by Inez Hedges
Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 123-126, 95
This statement by one of the women factory workers in Völker Koepp's documentary NEUES IN WITTSTOCK (WHAT'S NEW IN WITTSTOCK), shown in the Young Filmmakers' section of the '93 Berlin Film Festival (the "Berlinale"), best summarizes the tenor of those new German films which address the problems of post-reunification Germany.
Between 1974 and 1984, Koepp, who was born in East Germany in 1944, filmed the same group of women clothing-factory workers in an attempt to portray everyday life in the GDR (German Democratic Republic). After the fall of the Wall (in German parlance, "Die Wende," or "The Change"), the women contacted him and asked to be filmed again. Koepp's latest film mixes footage from the past with new interviews and shots of the now privatized factory. The result is a unique document on the struggle for socialism and the radical change in the women's prospects and outlook after the Wende.
In a scene from NEUES IN WITTSTOCK, the representative of the economic trust or "Treuhand" (charged with privatizing 400 local businesses) explains how the whole region has to be "rechristianized" so that church taxes can be collected. In another, a fortune-teller confesses she doesn't know the card for unemployment (the factory went from 2,700 to 700 employees after the Wende). New street names appear above the old ones: St. Marienstrasse (St. Mary Street) for Karl-Marx Strasse. Later, the old names are removed and only the blank rectangles of freshly uncovered paint remain as a memory. In interviews the women explain how their entire frame of reference has changed — in the GDR, life came first and work second; now, work is primary (for those who are lucky enough to be employed), and "it's everyone for herself." Modern shopgirls the same age as the women Koepp started filming in 1974 have new concerns. They complain that foreigners are taking away their jobs.
The effect of Koepp's film is to valorize the life experience of people who are continually being made to feel that they are the defeated in a reunited Germany — that forty years of trying to build socialism were a waste of time since it didn't "work." In several instances, Koepp films the women as they react to seeing their earlier interviews on a monitor — a visual enactment of self-definition and self-reflection.
Despite his focus on women, Koepp could hardly be called a feminist. He initially stopped filming in 1984, he explained, because after the women got married and started families he couldn't imagine that they would ever do anything worth filming again. The collapse of the state finally shook him loose from this "happy end."
Documentary films in the GDR were made by filmmakers with full-time employment in the state-sponsored "DEFA" studio. Often, these films were sponsored for propagandistic purposes. Mother director, Winfried Junge, made nine films about thirteen members of the same kindergarten class in Golzow (near Frankfurt an der Oder) beginning in 1961. His new compilation film of almost five hours, DREHBUCH: DIE ZEITEN (SCREENPLAY: THE TIMES) follows a strategy similar to that of NEUES IN WITTSTOCK, and, like Koepp's project, recalls that of British filmmaker Michael Apted (SEVEN-UP to THIRTY-UP). But Junge now ironizes the idealistic tone of the previous films by recontextualizing earlier scenes in order to question the truthfulness of the film image. In one instance, he replays three different takes of the same scene, thus laying bare the artificiality of documentary "realism." By implication, he leads us to question any film's claim to portray reality — including those made in the West without official censorship.
The second film Koepp premiered at the film festival, SAMMELSURIUM (COLLECTOR'S CHOICE), takes its title from a museum in the Elbe region where GDR artifacts are being collected. Koepp's film is his own collection, a connoisseur's album of images. He takes us to rooms holding miles of Stasi (State Security) files, to the construction site outside Berlin where large segments of the Wall are ground up to dust, to the preview room of the (now defunct) DEFA where filmmakers presented their works to the censors and studio heads during screenings that were often attended by the head of State. In the museum itself (which has now been granted government subsidies), the head of Karl Marx in Meissen porcelain is put on show, along with typical factory products: radios, household items, statuettes.
Koepp's tone is far from elegiac — he collects images as a sign of the pastness of the GDR. Nevertheless, his SAMMELSURIUM has its own eloquence. Strangely, both he and the Yugoslavian exile Dusan Makavejev film the same dismantling of the gigantic statue that was the East Berlin Lenin Memorial. Makavajev's feature, THE GORILLA BATHES AT NOON, focuses on a Russian soldier who is stranded in Berlin after his company returns to Russia. In the story, the soldier is a witness to the statue's removal and accompanies the head on the back of a truck to its final resting place. The statue's demise is seen through the eyes of one person with whom it is difficult to identify. Koepp cuts out the surrounding context and chooses instead a dramatic shot of Lenin's head floating freely in space at the end of a crane. The documentary has more force than the fiction here; Koepp has managed to find a visceral image of the violence and abruptness of the Wende.
