Archive for the ‘Spies’ Category

My next article on the East Germany Cinema Blog is going to take at least another week of work, so, in the meantime, here’s a listicle to keep things moving. These are five (plus one bonus film) of the best post-Wende films on the subject of life in East Germany that I have seen. I’ve only included the ones I could find with English subtitles, but there are others worth checking out. I suspect that most of my readers have already seen these films, but if you missed any they are all worth a viewing.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

The Lives of Others
If you ask most people what their favorite film about East Germany is, more often than not it will be this film—that is, if you ask people who did not grow up in East Germany. This story of a Stasi officer who is so moved by a piece of music that he decides to help a playwright who is being hounded by the Stasi was a big hit and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. People from the west loved it. People from East Germany were less enthusiastic. Some felt it didn’t reflect the average East Germans daily life, while others found the concept of a Stasi officer capable of being emotionally moved by music absurd to the point of fantasy. Not surprisingly, it was made by a West German (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck).1
Available for streaming on Netflix

Sun Alley (Sonnenallee)

Sun Alley
So what’s a film that East Germans like? One answer is this one. Sun Alley is a light comedy about being a teenager in East Germany. It doesn’t deny the problems inherent in living in East Germany, but it shows that teens are still teens, no matter where they are from. It’s a funny movie that is definitely worth seeing. Also, if you are capable of making the leap (no pun intended), you might see the end as secretly very grim. Made by an East German director (Leander Haußmann).
Available on DVD

Good Bye Lenin!

Good Bye Lenin!
Ask people what their second favorite film about the GDR is, and the answer is usually Good Bye Lenin! It’s much more lighthearted than The Lives of Others, but still has the earmarks of a film made by a West German. It tells the story of a man’s mother, who goes into a coma before the Wall comes down and doesn’t wake up until the country is reunified. Doctors tell the man that sudden shocks might kill her, so he does everything in his power to make her think that East Germany is still going strong, in spite of the enormous Coca-Cola sign going up outside her window. It’s a funny film, with some subtle use of CGI.
Available for streaming on various service.

Barbara

Barbara
Striking a balance between the oppression of The Lives of Others and the lightheartedness of Sun Alley, Barbara is the story of a female doctor in East Germany who is planning to leave the country. The problem is there’s a Stasi agent on her tail who knows what she’s up to. Directed by Christian Petzold and starring his favorite actress, Nina Hoss. All the films these two made together are worth seeing. Although Christian Petzold is a West German, his film has a more nuanced look at East Germany than those of other West German filmmakers.
Available for streaming on Kanopy

The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuß)

The Legend of Rita

Not so much about life in East Germany as the life of one member of the Red Army Faction after she escapes to the GDR. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff, it’s a clever film about the differences between East and West, and the realities of both. Another grim one that’s obviously made by a West German.
Available on DVD

Special Mention: Go, Trabi, Go

Go, Trabbi, Go
The film that singlehandedly started the Ostalgie craze of the 1990s, Go, Trabi, Go tells the story of an East German family who decides to drive to Italy in their Trabant. It’s filled with “Trabi” jokes but also a grudging respect for East Germany’s “little cardboard car.” Made by an East German who knows his subject. I don’t know if Go, Trabi, Go is commercially available with English subtitles, but you can find it on YouTube with them. The quality leaves something to be desired, but there’s a better copy available without subtitles. If you know how, you can download the better copy and the subtitles srt file, then marry them with the DVD burning program of your choice or watch the movie using an app such as VLC Media Player. See my article on Subtitling for more information on this process.

So that’s it. Let me know what you think. There are other films worth mentioning, such as Kleinruppin forever, Berlin is in Germany, and Beloved Berlin Wall, but they are not currently available with English subtitles.


1. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck takes things a step further with his next movie Never Look Away. This time he postulates an SS doctor hiding his identity in East Germany after the war. If you needed any more proof that von Donnersmarck was a West German, this is it. This movie is based on Gerhard Richter’s life. In reality, the former SS doctor was actually Gerhard Richter’s father-in-law and lived, of course, in West Germany. Remember that many of the higher-ups in East Germany had spent most of WWII imprisoned or exiled for their communist beliefs. They were far less likely to turn a blind eye to former Nazis than the FRG. Western audiences loved this film. Gerhard Richter wasn’t too crazy about it.

