The People Who Loved Their Power Station

in 46th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Leo Bankersen

The power station at Zschornewitz in the former GDR was an industrial dinosaur that made electricity and employment out of coal and survived two world wars and more than forty years of a centrally guided economy. This is what we could have learned from any ordinary documentary. But in ‘Technik des Glück’ by British born Chris Wright and his German partner Stefan Kolbe there is more.

Actually, Wright and Kolbe started off by making this kind of standard documentary about the unemployment in the region – the station was closed down soon after East Germany disappeared. They however found something they didn’t expect. It turned out that quite a few of the workers were avid amateur filmmakers who had been recording their work and private lives for many years with great enthusiasm and were now aiming their cameras at the collapsing chimneys. They wholeheartedly supplied loads of films and tapes. Images that now form the core of ‘Technik des Glücks’.

Putting this material up front provides a fresh and intimate perspective. The inventive montage of home movies, other archive footage and even some propaganda results in an often humorous portrait of life in the socialist era. Whatever the downside of the regime might have been, true happiness did exist.

Of course, Wright and Kolbe are not the first to recognize the autenticity of amateur footage. Sometimes they even seem to get carried away by it a bit too much. While one of their protagonists never gets tired of filming excursions through his house – we might. One could also say that compared to this rediscovered vitality of the past the present day situation remains somewhat underexposed.

Still, these are only small flaws in an otherwise charming and entertaining enterprise that is cuts above the run-of-the-mill talking heads formula. A touch of irony counters the danger of nostalgia and a good cinematographic sense is shown throughout. For example by adding as a framework the story of Wright’s grandfather, who was supposedly the British bomber pilot in the Second World War that saved the power station by not being able to find his target. The story of the pilot is authentic to be sure, but Wright invented him as a relative of his. It not only provides a striking opening, but also enables the filmmakers to create moments of distance by means of short, laconic letters accompanying quiet shots of houses and backyards in present day Zschornewitz. “It’s getting colder here, Granddad.” ‘Technik des Glücks’ has it’s own subtle way of showing that it’s not just blessings after ‘die Wende’.