Cold War Cinema: Revealing the Cracks in Communism

A retrospective series of Eastern European films is about to go on tour in Germany. What unites these very different movies is the way they reveal the tensions that would eventually lead to the collapse of the communist regimes.

Two teenage punk girls back-comb their hair while they talk about hating school and running away from home; a wizened old woman who has just celebrated her 60th wedding anniversary confides that she married the wrong man; a single mother carries out dirty and repetitive tasks in a factory before speaking about her loneliness and the difficulties of raising her disabled daughter alone.

This is a film depicting women, young and old, frankly talking about their hopes and fears, their marriages, children and jobs. It wouldn’t be so very remarkable were it not for the fact that the year is 1988 and this is communist East Germany. Helke Misselwitz’s ground-breaking documentary “Winter Adé,” or “After Winter Comes Spring,” caused a sensation when it was first shown in the Eastern German city of Leipzig exactly one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now 20 years later, the German Film Archive has included her documentary in a retrospective series of Eastern European films dating from the last decade of the Cold War. On the surface the 15 films seem to have little in common. They range from Russian thrillers to surreal comedies from Bulgaria and Romania, from a Polish science fiction film to sombre documentaries and dramas set in the former East Germany. What unites them is the seismographic way they seemed to point to the fissures emerging in the societies they portray.

Curator Claus Löser trawled the cinematic archives of Germany and Eastern Europe in search of the films for the series and admits it was a tough job selecting the final 15. “It was really important to have this range of styles and genres, to show the entire spectrum of film. Not just official films but also films from the subculture,” he explained to SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Smash Hits in Russia, Censorship in Germany

Many tell stories from the margins of society, of drug dealers and small time crooks, people with psychiatric problems or those looking to escape. The series of films, which were made between 1977 and 1989, was launched during the recent Berlin International Film Festival. They are now to go on a two-year tour of Germany, financed by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, and the international interest has been so great that the Goethe Institute plans to show them abroad as well.

Löser explains that there was a huge difference in how the films were received when they were made. While many of the 15 films were banned by the authorities, particularly in East Germany where censorship was very strict, those made in the Soviet Union were actually smash hits. After all, this was the era of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR. “Under Gorbachev suddenly censorship was eliminated or at least relaxed, and there was an amazing feeling of change,” Löser says.

“Winter Adé,” which is also the name given to the entire series, was definitely no such hit. In fact, its director Misselwitz was convinced that it was going to be stopped when it was first shown at the Leipzig Documentary Festival. Her ode to East German women documents a rail journey she takes from the deep south in her native Zwickau up through Berlin and finishing at the Baltic Sea — shots of the criss-crossing train tracks serving as a metaphor for the women’s different choices and paths in life. What is amazing is just how frankly the women speak about the struggles they face in their daily lives. It is difficult today to understand just how much of a stir the film caused at the time. “In the GDR, people didn’t talk openly and suddenly people were talking openly in this film and it was seen as outrageous,” Löser explains.

Another East German documentary “Why Make a Film about People Like Them?” by Thomas Heise also ran into difficulties because of the way it depicted real life rather than adhering to East Germany’s self-image of a worker’s paradise. Made as a student project while he was attending the prestigious film school in Babelsberg on the outskirts of Berlin, it deals with a family of young thieves who operated in the now exceedingly trendy Prenzlauer Berg district. The story originated when a friend had his motorbike stolen and asked Heise to help him hunt it down. He says what disturbed the authorities most was that the young boys and their mother “didn’t think things could improve and had no problem with that.”

Heise explains what happened when he tried to show the film at a student festival in Postdam.”After five minutes it stopped and I ran to the projection room. They said there were technical problems and they couldn’t show it.” In fact, like all of his other film work, it was never shown until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Like many of those involved in the arts in communist Eastern Europe Heise continued working despite this ban. “At some point I just didn’t care. I always had a copy of anything I did and I would show it to a group of 10 or 15 friends, and if they thought it was OK then that was enough,” he says. “This was my audience and I could live with that.”

‘The Reality of the Possible’

Heise has just released a new film that touches on the heady events before and after the fall of the Wall. His poetic “Material” is a collection of fragments that didn’t make it into his other films but that continued to exert a hold on him. In particular the images reveal the need felt by many East Germans to express themselves after decades of holding everything in. For example, he filmed the restive crowds gathered in Berlin for demonstrations calling for change on Nov. 4 and again on Nov. 8, the day before the Wall was opened. Many in the crowd heckle and boo their once much-feared leaders. And one by one people reach for the microphone to address the thousands and denounce the system. “People suddenly started to talk after years and decades of keeping quiet and suddenly there was a need to speak in public,” Heise says.

The film also contains fascinating footage of a jail in the state of Brandenburg for particularly hardened criminals in December 1989, a month after the wall had come down. Heise filmed prison officers and then prisoners, including murderers, explaining how they feel about the momentous changes taking place beyond the prison walls and how they feel left behind. Both groups also muse on how they could work together to make a better prison.

Heise is pretty critical about the way things turned out in the former East Germany. “The people were looking for something different and it wasn’t just about saying we want to go shopping or we think Helmut Kohl is great,” Heise says. “There was this utopianism … this way of looking to see if there was another possibility.”

He regrets that in some ways this opportunity was wasted after reunification. “I am sad about this futility but I also see an amazing utopian potential and that is really what I find interesting — not so much to show a memory of the past but to draw encouragement for the future.” For Heise, his film “really describes the reality of the possible.”

Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International,1518,609419,00.html

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