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Coded Message for the Boss
Second only to the Indianerfilme, East German spy films offer a view of the world so antipodal to Hollywood’s version that sometimes it feels like you’ve entered (or escaped from) Bizarro World. Russians and East Germans are the good guys trying to protect the world—free and otherwise—from the nuclear threat posed by West Germans and the Americans. The biggest difference is that, unlike the films from the West, the bad guys are shown to be complex, thinking people, whose reasons for championing capitalism are based on their belief in staying loyal to their countries in spite of any misgivings about the morality of government policies. The dangers of this sort of thinking are not lost on the Germans, who know better than most what happens when patriotism is left unchecked.

Coded Message for the Boss (Chiffriert an Chef – Ausfall Nr. 5) is the story of Wolf Brandin, and East German electrical engineering student recruited by the CIA to spy on the East German government. The story starts in 1959, when tensions between the East and the West are at their highest and the border between East and West Berlin is still porous and dangerous—for both sides. Brandin is chosen because of his frequent unauthorized visits to West Berlin. They think this means he prefers West Germany’s capitalism, and they plan to leverage his frequent trespasses but what the folks at the CIA don’t realize is that he’s only doing it to help his father obtain a medicinal ointment that’s not available in the GDR. After he is approached by the CIA, he goes straight to the Stasi, who convince him to play along, putting his life in danger and threatening his marriage when he’s forced to lie to his wife. This allows them to feed disinformation to the Americans, leading to the West being caught with its pants down when East Germany builds the Wall around East Berlin on August 13th in 1961.

The film is based on Günter Karau’s spy novel Go oder Doppelspiel im Untergrund (Go, or Double-Cross in the Underground). In the book, as its title suggests, the game of Go figures prominently in the story. Brandin’s CIA contact is a fan of the game, and arranges meetings at the Go club in West Berlin. Since the story takes place right before the Berlin Wall goes up, Go’s strategies of encircling and capturing opponent territories is a perfect metaphor for what was going on in Germany at the time, but director Helmut Dziuba chose to abandon the Go theme entirely, choosing instead to make the American contact agent Dr. Baum a fan of art museums and aquariums. It’s a weaker premise, but it does help boost the idea of Dr. Baum as a sort of James Bond character; a suave ivy-leaguer who enjoys the finer things in life. As already mentioned, Dr. Baum is not the kind of one-dimensional bad guy you’d find in an American spy film. He is thoughtful and clever, and is as worried about the escalating tensions between East and West as his East German counterpart.

Chiffriert an Chef

On IMDB, the title is translated as Code for the Boss: Sorty No. 5, which is not quite the title as it appears on the current English-language DVD release of the film. The second half of the title—Ausfall Nr. 5—is left out the title, which is probably just as well. “Sorty No. 5” is a perfectly acceptable translation, but the German word, Ausfall, also means failure. Since this half of the title isn’t introduced until the end of the movie, I can’t help but think that failure was part of what was meant here.

Dziuba directed the film from a script that Karau and his wife Gisela helped write. Dziuba was part of DEFA’s second generation of directors. These directors were born in the mid-thirties, so they experienced the effects of WWII, but were still too young at the end of the war to serve in the Wehrmacht. This group includes Herrmann Zschoche, Siegfried Kühn, Egon Schlegel, Lothar Warneke, Erwin Stranka, and Roland Oehme. Dziuba studied filmmaking in Russia, where he also worked for Radio Moscow, the Soviet counterpart to the U.S.’s Voice of America. As with most of the second generation DEFA directors, age and anti-Ossi attitudes prevented Dziuba from finding work once the Wall came down. His last film as a director was made for DEFA and released in 1992 (Jan and Jana). Once DEFA was dissolved, his career as a director ended. His last film credit is Die Blindgänger (The Blind Flyers), made in 2004. Dziuba died in 2012.

