In 1970, Chile—the most democratic of South American nations—held a presidential election that would change the course of things in that country for the next twenty years and still affects it to this day. The election was a close one. No candidate achieved a majority, but one candidate came out slightly ahead of the others in the popular vote: Salvadore Allende. Allende was a passionate man who believed strongly in socialism and wanted to prove that a country could be both socialist and free. Unfortunately for him, there was one global power that wanted to prove above all else that this was not possible and it would do everything in its power to make sure that this was true. That country was the United States. Even before he was finally elected, the CIA spent millions backing Allende’s opponents in earlier campaigns. When Allende did become president, the U.S. began to systematically disrupt the Argentinian economy. Although that campaign was successful, the rejection of Allende wasn’t forthcoming, so the boys at the CIA helped back a coup to take over Chile and turn that former democracy into a military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Nice work Uncle Sam.
Once Pinochet started eradicating everyone who disagreed with him, political activists began fleeing the country. Many countries accepted these refugees, including countries that would usually have sided with the U.S. but not this time. Given the fascist nature of Pinochet’s regime and the fact that it was backed by the U.S., it’s not hard to figure out which side the GDR supported. The East German government accepted hundreds of refugees from Chile.1 Isabel on the Stairs (Isabel auf der Treppe) is the story of one of those families and the inevitable culture shock that one faces when exiled in a foreign land.
The film follows the story of Isabel (Irina Gallardo), the daughter of a singer named Rosita Pérez (Teresa Polle). Perez was a famous political singer back in her homeland, but here she’s just another immigrant. She’s as Chilean as can be, and finds it very hard to adapt to life in Germany. When she is asked to perform at a local school, the affair ends badly because the audience of pubescent teens has trouble sitting quietly while listening to a woman sing songs in a language they don’t understand. The songs are deeply emotional and meaningful for Perez, but to the kids they’re just music, and not even the kind of pop they prefer. It’s an honest portrayal of a realistic situation.
Isabel isn’t faring much better. She sits on the stairs every day waiting for a letter from her father back in Chile. We usually see her staring through the metal balustrade, which looks like a jail from that perspective, watching the postal worker slowly climb the stairs to deliver letters to each floor. But is the jail of her own making? The movie leaves that up to the viewer to decide.
Isabel does have one friend though: Philipp (Mario Krüger), the son of the Kunze’s, the family that sponsored Isabel and her mother. When the two families first met, everyone was excited and happy, but over time the Kunze’s and Mrs. Pérez have become virtual strangers. The Kunzes are good people, but their initial joy at meeting Rosa and Isabel has faded. The two cultures are so different that long term friendships require more effort than anyone is willing to put into the relationship. Mrs. Pérez shuts herself off from the outside world and waits to hear from her husband. Knowing what we know about the Pinochet regime, we already know that the odds of him surviving are slim.
Isabel on the Stairs is directed by Hannelore Unterberg, who, along with Ingrid Reschke, Iris Gusner, Evelyn Schmidt, and—towards the end of the GDR’s existence—Helke Misselwitz was one of the few women actively working as a director at DEFA. As discussed previously, although East Germany was better than the West about addressing women’s issues on film, they were still primarily a boys’ club when it came to hiring directors. During its final years, Unterberg was the most active of the female directors. She studied cinematography at the Film University in Babelsberg (Filmuniversität Babelsberg) and worked throughout the seventies as an assistant director. Most of her films at DEFA were aimed at children, with titles such as Concert for Frying Pan and Orchestra (Konzert für Bratpfanne und Orchester), The Boy with the Big Black Dog (Der Junge mit dem großen schwarzen Hund), and Darn Misfortune! (Verflixtes Mißgeschick!). With the Fall of the Wall, Unterberg’s career hit the usual West German roadblocks. Most of her work since then has been for television.
The script for the film was written by Waldtraut Lewin, who worked as a dramaturge at operas and in theater before becoming a successful writer. She specialized in books for young people that both promoted tolerance and were historically accurate. Isabel on the Stairs was originally a radio play and won a Golden Sparrow (Goldener Spatz) award at the annual German Children’s Media Festival in Gera. After the Wende, she continued to write. Many of her books, especially after the Wende, are historical tales about the struggles of Jews throughout history. Lewin died in Berlin in 2017 at the age of eighty.
The cinematography was handled by Eberhard Geick, whose career received a big boost when Konrad Wolf chose him as the cinematographer for Solo Sunny, marking the first time Wolf used a cinematographer other than Werner Bergmann to shoot a film. Wolf chose Geick because of his eye for the tenements of Berlin, an eye he gets to demonstrate again here. He also worked on Held for Questioning and Miraculi. During the GDR’s final years, Geick was one of the few who was able to work on both sides of the Wall. Perhaps for this reason, after the Wende, Geick was able to continue working on films, although, like most other East German talent, he mostly worked in television after this.
For most of the Chilean actors in the film, Isabel on the Stairs is the only feature film in which they appeared. Irina Gallardo made no more films for DEFA and moved back to Chile as soon as it was safe to do so. She continues to perform, but has made no more movies. Teresa Polle, who played Rosita Pérez appeared in smaller roles in a few more German TV films and shows. In the 2016 film Películas Escondidas (Hidden Films), some of the Chilean actors who worked on films for DEFA and the DFF are interviewed. Most remember their time in East Germany favorably, finding the GDR more secure and attentive to their needs than Chile.
The German actors in the film included Jenny Gröllmann, Jaecki Schwarz, and Barbara Dittus. Only Schwarz is still alive, and is better known these days for playing the former East German Volkspolizei turned hustler “Sputnik” on the crime show Ein starkes Team (which translates to “A Strong Team”—here’s a show that will definitely need a new name if it ever comes to the States). In an inverse of what happened to most East German actors after the Wall came down, Mario Krüger’s career as actor didn’t really take off until after 2001, when he started to appear on several popular television shows.
Given the current climate surrounding immigration, and the recent events in Venezuela, Isabel on the Stairs is as timely today as it was in 1984. It does a good job of showing the difficulties involved in being an immigrant without candy-coating it or making excuses. It also serves as a reminder of what can happen when the United States backs coup d’états.
Special thanks are in order here to Dr. Claudia Sandberg for her invaluable help with this article. Dr. Sandberg teaches at the University of Melbourne and is one of the world’s foremost authorities on German, Chilean and Argentine cinema and in transnational cinematic relations between Europe and Latin America. She was the co-director with Alejandro Areal Vélez of the 2016 documentary Películas Escondidas (Hidden Films), an investigation into German-Chilean visual material produced in East Germany in the seventies and eighties in collaboration with Chilean emigre artists.
1. Exact figures were hard to find, but the number was probably in the thousands. One of these refugees was Michelle Bachelet, who later returned to Chile and went on to become the first female President of Chile. When asked about her time in East Germany, she speaks of it fondly of it and says “the time I spent in Potsdam and Leipzig was a very happy part of my life.”
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