An interview with Claas Danielsen “Calling Leipzig a ‘city of heroes’ still seems strange to me”

Claas Danielsen at a press conference.
Claas Danielsen at a press conference. | Photo (detail): © DOK Leipzig 2013

Claas Danielsen has been director of the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Films (DOK Leipzig for short) since 2004. We talked about Leipzig’s image as a “city of heroes” and what the Peaceful Revolution 1989 meant for the DOK Leipzig.

Mr Danielsen, you weren’t born in Leipzig, you grew up in Hamburg. But you’ve been living and working here for over ten years now. What is your connection to the city?

Leipzig is a city of free burghers [i.e. historically not subject to an outside ruler], full of culture and quality of life. In contrast to imperial residences or ducal capitals like Munich and Dresden, Leipzig is sustained by a self-assured civil society. That is certainly one reason why the “Peaceful Revolution” got started here.

Leipzigers fight for their city

Leipzig played a leading role in the “Peaceful Revolution”. The term “city of heroes” stems from that era. Does the name fit Leipzig?

I grew up in an age in which the term “hero” was not highly regarded. What was decisive for me was grappling with the historical legacy of the Third Reich, an age in which the concept of heroism was misused. What happened in 1989 in Leipzig made an incredible impression on me and profoundly transformed Germany. The people who risked their lives at the time to demonstrate for change and freedom were extremely courageous. Their courage might even have been heroic. Calling the city a “city of heroes”, however, still seems strange to me.

How important is civic engagement in this city today? 

It’s fascinating to see how Leipzig has changed over the past 25 years. The old building stock has been saved and Leipzig now shows itself to be a very compact, gorgeous city with a rich cultural scene, in which the people of Leipzig play a decisive part. There is a very lively “free scene” of painters, theatre directors, musicians, gallerists, designers, media people and artisans who, away from the realm of “highbrow culture”, are revitalizing industrial wastelands and re-energizing the city. Leipzigersare awake, self-assured and politically engaged and fighting for their city.

Films about everyday heroes

The Leipzig Festival, which you have directed since 2004, has a strong political profile itself. What part does the history of the city in the years 1989/90 play there?

The DOK Leipzig, the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Films, is one of the few cultural institutions from the former GDR to remain in existence after 1989. Even if the festival was politically instrumentalized earlier, it always offered people a realm of freedom, because it showed films you didn’t get to see anywhere else in East Germany. For Leipzigers, a “window on the world” opened up every year in the autumn. Some people say that this experience and meeting international guests during the festival week contributed to their rising up in revolt in 1989. The Leipzigers’ resistance and the Peaceful Revolution are a legacy for our festival to ward off any attempt to influence or censor us.

Many documentary films shown at the DOK Leipzig are about people who are particularly brave, politically engaged or have to fight for their goals in their personal environment. Which “filmheroes” from recent festivals have really stuck in your memory?

The nice thing about documentary films is that the protagonists are always in some way heroes, too. Because the filmmakers devote their energies to them with great patience and sympathy. Documentary films are rarely about heroes who make history, but about everyday heroes. The young Polish woman with a severe case of cancer, for example, in the film Joanna is really etched in my mind. The tenderness, strength and love with which she prepares her son for life after her death is deeply moving.

After the autumn 2014 festival, you’re going to give up your job as festival director to take up new tasks. What will you miss most about Leipzig?

I hope I can stay in Leipzig. Then I won’t miss the city, but hopefully I’ll finally have more time to explore it more deeply and enjoy it!