Brandin is played by Peter Zimmermann. A graduate of the “Ernst Busch” Academy for the Dramatic Arts. Zimmermann first appeared on screen in a secondary role in Heiner Carow’s Until Death Do Us Part. Coded Message for the Boss was his second film and his first starring role. Like most East German actors, there was some lag time between the fall of the Wall and his acceptance into television and movie production in the new Germany. During that time, he taught acting at the Academy of Film and Television in Babelsberg. More recently, he’s been seen playing Dr. Lutz Groth on the German women’s prison TV series, Block B – Unter Arrest.

Coded Message for the Boss

Coded Message for the Boss has an excellent score by Karl-Ernst Sasse. Sasse needs no introduction here, having provided excellent scores for East German films or every type (see Her Third for more information on Sasse). Unlike many soundtrack composers, who develop specific, recognizable styles, Sasse was a bit of chameleon, creating everything from minimal renaissance music (Godfather Death), to trippy psychedelia (In the Dust of the Stars). Here he creates a twangy guitar-drive theme song that suggests a more action-oriented film than Coded Message for the Boss delivers.

As a spy film, Coded Message for the Boss is low key and realistic, much like Radio Killer. Guns are drawn and shots are fired, but only for target practice when Dr. Baum is training Brandin to be a spy. It has more in common with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold than Diamonds are Forever. It is not the best of the East German spy films—that honor goes to For Eyes Only—but it is an engaging film that never relies on fantastic, state-of-the-art gadgets to resolve plot points.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film.

Radio Killer
It’s no secret that the East Germans and the West Germans spied on each other. Like the characters in Antonio Prohías’ Spy vs. Spy cartoon strip, each side continually sought new ways to find out what the other side was up to. The listening post on the Teufelsberg in Berlin is an example of this. This U.S. facility was primarily intended as a first defense, in case radio chatter suggest some sort of mobilization with East German and Soviet troops. Talking to soldiers who worked there, the truth was far more prosaic. Most days were spent listening to discussions about what various SED officials were having for lunch. Teufelsberg was connected to other listening posts, most of which were hidden in forests in East Germany. These were small devices, easily concealed. Occasionally, they were discovered due to either equipment malfunctions or blind luck.

On both sides there was always a suspicion that some of these devices served a double duty that would become apparent in times of war. Radio Killer (Radiokiller) takes this concept and runs with it, creating an interesting and unique films that tells its story in a typically East German, low-key style. The film is a co-production of DEFA and DFF, and first appeared on television in May of 1980. As with most made-for-TV films, the budget was low, and it shows in the production.

radiokiller

The title suggests a film about a homicide—a serial killer that preys on his victims via a radio signals, à la Bela Lugosi’s Murder by Television, but, it’s nothing of the kind. The story starts when a fighter jet and a passenger plane suddenly find their communications channels jammed, and just barely avoid hitting each other. The source of the problem is traced to a signal that blocked all radio communication—the “Radio Killer” of the title. In this case, it wasn’t intentional sabotage, but a faulty circuit that caused the problem. Agents from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (better known as the Stasi), are unable to locate the signal’s exact location, but they figure that someone from the West will come along and fix the problem. That someone is a man named Vogel, who works for the Bundesnachrichtendienst—West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (usually abbreviated to BND). Vogel is shown developing a method to fix the delicate electronic underwater without getting them wet. The faulty circuit is located at the bottom of a lake, and the only way to fix it is for Vogel to work on it underwater, lest he be spotted. The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game between the Stasi and the BND.

The screenplay was written by East German author Harry Thürk, who, like Harold Robbins, specialized in writing books that were more popular with the general public than the critics. He also wrote the screenplays for the spy film, For Eyes Only and Rendezvous mit unbekannt (Rendezvous with the Unknown), an eleven-part TV series that presented actual stories from the early days of the Stasi. Clearly the man had a soft spot for MfS agents.

