Just off the Schiffbauerdamm, a street that runs along the River Spree on the north side of the river, sits the Berliner Ensemble Theater. It was founded in 1954, after Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel left the Deutsches Theater to start their own theater. It was an ambitious project featuring a revolving stage built on the wheels of a Soviet T-34 tank supplied by the Soviet troops in East Berlin. By this time, Brecht was in ill health and died a couple years later but the theater continues to this day.
Next door to the theater sat the Ganymed Restaurant, where the members of the theater troupe and intellectuals of every stripe would go to discuss everything from dialectical materialism to food shortages. After the Wall came down, the restaurant closed. It was in this shuttered restaurant, in early nineties, that director Peter Voigt set his film Dusk: 1950s East Berlin Bohemia (Dämmerung – Ostberliner Boheme der 50er Jahre). Now that the Wall was gone, Voigt assembled old friends and acquaintances to talk about what Berlin was like in the days before the Wall went up.
The film starts with the funeral of Wolf Kaiser, a character actor who appeared in dozens of East German films and television shows. A West German by birth who grew up in Switzerland, Kaiser moved to East Germany after Bertolt Brecht hired him to work at the Deutsches Theater where he became renowned for his portrayal of Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera. Kaiser believed in the values of the GDR. When the Wall fell and the West took over East Germany, broadcasting daily reports on the corruption of the leaders of the SED, and leaving many East Germans unemployed, Kaiser began wondering if it all had been worth it. He answered that question by jumping out a window to his death.
Most of the action centers around three venues—the Ganymed, Hajo’s Bar, and the Möwe. Each had its own scene with its own regulars. By far the most interesting was Hajo’s Bar, which catered to artists, oddballs, and political types. You could tell by the responses of the people being interviewed that Hajo’s Bar was the favorite. At least until Hajo got fed up with the Stasi trying to get him to spy on people in the bar and decided to move to the West.
Former East German fashion model Barbara Lübbert, film critic Jutta Voigt, and translator Ingrid Lechner (who was still a student at the time) sit together and discuss what it was like to be a young women on the town in East Berlin during that period. While it’s well documented that East Germany did a better job of offering women equal opportunities than West Germany did, the women interviewed here were largely treated as arm candy. The only other woman interviewed is Brecht and Weigel’s daughter Barbara Brecht-Schall, who didn’t spend her time in the bars and discusses other aspects of pre-Wall life in East Germany.
The memories are both good and bad, creating a complex picture of what life in the fifties in East Berlin. The people interviewed include actors Ekkehard Schall, Rolf Ludwig, and Stefan Lisewski; and artists Rudi Ebeling and Kurt Mühle.
The most surprising appearance here is Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, the host of the notorious Der schwarze Kanal (The Black Channel), a weekly TV show that looked at the broadcasts coming out of the West from a socialist perspective. Schnitzler comes across as relaxed and congenial here and expresses dismay at the Statsi’s decision to try and bully the owner of Hajo’s Bar into spying on his clientele. In later post-Wende interviews, Schnitzler would get more and more defensive, He was, after all, the man who narrated Look at This City—a 1962 documentary that argues for the importance of the Wall. We get a very different view of Schnitzler in Stasiland, Anna Funder’s book of interviews with former Stasi officials, IMs and supporters of the SED.1
As film historian Claus Löser points out in one of the essays that comes with the Dusk DVD, the German word for dusk—Dämmerung—is the same word for dawn. Presumably, Voigt intended this double meaning. Discussing the days right before the Wall went up at a time immediately after the Wall came down. What Voigt doesn’t answer is which of these is the dawn and which is the dusk.
Peter Voigt was the son of a theater director and went to school to study art. In 1953 he met Bertolt Brecht and became his personal assistant a year later. Still in his early twenties, Voigt, like most personal assistants, was an asshat, full of himself and sure he knew best. When Lotte Lenya came to visit Brecht in 1955, it was Voigt who refused to let her in. Mercifully, time tempered Voigt’s egomania, but not his obsession with Brecht, which continued throughout his life.
Since much of the film consists of people sitting and talking, with occasional inserts of photographs and street scenes, Voigt tries to keep things visually interesting by shifting the locations, backgrounds, and the camera’s distances from the speakers. There’s little use handheld cameras here. Most of the time, the camera is locked down for the duration of a shot. Sometimes the interviewees sit at a piano, sometimes they stand, and sometimes they sit at the bar. Occasionally, Voigt lets the screen go black for a couple seconds, as if to suggest the natural gaps in memories of forty-year-old events, but it could also be interpreted as a nod to the ever-present danger of censorship.
Like many of the films about East Germany that came out right after the Wende, the film went largely ignored. West Germans weren’t interested and East Germans weren’t ready to talk about it. It was only later that the film was recognized as a important testament to the time in East Berlin right before the Wall went up. The DEFA Library at UMass at Amherst has released the film on DVD. Included on the disk is The Favorite, a short film about Peter Voigt by Alexandra Czok. Since the movie was filmed, the Ganymed restaurant has reopened and rechristened itself a “Brasserie,” catering to high-end diners.
1. Of course, with a title like Stasiland, it’s clear that Anna Funder came to the table with a specific perspective already in place. Nonetheless, the book is required reading for anyone interested in East Germany and its history.
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