While sitting in a hospital with her ailing daughter, an East German woman reflects on her relationship with a Syrian man and her grandfather’s obsession with building a perpetual motion machine.
Were the Earth Not Round (Wäre die Erde nicht rund) is the story of Christiane (Bożena Stryjkówna), an East German woman studying geology at a university in Moscow. The story is told in flashbacks while Christiane waits for her ailing daughter to leave the hospital. The flashbacks jump back and forth between the woman’s childhood and the time when she met the father of her child.
As a child, Christiane lived on a farm where her nutty grandfather Johannes (Franciszek Pieczka) traded the last of the family’s potatoes for a part he needed to build his perpetual motion machine. Johannes was a dreamer, and he wasn’t about to let conventional thinking (or science) get in the way of his dreams. The main antagonist here is Christiane’s stepfather (Dieter Montag), who is fed up with Johannes’ quixotic project, and wants Christiane to take his name instead of that of her dead father’s. Johannes liked Christiane’s father and thinks his daughter’s new husband is a tool.
Later in her life, while studying in Moscow, Christiane meets fellow student Hatem (Rasim Balayev), who hails from Syria. The two fall in love, but Christiane doesn’t want to live in a country where she wouldn’t be allowed to work in her chosen profession. Hatem, on the other hand, has memories so strong that he can’t give up his homeland. Although it’s never implicitly stated, Hatem refusal to drink and and his anger at Christiane’s enjoyment of dancing with others suggest a traditional Muslim background.1
Iris Gusner is one of the preeminent female directors in East Germany. Her career got off to a rocky start, when her first film, The Dove on the Roof, was banned for its portrayal of quotidian life in the GDR. Of all her films, Were the Earth Not Round is the most personal. Like Christiane, Gusner studied in Moscow, and like Christiane, she had a child while still in school. In 2009, Gusner and West German filmmaker Helke Sander co-wrote Fantasie und Arbeit: Biografische Zwiesprache (Fantasy and Work: A Biographical Dialogue), in which the women discuss the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry. (for more on Iris Gusner, see The Dove on the Roof).
With the exceptions of the East German actresses Lissy Tempelhof, and the people playing Christiane’s family, most of the cast is made up of actors from Poland and the Soviet Union. Bożena Stryjkówna is a Polish actress. She studied acting at the Leon Schiller National Film School in Łódź. She worked as an actress at the Ochota Theater in Warsaw, later becoming the theater’s artistic director. She has rarely appeared in movies and is best known for her role in Juliusz Machulski’s cult film Sexmission (Seksmisja). Rasim Balayev hails from Azerbaijan and continues to appear in films and on television there, primarily through Azerbaijanfilm—the state-run film production company of Azerbaijan. As is usually the case with East German films that star non-German actors, the voices of the foreign actors are dubbed. Bożena Stryjkówna and Rasim Balayev are dubbed by Dagmar Manzel and Thomas Wolff respectively.
The film was shot by Günter Haubold, who also worked on the screenplay. Haubold was headed for a career in finance when he got a job as a camera assistant at DEFA, working with Wolf Göthe on A Berlin Roman, and Erwin Anders on Rendezvous Aimée. He got his first solo cinematographer credit on The New Craze (Der neue Fimmel). He is best remembered for his colorful work on the 1964 musical Beloved White Mouse.2 The Wende came just as he reached retirement age, so he did not work on films in unified Germany. Haubold died in Berlin, December 22, 1999.
In the final analysis, Were the Earth Not Round concludes that some things just can’t be resolved. Like Venn diagrams without overlap, there is no middle ground. This may sound bleak, but the film ends on a bittersweet note, rather than a sad one. For the teacher using East German films in class, this would be a good one to spark discussions of cultural differences and the roles of women in society.
1. A lot of these cultural differences, it must be said, have to do with the inherent sexism and chauvinism of Arabic culture and weren’t intended to paint Hatem as the villain in the piece. I suspect this was perceived differently in 1981 than it is today.
2. I noticed a slight green tint to Were the Earth Not Round, but that appears to be a product of time. ORWO Color was as bad as Eastmancolor when it came to its archival properties. I’ve corrected the images slightly here.
© Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Morton and East German Cinema Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.