Fans of spy movies may find this one a little puzzling. All the intrigue occurs on a mental level, and no guns are drawn, or even appear in the film. The end goal, as far as the East German agents are concerned is to neutralize the threat of the Radio Killer without letting the West Germans know they’ve done so. For anyone raised on James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. this might seem awfully tame, but the film does a good job of keeping the tension high. It probably helps that Radio Killer is a very short film, coming in under 70 minutes.

scope1

Agent Achim Vogel is portrayed by Gojko Mitić, best known as East Germany’s number one Indian in their westerns. It is one of the few times we get to see Mitić as the bad guy (for more on Mitić, see Apaches and The Sons of the Great Bear). Schalker, the lead East German agent, is played by Erik S. Klein, an actor familiar to any fan of East German films. Klein appeared in several classic East German films, including Stars, The Second Track, and Naked Among Wolves. In the East German states, he is best remembered as the harried father in the TV mini-series Aber Vati! (But Dad!). After the Wende, offers to appear in films and TV dried up. Aside from one failed TV series, Klein didn’t show up on television again, even though you could have found him on the small screen in the GDR nearly any night of the week. Like many other actors, he turned to radio productions and to the stage (what a golden time for German theater the nineties must have been). He died in 2002.

Aside from a few films in late sixties, director Wolfgang Luderer worked almost exclusively in television, but was no stranger to the Krimi by the time he made this movie. He began his career directing episodes of Fernsehpitaval—a popular television series that featured reenactments of famous crimes. Although he hadn’t signed the protest letter against Wolf Biermann’s expatriation, and hadn’t suffered the punitive restrictions faced by the likes of Manfred Krug, Jutta Hoffmann, and Angelika Domröse, Luderer decided to leave the GDR in the early eighties. Within a couple years he was working in West German television and probably would have a long career in unified Germany as well if he hadn’t died in a car accident in 1995.

The cinematography is by Helmut Bergmann, and appears to have been shot in 16mm. Perhaps this was to save money, but it also helped match the stock footage of jet planes, and facilitate underwater filming. It also gives the film a documentary feel, which is effective here. While this film is, by no means, a classic, it is an excellent example of the topsy-turvy perspective a viewer from the west encounters when watching East German spy movies.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy this film (Although the cover of the DVD suggests that this film is black-and-while, it is, in fact, in color).

Black Velvet

Black Velvet (Schwarzer Samt) is a crime film involving the manufacturer of fake passports and the attempted sabotage of a state-of-the-art loading crane at the Leipzig Trade Fair. The “Black Velvet” in the title refers to a vial of acid intended for us in the sabotage. The reason for this strange code name becomes clear in the final scene of the film. This is one of the more unusual films to come out of East Germany. It is a spoof without ever being overtly comical, a send up of the Stasi by a director who is usually viewed (incorrectly, as we shall see) as a “safe” director who never rocked the boat and made films that the dramaturges and SED officials were pleased with.

Black Velvet stars Fred Delmare, an actor who will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has seen more than three DEFA films. With his short stature and a face that resembled George W. Bush, he was nearly always cast in secondary roles as weaklings, villains, or both. Sometimes his appearances were easy to miss—he’s the taxi driver in Oh How Joyfully, and a hospital attendant in Wie die Altern sungen—but with well over 150 appearances in East German films alone, it is hard to see many DEFA movies without encountering him at some point. This is not to say all of his appearances were bit parts. In Naked Among Wolves, he plays the camp inmate Pippig, and, most famously, in The Legend of Paul and Paula, he was “Reifen-Saft,” the tire dealer in love with Paula.

Born Werner Vorndran in Leipzig, Mr. Delmare began working in local theater as a teenager, but World War II got in the way. He joined the German Navy, where an injury sent him to the hospital for the remainder of the war. After the war, he studied acting in Leipzig, then moved to West Berlin to perform at the Hebbel Theater, one of the few theaters in Berlin that survived the bombings. When pressure from the American authorities led to shift away from works by the Brecht and other German playwrights to plays from America, Mr. Delmare joined the Leipzig Theater, where he continued to perform until 1970.

