Rory MacLean meets Susanne Buddenberg and Thomas Henseler
In 1964 at the height of the Cold War a young West Berlin engineer, Joachim Neumann, was determined to be reunited with his girlfriend who was trapped inside communist East Germany. Together with friends he dug the 145-metre-long Tunnel 57 under the Wall to enable her and 56 other men, women and children to escape to freedom.
Last year Susanne Buddenberg and Thomas Henseler told Neumann’s story on the walls of Bernauer Strasse U-Bahn station. A series of 14 bold, illustrated billboards documented the building of the tunnel, the successful escapes and the final, dramatic, fatal moments. As I stood on the platform following their History Underground, wishing away the arriving trains which blocked my view of their huge comic pages, I was humbled to realise that Tunnel 57 had been built just on the other side of the station walls.
‘In our work we want to give people a glimpse of what life was really like under the East German dictatorship,’ Thomas Henseler told me when we met on the platform.
‘Our comics combine authentic personal stories and real historical places,’ explained his young and lively partner Susanne Buddenberg. ‘For us it’s vital to interview eye-witnesses so as to relate their story as accurately as possible.’
Buddenberg and Henseler met at the University of Aachen, studied at the Norwich School of Art and Design then went together to the Konrad Wolf Academy of Film and Television in Potsdam.
‘I am interested in form and colour,’ said Buddenberg whose short films include the award-winning Handle with Care.
‘I trained as an illustrator,’ said Henseler, pushing his long cowlick hair out of his eyes, using his hands as he spoke. ‘But my passion is for stories. At heart I am a story-teller. Stories are the basis of any strong project.’
On graduation they founded ‘Zoom and Ink’ to produce storyboards for commercials, television movies and feature films. As many of their early projects were about the fall of the Wall, Buddenberg and Henseler became fascinated by – and experts on – the divided capital.
‘We began to realise how much history had happened around the corner from where we lived, and how quickly it was all being forgotten,’ said Buddenberg.
A fruitful relationship soon developed with the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, the organisation charged with disseminating an accurate history of East Germany. With them Buddenberg and Henseler first produced Grenzfall which told the true story of the East Berlin student Peter Grimm’s underground samizdat magazine. Then they created Berlin - A City Divided which – again in comic book form – related five authentic tales from those days: a young woman’s attempt to flee East Germany with a false papers, a refugee who was shot on the border and left to bleed to death in no-man’s-land, a family hidden in a government building waiting to escape to the West. Maps in the book – which is available in German and English – guide readers to the spots in the modern city where these historical events took place.
‘When an eye-witness tells us his or her story, it’s like a gift,’ said Henseler. ‘As a chronicler one has to respect both it and them. At the end of every one of our project we have a strong personal relationship with our interviewees.’
History Underground, their third collaboration with the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, was also supported by the Berlin Wall Memorial (Die Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer). Later this year it will be published as a book.
‘All our skills and passions come together in our comics,’ explained Henseler. ‘Our love for stories, for illustration, for perspective, even for movement. Our comics are constructed in a filmmaker’s way.’
‘In selecting the stories for the book we looked first for those which touched us emotionally,’ added Buddenberg. ‘We sat at our kitchen table throwing back and forth ideas for images, for the different comic panels, as if playing a tennis match.’
‘Above all – and this may surprise you - we also had to be actors,’ said Henseler. ‘We have to know how the characters look, how they feel, how to act out each scene.’
As well as the historical comics and teaching game design, Buddenberg and Henseler draw a comic strip for their Potsdam film academy magazine.
‘”Zoom” is my alter-ego,’ explained Buddenberg.
‘And Tommy “Tinte” – meaning ink – is mine,’ said Henseler.
‘Every month Zoom and Tinte deal with a topic like night shooting or continuity,’ said Buddenberg, suddenly standing up, throwing on her coat and acting out a scene on winter filming. As I laughed at the spontaneous display, I understood their working method: bringing stories to life by reliving them, acting them out before committing them to the page.
‘Berlin is unique,’ concluded Henseler. ‘There is no other city like it in Germany and now, with more and more people coming from abroad, it has a real international flair. I can’t think of a better place to live and work.’