Violence in Germany was the focus of a group of films shown under the rubric "Against Racism." STAU — YEZT GEHT'S LOS! (ALL STOPPED UP — HERE IT COMES!), by 38-year-old East German Thomas Heiser, followed the daily life of five "skinheads" in East Germany. In interviews, the young men (16 to 19) expressed theft sense of disorientation. One member of a neo-nazi club even said that he missed the "FDJ" — the former socialist youth organization of the GDR. "It was a wonderfully thought-out system for making and keeping people happy," he says. A girlfriend complains that her Western counterparts (Wessis) treat her like a "dumb Ossie" (slang for East German). One youth bragged that he bought his first gun with the "Welcome money" that West Germany traditionally offered to East German immigrants.
The close-up on youth violence offered by STAU at once disarms and alarms. At first, their political analysis of the state does not seem all that wrong: "The state's power is based on violence," says one, "violence begets violence." But the spectator grows uncomfortable when attacks against foreigners are presented as "self-defense." Unprovoked acts of violence are ascribed to der Frust — "frustration." The "Sieg Heil" salute is, according to the interviewees, just a protest gesture. These young men see themselves as victims, they're anti-capitalist and also opposed to the educational system of the GDR that made them ashamed of being German by dwelling on the Nazi past.
A skinhead bakes a cake during his interview, seems embarrassed and vulnerable in front of the camera which records his teenage pimples. But later at the club in the security of their peers, the young men are all energy, stomping wildly to rock music with anti-Turkish lyrics, showing off their tattooed swastikas, awarding costume prizes. First and second prizes go to the boy and girl in police uniforms; third prize goes to a guy dressed up as a "pinko commie." Later we learn that there are three court cases pending against one young man who was involved in a fight while "protecting" this club from Yugoslavian immigrant workers. This is not America, they say — we're not a "multicultural" society. Many of them sport jackets with slogans: "I'm proud of being a German," "German Power," "The Honor of Your People Is Also Your Honor."
If Heiser's strategy is to humanize the skinheads by letting them voice their concerns, Christoph Schlingensief's TERROR 2000 — INTENSIVE STATION GERMANY cuts a surrealistic swath through German society. In this film, everyone seems to be following André Breton's dictum, "the most surrealist act in the world is to go down into the street and begin shooting randomly." TERROR 2000 was not even shown as part of the festival, and had to be viewed at a special screening organized by the alternative weekly Tip. This slight gave Schlingensief the opportunity to complain about censorship and garnered him quite a large audience.
At 33, Schlingensieff is one of West Germany's youngest and most controversial filmmakers. Earlier films include 100 YEARS OF ADOLPH HITLER — THE LAST HOUR IN THE FUHRER'S BUNKER (1989) and THE GERMAN CHAINSAW MASSACRE — THE FIRST HOUR OF REUNIFICATION (1990). TERROR 2000 (whose title mocks the "Berlin 2000" campaign slogan that aims to bring the Olympics to Berlin in the year 2000) completes the trilogy that explores violence and hate in German society. It begins with the assassination of a Polish family on a train on their way to an asylum for foreigners in Rassau (East Germany). The investigators from the Bundeskriminalamt (German FBI) prove as violent as the assassins, and even the refugees stage a violent demonstration. The assassin's woman friend gets excited when she sees foreigners being beaten up and masturbates. Schlingensief is the most extreme of the young filmmakers in that he offers no moral center. He portrays a society out of control, in which the Ku Klux Klan and a sheriff from an U.S. Western show up at the funeral for the assassinated refugees alongside the Minister of State.
Few people in Germany will get to see this film, which has become one of the first victims of the new "antiviolence commission" of the Association of German TV and Film Directors. According to a February issue of Tip, directors are instructed in the future to consider their moral, ethical, and humanitarian responsibilities to society when creating their works. As Tip argues, "television is reacting to real violence by curtailing the representation of violence." No show date has been set for TERROR 2000, despite the fact that it was co-produced by German television.