Schwarzer Samt

After the Wende, Mr. Delmare saw his greatest success as the Grandpa Steinbach in the popular TV series, In aller Freundschaft—a show that consistently provided work for many East German actors. It was during this period that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and retired from acting. He died in 2009, and it is a testament to his popularity that virutally every major German newspaper ran an obituary for him.

Casting Mr. Delmare as the lead in Black Velvet was an interesting choice. At 5’ 3” (1.6 m), he makes Michael J. Fox and Daniel Radcliffe look tall. He spends much of the movie looking up at everyone, women included. To add to the topsy-turvy nature of the fim, one of the villains of the film is played by Gunther Simon, a man nearly always chosen to play the hero, and the man who played East Germany’s greatest hero, communist pioneer Ernst Thälmann. Partly, this odd casting is intended as a jab at the James Bond films, but the end effect is an effective jab at the Stasi as well. While sometimes East German directors were left to the mercy of DEFA when it came to casting, the choices here seem too cleverly made to be the luck of the draw. In this case, the director must have had the final say.

At first glance, Mr. Thiel seems like an unlikely candidate for intentional subversiveness. In the East German film studies community, his name doesn’t come up very often. Look at his films once and they seem to be promotional films for the GDR. One of them, in fact—Hart am Wind (Close to the Wind)—was made with the cooperation of the Volksmarine and was intended to spur enlistment in the army. But look at his films more closely and you’ll see a very clever director who may just be winking at the audience after all. In DEFA Disko 77, for example, each musical number is proceeded by a short clip of the musician being observed getting ready for his or her performance. These clips look, for all the world, like surveillance videos. Surely this is no accident, but they are so underplayed that I doubt anyone paid much attention to them at the time.

Fred Delmare

Curiously, Mr. Thiel got his start as a Nazi journalist. As an officer in Hitler’s Propagandakompanie, it was his job to write glowing reports on the Third Reich’s successful battles in Russia—a difficult task, to be sure, and one that undoubtedly honed his fine sense of the absurd. After the war, his politics moved to the left. He started working as a dramaturge in Dessau and founded the Theater der Jungen Garde (now the Thalia Theater) in Halle. In 1954, he started working at DEFA, at first as an assistant director, then as the director of “Stacheltier” shorts—the short, often satirical films shown before the main features in East Germany. In 1959, he directed his first feature film, Im Sonderauftrag (By Special Order), a cold war spy film that takes place on the Baltic. This film helped set his future at DEFA as their director of choice for spy thrillers.

If there was any doubt to Mr. Thiel’s deadpan subversion in this and his other films, he finally showed his hand in 1996, with the book, The nackte DEVA (The Naked DEVA). The title of this book is a send up of DEFA (in German, both words are pronounced the same), and the book is collection of thinly-veiled anecdotes and stories about Mr. Theil’s years at DEFA. It is illustrated by Harald Kretzschmar, an East German cartoonist who drew illustrations for the East German satire magazine Eulenspiegel. Mr. Thiel died in Potsdam in 2003.

Part of the fun of Black Velvet belongs to its jazzy score, written by Helmut Nier. Mr. Nier is the man who also gave us the equally enjoyable score for The Baldheaded Gang. Like Karl-Ernst Sasse, Reiner Bredemeyer, and some of the other composers at DEFA, Mr. Nier came from a classical background. For many years he worked as an orchestral musician in Radebeul near Dresden. His career as a film composer began in 1957 with Spur in die Nacht (Track in the Night), in which he first demonstrated his knack for writing crime film scores. During the sixties, quite by coincidence, Mr. Nier was DEFA’s composer of choice for any film that started with the adjective “black” (schwarz). Besides Black Velvet, he also scored Schwarze Panther (Black Panther), and the TV mini-series Der schwarze Reiter (The Black Rider). After the Wende, he worked free-lance as a composer and died in 2002 after a long illness.

Reviews for the film were tepid, due in part, no doubt, to the way this film never fully betrays its humorous intent. The fact that the film came out in 1964 is probably also a factor in its release. A couple years later and it would have come under the heavy scrutiny and criticism that films received after the 11th Plenum. Considering that the utterly innocuous Hands Up, Or I’ll Shoot! was banned, I have no doubt that this film would have ended up in the Giftschrank1 as well.

