The best German films at this year's Berlin film festival came from the former East Germany. They tell simple, sometimes tragic tales of everyday life. Sarah Gellner fears that they could be the last gasp of a great traditionby Sarah Gellner / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
There’s no difference,” declared Frau Kleinert, “between films by directors from the former East Germany, and those from the former West Germany. It is all one now.” She is a publicity agent for Progress Film Verleih and, of course, what she says is the official version. Perhaps it had been a bit of a faux pas on my part to bring up the distinction at all.
“But surely,” I persisted, “the diversity of experiences, the different histories, will find expression in the work of directors, script writers and so on?” And, warming to my theme, “I have seen a couple of films from former east German directors here at the Berlin film festival, and on the contrary, I think there is still a difference in style. Lange nach der Schlacht, for instance.”
Lange nach der Schlacht takes three and a half hours to chart five years in the lives of a handful of former Soviet officers and their wives in a small village in Brandenburg, eastern Germany. During that time the collapse of the Soviet Union transforms this group of people from respected officers of a military superpower to citizens of an empire in ruins, with no resources, and no real home. The pathos of their situation is made gradually and agonisingly clear with a bare minimum of words. The protagonists flirt with the camera, show us around their pitifully humble homes, display their family snapshots and collections of bric-? -brac with stoicism, simplicity and candour. An affectionately revealing angle, a self-deprecating joke, is never far away; nor, one suspects, is utter despair.
Regine K?hn and Eduard Schreiber made the film for DM885,000 (?400,000) mostly from the state of Brandenburg, plus DM85,000 of their own. That, of course, takes no account of the years spent preparing the ground and building confidence in the village.
I could also mention Gabriele Kotte’s Unter einem Dach, Inge Albrecht’s Wir sind doch kein Hotel-Fluchtort St??ndige Vertretung, or Barbara and Winfried Junge’s Die Geschichte vom Onkel Willy aus Golzow. All of them tell simple, at times tragic tales of everyday east German life with much understatement and a minimum of gloss. Frau Kleinert and I talked about them sitting behind the Progress Film Verleih stand on the second floor of the festival’s publicity building, in the heart of west Berlin’s commercial centre. Outside, the snow was freezing on the pavements.
Frau Kleinert glanced furtively round, then sighed and moved closer. “Yes, of course,” she said, her voice a tone lower. “It’s true the style is different. It’s slower, more relaxed and considered. It has more respect for the locations, the people, the script. It takes its time to make a point, and makes it in a way that is more memorable and convincing. But this style is doomed.
“It was the product of a relaxed environment, where jobs and budgets were secure. Now films must arouse and stimulate instantly; they must have action and very obvious images. If they are not immediately commercial, they will never find financial support.”
The German film industry, I recall, does a lot of soul-searching about its inability to compete commercially, even-especially-on home territory. But every other film industry in every country in the world except the US has the same problem. Andrzej Wajda, at a press conference following the screening of his new film Holy Week, used a journalist’s suggestion that the power of the Catholic church in Poland might be detrimental to that country’s film industry as an opportunity to point out that the influx of Hollywood blockbusters was a far greater threat. He said that the only answer was cultural protectionism.
But Wajda need not worry, because Holy Week will reach an international audience through the art-cinema network-it’s not as if all viewers only want the Hollywood blockbusters. But what about those less well known films, with equally important stories to tell? Fourteen of the nearly 750 Defa films, produced at Babelsberg in the former East Germany over a period of 45 years, were recently assessed by critics and directors as among the 100 best German films of all time; Die M?rder sind unter uns was sixth, followed by Der Untertan (tenth) and Spur der Steine (23rd). All 14, now distributed by Frau Kleinert’s Progress Film Verleih, are classics of their kind; sober and melodramatic fables or metaphors for life in the former East Germany. Many were suppressed by the authorities, and no one denies that the political system of which Defa was a part also produced sycophantic and forgettable work. But at least these quietly rebellious exceptions got made in the workers’ state. If Frau Kleinert and Andrzej Wajda are right, nowadays their equivalents may never see the light of projection at all.
Is there such a thing as a German film at all? Pauline Collins was apologetic about her qualifications, as a Liverpudlian, to play a Hungarian Jewess in Michael Verhoeven’s Mutters Courage, billed as a German/English co-production. Based on Hungarian writer George Tabori’s play about his mother, set in Budapest, filmed in Prague, scripted in English and only dubbed into German for the festival, it’s hard to see what is German about it, apart from the odd Nazi and, presumably, the money. “It’s a German story,” insisted Verhoeven at the press conference. Well, only in the sense that the Germans had something to do with the continental maelstrom within which it takes place. It struck me as a sentimentalised and patronising depiction of a woman who must have had more sense and foresight in real life than this. If she didn’t, she doesn’t deserve a film of her own.
Wajda did not claim German credentials for the story of Holy Week, but Beata Fundalej, as his Polish-Jewish heroine, knew how to defend herself against the rather predictable accusations of the “American Jew,” who insisted on announcing himself as such at every press conference I attended. “You don’t act out an ideology,” she told him, referring to her role as a fugitive from the burning Warsaw ghetto, “you act out an individual in a crisis, convinced she is going to die. Why should I not imagine that I am dying of cancer if it helps me to do that? We are talking at cross-purposes.” Quite. Wajda himself couldn’t see how his film could be interpreted as indifferent to Polish anti-semitism, as that was in fact what it was all about. It is, in any case, a much better film than Mutters Courage.
The best real German variation on the theme that I saw is Drei Tage im April, by Oliver Storz. Set in a Swabian village towards the end of the war, its barns and beer halls house a cross-section of German war types, from shell-shocked soldiers to petty bureaucrats, moralists, SS brutes, and black marketeers. Its core, however, is the confrontation of the “heroine,” a teenage Nazi idealist, with a trainload of derailed prisoners abandoned by the SS en route to a concentration camp. The Nazi cheerleader organises a village food collection, initially oblivious to the ideological contradiction.
In Reisen ins Leben, directed by Thomas Mitscherlich, Ruth Kl?ger describes how, 50 years after escaping from Auschwitz with her mother, she is criticised by her friends in California for not having the tattooed number removed from her arm. It is such a simple operation now, and its presence seems a permanent accusation-a reminder of something rather obscene. Her words recalled to me the impression left by Frau Kleinert. They are both under pressure to shut up about their past. That is, I suspect, how many former east German directors, artists and ordinary people feel in the greater Germany of today.