When the Berlin Wall finally came down, East Germans danced for joy in the streets. No more Stasi, no more food shortages, no more travel restrictions, and no more fiddling with their Trabis to get the damned things started. At the time, most people in East Germany were glad to see the backside of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). This was reflected in the polls when the SED (now rebranded as the Party of Democratic Socialism) was trounced in the East German general election in March of 1990. A few months later, the new Volkskammer voted to approve the reunification of Germany, much to the dismay of Margaret Thatcher, who actively petitioned against it. François Mitterrand wasn’t crazy about reunification either, but quickly saw the inevitability of it. Things were looking up—or so the East Germans thought. Within a year, many East Germans would be regretting their votes. Factories and businesses were taken over by Western conglomerates that immediately started laying off as many people as they could. Young people found it difficult to get work because the West Germans, who were now in control, had low opinions of East Germans, viewing them as problematic because they weren’t willing to work for starvation wages. They preferred to hire foreign workers to do the jobs instead, further exacerbating the mounting tensions in the East.
Without the safety nets provided by the state, the young people in East Germany were in dire straits, and were wondering what happened to their country when the Nazis started arriving from Bavaria and America, ready to provide easy answers for the local youths. Kids on both sides of the border were often woefully ignorant of what happened in Germany during World War II, but none more so than the East Germans, where the attitude was, “We got rid of them, so we don’t really need to talk about it anymore—that’s a West German problem!” While it’s true that several high-ranking Nazis were able to get back into government in West Germany, at least the Nazis were stigmatized in the Bundesrepublik, which certainly helped stem their spread. East German kids were more susceptible to the simplistic, populist claptrap spouted by groups such as the German People’s Union (Deutsche Volksunion, DVU) and the National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD) of Germany.1
Herzsprung was the first and last East German film to tackle this subject. The first because prior to the fall of the Wall it simply wasn’t an issue—anyone spouting far-right rhetoric in the GDR would have found the Stasi crawling all over them like a bad case of bedbugs. The last because DEFA’s days were numbered. DEFA would only make six more films before closing up shop.
Herzsprung takes place in a small town of the same name that sits on the A24 highway just south of Wittstock. The proverbial wide spot in the road. The film follows the adventures and misadventures of a woman named Johanna (Claudia Geisler) as she tries to navigate the changes occurring in her village. The film starts with the termination of her job working in a factory kitchen. It looks like a pretty crummy job, but since her husband Jan had lost his job months earlier, thanks to the closing of the agriculture cooperatives, it meant there would be no money coming in. Unable to find work, Jan has sunken into a state of self-pity and alcoholism, and is becoming physically abusive. After Jan commits suicide, Johanna starts to take up with a stranger (Nino Sandow) who recently arrived in town. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy who also happens to be black. As you can imagine, the local Nazi punks aren’t too pleased to see Johanna hanging around with this guy, especially a local called “Soljanka” (Ben Becker), who has a crush on Johanna. In German, Herzsprung also means “heartbreak,” so, as you can probably guess, things don’t end well for anybody.2
Herzsprung is directed by Helke Misselwitz from her own script. Misselwitz is better known for her documentaries, and in particular Winter Adé, a powerful film that looks at the lives and failed dreams of women across East Germany. Misselwitz brings her documentary background to this film, with hand-held cameras and shots of peripheral characters to create a sense of place. Nonetheless, she also recognizes the freedom a feature film gives you to compose scenes, and uses this to create powerful images, such as the scene of Johanna fleeing the burning roadside stand.
Like Misselwitz, Cinematographer Thomas Plenert was part of DEFA’s Nachwuchsgeneration (the baby boomers, essentially), the last generation of filmmakers and technicians in East Germany. Also like Misselwitz, he comes from a documentary background. Here he gets to push the limits of what you can do with a camera, sometimes pushing it over the edge. He’s not afraid to let night scenes stay in inky darkness. The use of color is interesting, especially in the final scene, and in the nightclub scenes, where the use of color approaches the work of Luciano Tovoli in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
Claudia Geisler is well-cast as Johanna, endowing the character with a unique combination of fragility and resilience. It seems like life wants to beat Johanna down, but she’s not having it. Geisler, an East German, was only beginning to appear in films when the wall came down. She first appeared on screen in a small part in Interrogating the Witness (Vernehmung der Zeugen), an interesting little crime thriller starring Christine Schorn. While working on Little Thirteen, she met her future husband Thomas Bading. Since 2015, she has been working under the name Claudia Geisler-Bading. She appears in several well known films, including Christian Petzold’s Barbara, Cate Shortland‘s Lore, and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men.
We never do learn the name of Nino Sandow’s black stranger. Sandow was born and raised in East Germany, and studied opera singing at the “Hanns Eisler” School of Music and the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin. Herzsprung was his first feature film, but he has gone on to appear in several movies and television shows, most recently as the New York stage manager in Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous. He also teaches at the “Ernst Busch” Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.
The music for the film is primarily either well-known classical pieces or songs by the Berlin folk-rock group Poems for Laila. It’s an unusual and effective combination. Poems for Laila still performs, although their line-up has changed considerably over the years. Like other multi-instrumental groups that toy with different ethnic music styles, their music is difficult to categorize—a little like DeVotchKa or 17 Hippies, but definitely its own thing.
Herzsprung bears more than a passing resemblance to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Both films tackle the issue of racism in Germany3, and both films are beautifully shot. Where Fassbinder’s film is shaped by the work of Douglas Sirk, Misselwitz’s film appears to be informed by the DEFA fairytale films. In the opening shot a woman sings a beautiful song while what appears to be snow drifts across the screen. Eventually it becomes clear that it’s not snow at all, but the pinfeathers from a goose that’s being plucked by women in a factory kitchen, and the song comes from one of the women (Eva Maria Hagen, in her first DEFA role since she left East Germany in 1977).
An important difference between Fassbinder’s and Misselwitz’s films is that while Fassbinder’s film is primarily about the racism that no one acknowledges until they are faced with it head on, Misselwitz’s film chronicles an ugly change that was occurring in the East. A change that would eventually lead to the formation of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and the deaths of several people all over Germany.
1. In 2011, the DVU and the NPD merged.
2. Although, the name of the town, according to some sources, somes not from the word for heartbreak, but from low middle German meaning deer (or hart) spring (Hertsprink).
3. Although, in a 2009 interview with Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Library, Misselwitz said that she was primarily trying to show the growing hostility in East German towns towards outsiders rather than specifically addressing racism.
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