IMDB page for the film.

Buy the film.


1. Literally, “poison cabinet,” but also used to indicate the place where films deemed “toxic” were stored.

How a film fares at the box office is highly dependent on when it is released. A movie that will one day be recognized as a cinematic treasure might bomb miserably upon release simply because it wasn’t what people wanted to see at that time. A classic example of this is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival). The cynical humor that had served Wilder so well just a year earlier in Sunset Boulevard was suddenly passé. It was the 1950s and people wanted to be happy and optimistic and anti-communist. There was no room in the Space Age for naysayers and curmudgeons. So it was too for Peter Kahane’s film, The Architects (Die Architekten), which had the dubious distinction of screening in May of 1990, seven months after the fall of the wall made the problems that this film addressed relics of the past.

The Architects follows the fate of Daniel Brenner, a young architect who finds that the rigidity of the East German system is not allowing him to realize his goals. Rather than designing the buildings of the future, he is stuck designing bus stops and grocery stores  in a sweatshop-like government office. Upon meeting his former college professor at a party, he is introduced to an official who can approve his building ideas. Brenner assembles a team from his former schoolmates. Some of them have become cynical and don’t think the state will allow Brenner to complete his project, while others have maintained their enthusiasm and are looking forward to working on something meaningful. It looks like he will finally have the opportunity to make the buildings he wants, but, of course, bureaucracy gets in the way. All of the more innovative aspects of the architects’ design are nixed as impractical. Brenner’s obsession with the project eventually does in his marriage when his wife files for divorce and immigrates to Switzerland with their daughter. At the center of the project, a sculpture titled “Family in Stress” (reflecting Brenner’s own problems) is rejected for not sending the right message. “Family in Socialism,” the authorities decide, is a much better idea. In the end, Brenner gets his opportunity to create new buildings, but the cost proves to be too high.

The film is based on a story by screenwriter Thomas Knauf about the experiences of his friend, Michael Kny. In the late seventies, Kny and 17 other architects were asked to design the cultural centers and restaurants for the vast new complex of plattenbauen in Marzahn. By the end of the project, most of the architects had become so disgusted with the process that they quit the field altogether. Michael Kny soldiered on, and continues to work as an architect as one half of Kny & Weber Architects in Berlin.

The story had more than a little relevance to Peter Kahane. Born in 1949—the same year that East Germany was founded—Kahane and his contemporaries spent most of the seventies working as assistants. On the rare occasions when they were afforded an opportunity to make a film, it was usually for television only. Attempts to address the authorities at DEFA and the Ministry of Culture about this situation were either ignored or repressed. This was largely due to the two men in charge of these institutions: Horst Pehnert and Hans Dieter Mäde.

Horst Pehnert was the Head of Film Division of the Ministry of Culture and Hans Dieter Mäde was the general director of DEFA. From 1978 until 1988,  they had the last word on what films got made and who made them. It became clear that neither man—but Mäde especially—had any interest in promoting young filmmakers. Year after year, film-school graduates tried to show what they could do, but opportunities rarely came. Filmmakers had to submit “debut films” for review before they could be awarded a directing contract. A bad debut film, and a filmmaker might be denied another chance for several years. At the time of the Mauerfall, some of these young filmmakers had already submitted five debut films. During Mäde’s reign, he only awarded two directing contracts to young filmmakers. One of these was to Peter Kahane.

Peter Kahane first approached DEFA with the idea for this movie in December 1988. At that time, the wall was a formidable as ever. and the East German press was scrupulously avoiding any mention of the protests that were occurring in various parts of the country. Approval was given to make The Architects in December of 1988. Nonetheless, DEFA continually postponed the start of production throughout most of the following year. Filming finally began on October 2, 1989.