Nevertheless, the Berlinale continues to be the only way to view a representative sampling of new German films, many of which will never be exported outside of Germany. The festival has traditionally also been particularly strong in East European films. This year, because of harsh economic conditions, the offerings were scanty. However, two notable films from the Czech Republic and Romania contrasted favorably with Helma Sanders-Brahms's failed attempt to portray East German realities in APFELBAUME (APPLE TREES).
Vera Chytilova's protagonist Bohus in THE INHERITANCE is a good-for-nothing loafer who never lifted a finger to build a socialist society. Now that the socialist project has collapsed, he comes into a big inheritance. He spends it cynically, buying the friendship of a prostitute, paying for a merry-go-round for the village (but refusing to sponsor any real improvements), taking the men from his village on a bus trip to town where they thoroughly disgrace themselves by starting a brawl in an expensive restaurant. He also instantly changes into a cruel capitalist, firing some of his newly-inherited employees as an exercise in pure power. Though somewhat broadly drawn, Chytilova's picture of the post-socialist era functions effectively as a bitterly satirical putdown of the new capitalism. Her genius lies in the details — the ostrich that Bohus buys his high-priced girlfriend as a birthday gift, his Eurodisney shirt, the opening shot of the film that shows a handful of ants busily dragging off the carcass of a moth. By picking out elements from the diegetic space, Chytilova effortlessly weaves metaphors into her story, implying that the new capitalist order returns man to a state of nature in which money begets violence.
Lucian Pintilie's French/Romanian co-production LE CHENE (THE OAK TREE) begins with a long traveling shot that traverses the garbage-strewn terrain in front of an apartment complex — headless dolls, polluted water, all sorts of trash. The camera moves up the stairs and enters an equally disreputable apartment where Nela (a young woman) and her father lie in bed watching old home movies. The father spills his glass of milk and dies. A sister bangs on the door but Nela drives her away by lighting a fife inside the apartment. Somehow Nela has to fulfill her father's last wish — to donate his body to medical research. But there are no refrigerators, and the hospitals aren't interested. The film moves from disaster to disaster in a symbolic reenactment of the chaos of the last days of the Ceausescu regime.
THE OAK TREE and THE INHERITANCE portray society on the brink of chaos. Looking at these testimonials from the former socialist countries serves to validate the extremism of a film like TERROR 2000.
With the exception of SILENT COUNTRY (STILLES LAND) by recent film school graduate Andreas Dresen, no East Germans presented features about Germany after the Wende. East German screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase made his directorial debut (with co-director Gabriele Denecke) with a coming-of-age romance set at the end of World War II. At the press conference following the film, he said he was not yet ready to treat more contemporary material, since the East German past is continually being revised in daily news bulletins. Denecke stated that she is thinking about doing a film set in an East German village in the 50s.
The West German director Helma Sanders-Brahms evidently did not feel the same scruples as her eastern compatriots, and filmed an East German story in APPLE TREES, a film screened not at the festival but at the parallel "film market," where distributors and producers make deals. A young socialist woman moves to the country to take part in an agricultural project because she is attracted to the bucolic life her grandmother lives in the region. She is subjected to the corruption and sexual harassment of the local party leader. Without explanation, she turns against her husband and seems more and more attracted to the "high life" of inner party circles. The local party leader turns out to be an opportunist who ends up going to the West. Thus he is a figure similar to Chytilova' protagonist. Yet Sanders-Brahms, as a West German telling a story about the East, lacks legitimacy. It doesn't help that she remains distant from her main protagonist even though the story is presented mainly in the first person with a voice-over narration. Her story seems predictable and second-hand. As the well-known East Berlin political songwriter Reinhold Andert said to me in an interview, "The Wessis want to come over here and tell us how it was with socialism."
STILLES LAND (SILENT COUNTRY) shows how powerfully the story of people coming to terms with the Wende can be told. It is the first feature by 30-year old Andreas Dresen who graduated in 1992 from the Babelsberg film school "Konrad Wolf," and the debut feature-length screenplay by 28-year old Laila Stieler. In the fall of 1989, a young theater director comes to the provinces to put on Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT. He argues for the play's contemporary relevance:
As the cast rehearses, the defective television transmits images of East Germans crossing over into Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Change comes to the remote town as well: the actors and theater management take part in candlelit vigils in the church and in the streets, then join a demonstration bearing the familiar banner "Wir sind das Volk!" (We Are the People!). A protest statement by the actors demanding open public discussion is presented to the theater manager. He signs, but doesn't mail it until the Wende is announced officially on TV.
