.
Say this of it then: Billed as incisive political commentary from a bygone era, the pieces that make up this collection mostly amount to little more than bits of mostly tired schtick, leaving one with the sense that the filmmakers were more enamored with the notion of being able to say something of worth than with actually saying something.
The filmmakers at DEFA, the studio whose work is presented here, represented a sort of Cold War version of Termite Terrace, working fast and loose and with a minimum of supervision. Initially producing work just for children, the studio eventually branched out into more serious, thoughtful work for adults, the results of which are collected in Red Cartoons. Being aware that, by virtue of their medium, they could get away with more out and out political commentary than their staidly cinematic brethren, did not serve the filmmakers represented here. Far from serving as beacons of individualism, the cartoons in this collection are fairly formulaic in their own right, with few deviating from the themes or style laid out for it or venturing past condemnations of conformity that manage to be at once heavy handed and toothless.
The bleak outlook of most of the stories – in which everyone is out to screw everyone else, and the only real crime is getting caught at it – can be understood in context, but an hour of the same high concept, low execution fables makes for a grim viewing experience for anyone without a profound understanding of or exceptional degree of interest in German history. Those looking for morality tales will have more fun under the guidance of an episode of Fractured Fairy Tales, while audiences seeking an aesthetically fulfilling exploration of life behind the Iron Curtain would be better served watching Wim Wenders Wings of Desire again.
There’s little doubt that Red Cartoons constitutes a historically significant political artifact, but outside of that context, there is little to recommend the collection. There are no notable technical innovations or particularly stirring storytelling here. While it may be unfair to hang a studio working with limited funding and under political strictures for a lack of production value or creative panache, it does feel like some of the failures represented here are for simple lack of trying.
One of the most wonderful and remarkable things about cartoons, since their inception, is their capacity to create and capture singular images on a shoestring budget. That capacity, however, is dependent on a healthy dose of creativity on the part of the filmmakers, which, though it may be no fault of their own, is not on display here.
Sieglinde Hamacher’s The Solution represents at least an interesting visual design that sets it apart from its more commonplace counterparts, most of which remind one of nothing so much as Schoolhouse Rock mixed with a generous dose of political oppression. Even when they do have something going for them visually, as is the case in Klaus Georgi and Lutz Stutner’s The Monument, the plots of the pieces in Red Cartoons are so bare that they can only barely be termed plots. It would be kinder to see them as fortune cookie style morals, from which one expects less in the way of content.
Frustratingly, the menus in Red Cartoons are so poorly set up that it’s hard to tell what cartoon or special feature you are selecting, and the included essays on the history of the DEFA film studio are all but impossible to navigate. It may seem like a small flaw, but in a collection that’s most valuable as a historical artifact and educational tool, it’s a difficult one to overlook.