By this time, things had heated up considerably in East Germany. Two months earlier, Hungary had opened its border and thousands of East Germans fled the country through this passage. In Prague and Warsaw, still more sought extradition through the West German embassies, and were eventually granted it, they boarded a train for the west which went through East German. People lined up to see the train and a few brave souls attempted to jump on. Meanwhile starting on Monday, September 4 at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, attendees began staging peaceful protests after their prayer meetings. By October 9—two days after the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic—over 70,000 people attended the march. The following week, over 120,000 people showed up The week after that, the number increased to 320,000; and this in a city with a population of 500,000 people! Some of the officials in East Germany were still hoping against hope that the Russians would come and fix this mess, like they did in 1953, but this time the Russians weren’t having any of it. In a feeble attempt to stave off further protests, the politburo ousted Honecker (claiming it was for health reasons) and replaced him with Egon Krenz, an ineffectual apparatchik who had spent his entire career avoiding rocking the boat. But by now, the boat wasn’t just rocking: it was foundering, The East German state was leaking worse than a Louisiana levee, and on November 9, 1989, the levee broke.

Shortly before what was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill press conference, politburo member, Günter Schabowski, was handed a memo stating that East Germans would be allowed to travel abroad. The ruling was supposed to take place the following day, giving the officials time to set new procedures in place; but nobody had bothered to inform Schabowski of this. When asked when the ruling would take effect, he replied, “As far as I know, it’s effectively immediately.” (“Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis… ist das sofort, unverzüglich.”) At first, people blinked and wondered what Schabowski was talking about, and then the realization of what he said sank in. People thronged to the border crossings requesting to visit the west, but the guards had heard nothing of Schabowski’s statement. They frantically called for instructions on what to do, but party officials were in short supply that night (I’ll talk more about this in my next post). At first, they were told to let people through, but to mark their passports so that they couldn’t come back into the country. This was rescinded a few hours later and everyone was allowed to cross freely back and forth across the border. That night was an all-night party in the west, with East Germans thronging the city buying all those things they couldn’t get in the GDR. Within hours every store in West Berlin was sold out of fruit, candy, and porn.

Meanwhile, Kahane kept filming. Like the film’s protagonist, he was single-minded in his goal, and what was happening in East Germany at the time was just background noise. On the night of Schabowski’s press conference, Kahane and his crew were filming on at the Electrical Industry building on Alexanderplatz. An American press team came up to them and asked what they would do now that they were free. “We thought the Americans had lost their marbles,” Kahane said. “The wall was an immutable certainty. Nothing was as certain as death and the Wall.”

The film received an obligatory screening in May of 1990, but the East Germans weren’t interested in reliving the recent past and the West Germans were never much interested in anything that the GDR had to offer. The film tanked at the box office and wasn’t shown again in Germany for several years (it played in the states in 1993).

But only part of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the Zeitgeist. The Architects is a hard film to love. For one thing, its protagonist—like the main character in Your Unknown Brother—spends most of his time in a deep funk. But unlike Your Unknown Brother, there are no scenes of Kafkaesque peculiarity to break things up. Instead, Kahane uses shots of the stark plattenbauen of Marzahn for the interstitial scenes. Kahane infuses the film with very little humor, and when he does it is usually mordant. Most of the time people are either expressing their pessimism or having their hopes shot down. In this respect, the film accurately reflects the feelings of many East Germans prior to the Wende, but that doesn’t necessarily make for fun viewing.

In one of the final scenes, we see Brenner standing on the far side of the Brandenburg Gate, trying to spot his daughter on the distant platform that Wessis used to gawk and jeer at the Ossis (we’ll see this platform used for humorous effect in the 1999 comedy, Sonnenallee). Like everything else in his life, Brenner’s attempt to see his daughter is a study in futility; the platform is too far away and there are too many people on it. When this scene was shot, the border was already open and the wall was in immediate danger of being torn down. Kahane had to position the cameras carefully to avoid showing the lighting platforms that the western news media were using to broadcast events. Perhaps, had Kahane incorporated the Wende into his script, the film would have fared better at the box office. It would have, at least, added a note of optimism to an otherwise bleak story. But as a document to the frustrations that creative people faced in the GDR, it is unparalleled.

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