Meanwhile, the events have had an effect on the play as well. Instead of hopelessness, the director now wants to communicate a different message: it is Vladimir's and Estragon's own fault if they can't get moving. What are they waiting for? The screenwriter and director have thus neatly worked in two alternative interpretations of the Beckett play. On the one hand, the seemingly insurmountable waiting of Vladimir and Estragon (played as an old heterosexual married couple) is presented as a mirror of GDR reality before the Wende; in the second interpretation, the passivity of the couple is criticized — they have only to take history into their own hands to get moving.
History itself moves quickly to validate this insight as the opening of the Berlin wall is announced on television. The whole company gets on the bus to witness the event but the engine won't start — like the TV and the phone system, everything mechanical in the GDR seems close to breaking down. The assistant director ends up hitchhiking alone to Berlin, and returns four days later with Thomas, a theater director from the West.
The play's dress rehearsal is a success, and Thomas has organized flyers and publicity. But the audience fails to show up. East Germans don't want East German culture anymore. In the final shots of the film, the young East German director imagines in succession a West German road with its clearly demarcated yellow stripe and an East German road bordered by weeds. He opts for the East German way, and decides to stay in the "silent country" to build up the theater once more.
STILLES LAND was a well-kept secret at the Berlinale. The International Forum of Young Filmmakers (a subsection of the festival that screens documentaries and features outside of the main competition) only organized one special screening instead of the multiple screenings allowed for the other films (a fate that also befell NEUES IN WITTSTOCK). Thus only a few people got to see the most interesting new German fiction film of the post-Wende period. Whether intentionally or not, the organizers of the Forum contributed to the devaluing of East German culture by placing the film on a different exhibition schedule from the other films. Fortunately the Berlin-based distributors, Ex Picturis, were willing to lend videotapes to those who missed seeing the STILLES LAND.
Dresen's film is remarkable because it brilliantly reenacts the events of 1989 from the point of view of those who were most affected by them: the East Germans. It does so with refreshing modernism — the story structure of the film bears similarities to Fellini's 8 1/2 and to Buñuel's THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. However, Dresen grounds the aporia of his artist/protagonist in the concrete political and social situation of the GDR. His film — technically sophisticated and graced with excellent acting — conveys a picture of the East with an immediacy that no West German director has achieved.
Simultaneously with the festival, the prestigious Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin was offering the premiere of Rolf Hochhuth's episodic play WESSIS IN WEIMAR. Despite being a "Wessie," or West German himself, Hochhuth portrays the subjugation and colonization of eastern Germany by Western capitalists in the starkest terms. The East German director Einar Schleef went several steps further, creating a mise-en-scene in which the actors were naked on stage, unless they were wearing ill-fitting Nazi military coats, or draperies the color of the German flag. In place of Hochhuth's individual acting parts, he substituted choruses that further accentuated the strangulation of the East by the West. The stage itself was a huge empty platform demarcated by the backdrop of a massive wall. It was so bare and spacious that kids were able to play a soccer game on stage during intermission. In place of Hochhuth's dialogue, Schleef had the actors declaim the playwright's explanatory essays. His staging interpolated texts from Schiller, Brecht's "In Praise of the Communist Party" (later removed because the Brecht family refused the rights to this piece), and FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) songs — a full ninety minutes of material not in the original.
In a public statement distributed to theatergoers, Hochhuth protested that his play had been violated. At issue was the same question that kept recurring at the film festival — who speaks for whom? Despite the author's protests, the play was a huge succès de scandale. On the night I attended, a young man from the audience leapt onstage and marched against the militarily clad actors to loud audience encouragement. The Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel noted especially the Brechtian quality of the performance — the way it raised questions about the present and threw the audience off-balance while offering a fascinating mise-en-scene.
In this time of massive social upheaval and change in Germany, audiences packed the theaters and film screenings that claimed to shed some light on the current situation. Indeed, the staying power of the audience that sat through the epic DREHBUCH — DIE ZEITEN amazed its director. Although no "masterpieces" surfaced at the Berlinale, there was ample evidence that the art of film, not only as witness to the times, but also as agent of change, is still very much alive.