Uli Gaulke

Rory MacLean meets Uli Gaulke

© Uli Gaulke
© Uli Gaulke
‘I was born in East Germany,’ said Uli Gaulke, one of Germany’s most passionate, independent and perhaps happiest documentary filmmakers. ‘Half of my life was lived under socialism, half under capitalism. So in my work and life I am looking for the red line, for the connections between different lives. That’s the key to understanding who I am.’

Gaulke was born in Schwerin in 1968, that polarised year marked by the hopeful Prague Spring and the Red Army’s brutal suppression of it. Every weekend through his early teens his mother, a graphic artist, took him away from his grey school days to the theatre. At the Schwerin State Theatre Gaulke saw dozens of controversial, politicised productions which introduced him ‘to another kind of thinking,’ he told me when we met near his home in Berlin.

Gaulke played the trumpet for his school, for the Party, at almost every official event (Jahrestage). In massed bands with sometimes  as many as 10,000 other young musicians he performed socialists anthems like Die Internationale, as well as a solo of the Beatles’ Yesterday.

‘Then one May Day I found myself being marched around and around a podium, around and around the Party bigwigs, in a piece of theatre designed to exaggerate the size of our small brass band. I realised that was East Germany, a Potemkinsche Dorf, a pretty facade designed only to impress, behind which there was almost nothing. I gave up the trumpet because I wasn’t interested in propping up that facade.’

But Gaulke had no choice when conscripted into the National People’s Army, two years before the fall of the Wall. ‘It was horrible experience,’ he recalled. ‘Yet it was there that I discovered movies.’

Gaulke was assigned to be an army projectionist, playing – alongside politically-correct Soviet and East German classics – films like Reinhard Hauff’s Linie 1, a musical about a country girl who comes to West Berlin in search of her boyfriend. ‘The film thrilled me. Berlin seemed to be a city of magic,’ he said, pushing his porkpie hat back on his head. As soon as he finished national service, he moved to the capital. Two months later the Wall fell. ‘The first place I went in the West was the Grips-Theater where Linie 1 was being staged. I cried through the performance because suddenly I was free to do whatever I wanted.’

To earn money Gaulke continued to work as a projectionist. He watched films again and again while at the same time – and as importantly – watching the audience, coming to understand the actions and juxtapositions that moved viewers, the scenes that brought them to laughter or tears.

‘All the important lessons I learned about film came from both watching films and studying audiences. Even now, when I am lining up a shot or cutting a scene, I think of the viewers. I am in the dark auditorium with them, looking into their faces.’

Gaulke’s passion for movies may have come late but it came from the heart with real intensity.

‘You see, I became a documentary filmmaker because I’m interested in people, because I love the “real” moment. I love watching people live that moment.’

Havanna Mi Amor © Uli GaulkeAt the age of 32, at the Konrad Wolf Academy of Film and Television in Babelsberg, Gaulke’s graduation film won the prestigious German Film Award for Best Documentary. ‘Havana, Mi Amor was a journey into my own past,’ he said about his first full-length production. ‘I chose Cuba because it’s a country still under socialism. In the documentary I followed a television repairman around the country, into people’s homes, as he worked to maintain their broken, old Soviet sets.’

The prize gave him the confidence – and money – to make Comrades In Dreams, a delightful and moving tale of effusive projectionists in remote corners of the world: Anup who tours his theatre tent around rural India, blessing reels of film at a temple before their showing, North Korea’s Han Yong-Sil who believes that carefully chosen films ‘protect the soul of our people’ and sensitive Penny in backwoods Wyoming.

Comrades in Dreams © Uli GaulkeComrades In Dreams began when I learned that the North Koreans were remaking James Cameron’s Titanic. I wondered how that story had come to move and connect so many people around the world. Comrades In Dreams is my tribute to projectionists, and to colleagues who are deeply in touch with their audience.’

The film’s hilarious closing scene ensured its nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at the SUNDANCE Film Festival.

Next came Pink Taxi, a documentary on macho Moscow’s first women-only taxi company, and then As Time Goes by in Shanghai, which premiered at this year’s Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival.

Pink Taxi © Uli Gaulke‘All of us have only one life and we try to give meaning to our brief moment in time,’ Gaulke declared, bursting with energy and laughter, his life enriched by good fortune, honesty and a full heart. ‘I try to capture those moments and that meaning on film, to cross cultural lines, by understanding individuals.’

Today Gaulke is working on two projects: a 3D movie on Havana and a documentary on the U.S. Army’s departure from Mannheim-Heidelberg after 60 years. ‘I grew up in a society which defined itself by anti-Americanism,’ Gaulke said. ‘For 20 years I was taught that Americans were my enemy. I had so many bad dreams of Pershing missiles. But now they and I can meet, and I – a former East German soldier – carry a camera rather than a Kalashnikov.’

Goodbye GI – which follows the closure of the U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg and the relocation of its 18,000 troops, civilians and their families - will be released in summer 2014.

‘The conflicts in the world arise from the fear of strangers. I want to counteract this fear with my films by telling stories about love, of dreams and hopes, about the disappointments, the daily ups and downs in the lives of people,’ he emphasised. ‘In my work I try to bring together two worlds. I’m glad that change came to Germany in 1989. It came at exactly the right moment for me. Now I can travel anywhere, and ask people what makes them happy, what is important in different cultures, what is their understanding of the meaning of life. I am grateful for this chance. As well as for the very warm memories of my socialist years.’

Rory MacLean
November 2013
Related links

Dossier: Media Art in Germany

History, tendencies, names and institutions