“Curonian Spit” by Volker Koepp
Against the centrifugal forces

Renate from Nida, Volker Koepp: „Curonian Spit“
Renate from Nida, Volker Koepp: „Curonian Spit“ | © Edition Salzgeber

Enchanted stretches of land like the Curonian Spit hold a magical attraction for documentary filmmaker Volker Koepp. Centuries of interwoven Baltic, German and Russian history have all left their mark on this narrow tongue of land in the Baltic Sea. “Curonian Spit” looks back at this past, while at the same time looking ahead to the future.

Right from the start, the film has a windswept feel to it. The deserted images of a place that appears forever battled by storm give a powerful impression of a landscape in which nature has always taken precedence over history. For millennia, this spit of land that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea has been in a state of constant flux, forever drawing its own boundaries. The dunes, which shift according to the rhythm of the tides, buried entire villages long before the political borders were redrawn following the First and Second World Wars, before certain areas became inaccessible and only a handful of people remained after others had fled or been expelled. Artists and writers had settled here in the period between the wars; Thomas Mann built himself a summer house in Nida, the former East Prussian town of Nidden. The peninsula has been divided into two halves since the Second World War, the southern part being Russian and the northern part belonging to Lithuania.

Languages and delicacies from a bygone era

Koepp’s film, of course, recognizes no boundaries. His discussions with local people focus particularly on Renate from Nida, a sprightly pensioner with an eventful family background who earns an extra crust as a street sweeper. As a young woman after the war, she married a Russian. Their parents were not opposed to the marriage. Only gradually does it become clear – as always, Koepp uses no captions or explanations in his work – that she is German. She has to revive the language for herself; her family used to speak Curonian too, but later spoke only Lithuanian. At the dinner table with her husband and Koepp, their very welcome guest, a heady mix of languages is spoken. It is not only her lilting dialect but also her dishes that sound foreign and at times somewhat funny: she serves up “puttees” and “vegetable soup with the crows”. The sparse landscape reveals more about the hardships currently faced there than Renate’s tales, which always come across as light-hearted and carefree. In her small kitchen, simply everything becomes a delicacy and is of course reminiscent of the good old days.

Does she known the film projectionist from Rybachy over on the Russian side? He sits alone in his kitchen, film having remained his one and only love. A cigarette in his hand, he talks about studying film in Moscow, about how he ended up back here again after all, and about the longings that remain, the “beautiful bright dreams of love, peace and a little bit of happiness.” It is precisely such melancholy that Koepp seeks and inevitably finds in his films. Whenever this happens he appears to feel at home, asks only few questions and lets things take their course.

Narrative harmony with breaks

Koepp’s gentle tone, which occasionally slips into joviality, has also reaped him some criticism. His impressive visual compositions, calm camera action and confiding conversational manner suggest a harmony that appears first and foremost to be rooted in his personal viewpoint. The drawing of boundary lines post-1945, however, did not follow any harmonious principle of nature. They were abruptly mapped after a brutal break with civilization whose wounds are still open if one looks and listens very carefully. From Renate’s stories, for instance, it is possible to glean that she was left behind when her parents fled the family home. When she visited her father in Hamburg, he used the “welcome money” (paid by the West German government) to pay for her ticket back. She tells this as if it were an amusing anecdote, and Koepp includes it just as she portrays it, adding nothing. By contrast, he asks the young employee in the amber museum whether she wouldn’t like to visit the Russian side one day. With a shy smile, she says that “everything is kaput” there and that she took a look for herself just once four years ago. It irritates him that the young people simply accept the border.

Poetry of homeland and loss

Volker Koepp wages a stubborn and at times humorous battle against forgetting. His early films in East Germany, where he began his work in 1967, were committed to portraying an even stricter realism. To this day, his five Wittstock films about the hardships of everyday life in the then mining region are famous. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, he has felt drawn towards the East. Mr. Zwilling and Mrs Zuckermann (1998), a touching portrait of the last surviving Jews in Chernovtsy, was probably his most successful film. His poetical language of homeland and loss is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, the German-British writer who deals with similar topics: while Sebald describes individuals who are lost in their external and internal diaspora, Koepp portrays persons left behind in internal exile. While Sebald shows incurable breaks, he re-establishes connections and ties loose ends together. Instead of placeless people, he shows people-less places, which nonetheless are a homeland.

“The Central and Eastern European regions are important for the future of Europe”, says Koepp. It is this sustained interest in the region that lifts his films above nostalgic stocktaking and in so doing already has an impact: in Curonian Spit the people are pleased to see the man with the camera who brings a little life into their everyday routine and as such brings about some small change. Whether he is showing a meal being taken in the front room or an excursion into the countryside – his impartial view awakens a desire to talk and makes dialogue possible. This is the promise and indeed the incentive of all his films, which battle against the centrifugal forces of history with a silent love of the places of which they tell.