The Blurred Gaze of Memory

in 38th FilmFest Munich

by Anne-Christine Loranger

Challenges in reconstructing the GDR

Nothing remains of the institutions of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and very little of its existence, or even of its architecture. Apart from the DDR museums or the Stasi archives, only the memory of the East Germans still manages to bear witness to its existence. But memory is a faculty that forgets. So how can we faithfully recreate in film the forty years of this unique human experience, which enclosed West Berlin in a concrete straitjacket and forced 17 million Germans to sing to the Soviet tunes?

The danger of so-called historical works is that they can be quite misleading. This is even more true when they are the product of the imagination of genius artists. Shakespeare forever redesigned the character of King Richard III, even to the point of inserting untrue historical facts, such as the murder of his young nephews, into his play. Most British people today take this interpretation for fact. The Bard’s talent is such that it is almost impossible to resist the perverse charm of the villainous Richard, who regularly confides in the audience and draws them into his machinations. And how, after having delighted in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984), can we understand Salieri as anything other than a second-rate musician, sickly jealous of Mozart’s genius, even though he was the most celebrated composer of his time, with more than 40 operas? The difficulty is subtler, but just as real, when it comes to historical reconstructions of the former GDR. While it is relatively easy to recreate the period’s interiors and clothing, it is rather uneasy to recreate its spirit.

With a program based on new German cinema, the Filmfest München inevitably gives place to films about the GDR. This year, out of 14 films, two important works were presented: The Last Execution (Nahschuss, 2021) by Franziska Stünkel and Dear Thomas (Lieber Thomas, 2020) by Andreas Kleinert. The former is based on the story of the last death row inmate of the GDR, while the latter is about the Berlin writer, poet, filmmaker and playwright Thomas Brasch (1945-2001).

The Last Execution
The troubled filter of perception

Franz Walter (Lars Eidinger), a brilliant young doctoral student in engineering and former footballer, finds himself, against all odds, promoted to a professorship. But underneath this unexpected promotion lies working as a spy for the GDR Foreign Office. In exchange for a life of material comfort for him and his wife – and frequent trips to the West – Walter must try to bring a famous defected footballer back to the GDR. Manipulation, fabrications, increasingly monstrous lies and blackmail of an old friend will lead to disaster.

Stünkel’s aim from the outset is to make you feel the spiral into which Franz Walter and his wife Corina (Luise Heyer) will be drawn and which will eventually lead to Franz’s death sentence. She tries to achieve this by meticulously reconstructing the buildings, objects, wallpapers and scenery of the GDR. But the GDR she depicts in shades of grey and beige, further enhanced by the use of filters that give a gloomy atmosphere to each and every scene, is a smoothed-out world because it is described as universally deceptive. It lacks ‘the light of days and faces’ [Albert Camus, Discours de Suède. 1958] bathed in the socialist hope that made Franz Walter and so many others believe in the GDR project in the first place. However accurate the description of the practices of the East German espionage system, it is not the atmosphere of the GDR that Stünkel restores to us but the perception, seen from 2021, of what it was like. For such a story, one should not contemplate the shattered forest as a whole but go from tree to sickly tree. Surreptitious flashes of brightness through the shadows would have given this portrait a warmth that would have enhanced the tragic fate of Walter, the last man condemned to death in his country.

Dear Thomas
Poetry as a tool for historical reconstruction

Thomas Brasch would have stood out in any society. As a writer, playwright, lyric poet and film-maker, he was one of the most determined voices for the liberation of artistic creation in the GDR, but also one of those who missed his country and his city the most once he had gone to live in West Germany. Having received the Bayerischer Filmpreis in 1981 for his film The Iron Angel (Engel aus Eisen), he was booed at the ceremony for thanking his former film school in Babelsberg for providing him with an excellent education in cinema.

Andreas Kleinert chose the brilliant young actor Albrecht Schuch to play Brasch and to use black and white for the entire film, with theatrically bare walls and almost empty flats. This emphasizes Schuch’s almost nuclear intensity, his playfulness, charisma and passion, but also the youthful protest energy and sexual liberation underlying the student East Berlin of the late 1960s. While at the time of the Prague Spring all hopes seemed to be allowed, those of Brasch and many others youth were demolished by the waves of arrests that led to their imprisonment. He would only get out thanks to his father’s friendship with Erich Honecker, and his sentence was commuted to hard manufacturing work that would give him much to work with and transform his art.

” Where I live
I don’t want to die
but where I die
I do not want to go,
I want to stay where I have never been. “

Kleinert, a veteran of German cinema, chooses from the very first minutes of the film, to emphasize Brasch’s poetry, showing him as a dreamy child, already endowed with an artist’s sensibility, loved by his family and revered by his brother. The construction of Brasch, his strength of character, his adventurous spirit and his creativity are all contained in a few childhood scenes shown in a finely edited disorder. We see him as a happy young boy in a luxurious car with his father, or bathed in his mother’s affection as he leaves for military school. Above all, Thomas as a child is revealed to us in a poetic metaphor where he takes off in a plane that takes him ‘wherever he wants to go in the world’. Throughout the film, Kleinert regularly alternates between quoting written poems and drifting cinematographic poetry in order to describe Brasch’s internal states, his passionate loves and ecstatic moments of happiness, but also his feeling of confinement within an autocratic state, his neuroses and destructive impulses. The result is a great and powerful film, nourishing both artistically and historically.

Dante, by poetically illustrating a descent through the various circles of the underworld, allows modern historians to reconstruct the morals and social figures of medieval Florence. Similarly, Kleinert’s cinematic shifts, in which the viewer is unsure whether what he sees is factual or fantasized, allow us to understand the tears caused in Brasch by his political confinement and the GDR’s intransigence towards his writings. For the artist, even when celebrated in New York, continued to believe in the socialist project. He returned to Berlin as soon as he could after the fall of the Wall, and remained there until his final flight in 2001. 

Between a precise visual reconstruction and poetic detours, it is the latter that best lead the viewer to understand what the GDR was like. And perhaps any era.

Anne-Christine Loranger