From 1945 to 1990, when the company, along with the state that owned it, disappeared, DEFA produced over seven hundred films. When DEFA acquired the Ufa premises in Babelsberg it took on a large number of staff from the Third Reich. In 1953 the Soviets relinquished any ownership, and under the Ministry of Culture DEFA came to control all East German filmmaking. Alongside those allowed to continue working, exiles like Slatan Dudow (1903–1963) and Wilhelm Dieterle (1893–1972) were encouraged to return. Thus the GDR's film establishment was at odds with the official doctrine of representing that German tradition and identity, which had always abjured fascism. Whereas the West German industry avoided political references in its films, the East German industry had to include them in all films, but only in forms dictated by the ruling Socialist Unity Party.
Already in 1951, with the continuity afforded by folding Ufa into DEFA, Staudte was able to put out an accomplished account of German imperial history, Der Untertan ( The Kaiser's Lackey ), adapted from the novel by Heinrich Mann. Slatan Dudow was one of the few film-makers to examine the brutality of the Third Reich, as he depicted the price paid by resistance circles in his Stärker als die Nacht (Stronger Than the Night, 1954). Paralleling the antifascist tradition, filmmakers were also required to depict the reconstruction of the state on socialist lines in a "socialist realist" style. When the cultural climate thawed after Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's death in 1953, genre filmmaking became easier (even allowing the development of a subgenre of westerns told from the viewpoint of the American Indians). In 1958 the climate changed again as the Socialist Unity Party attacked many DEFA filmmakers for undermining socialism with critical viewpoints. Even well-established directors like Kurt Maetzig (b. 1911), Konrad Wolf (1925–1982), Jürgen Böttcher (b. 1931), and Heiner Carow (1929–1997) had to negotiate with the ideological
demands of their political masters; like many technicians, writers, and musicians, they were functionaries of the state on permanent contracts, and so faced changing demands for films that could educate, inform, and persuade, yet also entertain. However, filmmakers were not isolated from developments in other countries. Thus Frank Beyer (b. 1932) made his debut with Fünf̈lsen ( Five Cartridges , 1960), which showed influences from Russian filmmaking in its story of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. The film featured Manfred Krug (b. 1937), the biggest star in the East German industry until his departure for the West in 1977 after a conflict with the party.
In 1965 the party intervened drastically by banning twelve completed films and dismissing some management at DEFA. Maetzig's Das Kaninchen bin ich ( IAm the Rabbit , 1965) had passed all the censors, but, together with Frank Vogel's Denk bloss nicht ich heule (Just Don't Think I'm Crying, 1965), it was publicly criticized for being too skeptical and failing to contribute to a positive Patronenhu identity for the state and banned anyway. Required conformity with established ideology and systems pushed formal and thematic innovation further toward what the authorities considered an elitism. At the same time mass audiences sought genre products, even those coming from Hollywood, as entertainment, or turned to TV (which itself could be risky if one's aerial pointed west). In this climate a group of films came to be known as Regalfilme (shelved films), of which Spur der Steine ( The Trace of Stones , 1966), by rising star Frank Beyer, is the most celebrated. The film, which depicts an anarchic but effective band of carpenters at work on a major construction site, and their involvement with the site management and the party, implies that there might be a range of personal contributions possible under socialism. Although allowed a limited release, the film raised too much popular interest for the party to tolerate and thus was shelved. On its reappearance, in perfect condition twenty-five years later, it immediately became a German cinema classic.
The party became somewhat more confident of itself in the 1970s, particularly under Erich Honecker, who presided over increased international recognition and responded to Willy Brandt, the Chancellor of the Federal Republic, by allowing more contact with the West. Another thaw followed, on the basis of the GDR's having become a fully developed socialist society. In 1975 Frank Beyer's Jakob, der Lügner ( Jacob the Liar ) appeared and in 1977 became the only DEFA film ever nominated for an Oscar ® . Adapted from a novel by Jurek Becker, it tells of resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto that was based on invented radio reports of imminent liberation by the Red Army.
By the end of the 1970s it was growing ever clearer that the state and the party had little support among the populace. Citizens were withdrawing into private spheres, or becoming outright dissidents, or simply leaving the country. In filmmaking the discontent was reflected in an alternative film culture centered in Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden. DEFA had to accept increasing marginalization in public life, with very few films, like Solo Sunny (1980), co-directed by Konrad Wolf (1925–1982) and Wolfgang Kohlhaase (b. 1931), attracting any significant box office, particularly against mainstream Hollywood films. Films like Das Fahrrad (The Bicycle, 1982), directed by Evelyn Schmidt (b. 1949), one of the few women filmmakers in the East, or Grüne Hochzeit (Green Wedding, Herrmann Zschoche, 1989) were marked by disillusionment about any improvement in individual lives. DEFA's one success was in films for children, such as Das Schulgespenst (The School Ghost, Rolf Losansky, 1986), which deals with a young girl's identity problems through the motif of changing places with a ghost.
DEFA celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 1986, which artificially stimulated productivity, some of it already in anticipation of the GDR's own fortieth anniversary in 1989. In 1988 a group of young filmmakers put out a manifesto demanding an independent studio. It was suppressed, but the dissidents were allowed to form their own working group; their discontent thus was focused, but they had no time to make anything of it. Among the last products of DEFA's filmmaking were Heiner Carow's Coming Out (1989), the only East German film ever to deal with the official discrimination against homosexuals; Letztes aus der DaDaeR (The Last of the Gee-Dee-Arr, Jörg Foth, 1990); and Das Land hinter dem Regenbogen (The Country Beyond the Rainbow, Herwig Kipping, 1992), committing the studio's last resources to reckonings with the GDR. The direction for any remaining Filmkultur became apparent in Der Bruch (The Break, 1989), written by Kohlhaase and directed by Beyer, a straight crime-comedy genre product with no ideological trappings, based on a case from 1951 and featuring a range of noted West German actors.