Berlinale People
On Silence – Interview with Andreas Dresen

Andreas Dresen
Andreas Dresen | Photo (detail): © Berlinale

Over the summer 2014 I had the chance to skype with Andreas Dresen – full disclosure: one of my favourite auteurs. His latest film “Als wir träumten”, again set in the GDR around the “Wende”, is in Competition at Berlinale 2015.

We spoke about his 1992 feature debut Silent Country, which he showed on 35mm to amazed audiences in Toronto recently. In the film, young, naive and enthusiastic theatre director Kai comes to a grim East German provincial town to put on Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Although the lethargic company shows no interest in the play, his spirit remains undaunted. Meanwhile, it is fall 1989. The world is changing and far away in the capital, a revolution is taking place. Great hopes emerge in the little town, and unexpected events overtake Kai's derailed production. Reflections of and on Dresen's own life and work are inevitable.

Mr. Dresen, your first major feature film, shot in 1991 and set during the last days of the GDR, is called “Silent Country” – (“Stilles Land”)  In how far did you experience Germany around 1989 as “still”, silent or quiet?

A country can be “still” if it is paralyzed, if nothing happens anymore, when there is no going forward or backward. “Still” as standstill. But “still” can also be a poetic entity in which we can find ourselves. The title therefore has a double meaning. The pivotal point was a poem by Wolf Biermann of the same title: Das Land ist still – the county is silent. And it surely has a mean streak to it, too. In the film, nobody reacts to the political events that happen outside the theatre – the escape of many GDR citizens via Hungary. It seriously was that “silent” in September 1989.

Biermann, the great travelling poet, first of East Germany, then West Germany, was long exiled by that time. Did Biermann remain an important influence for GDR intellectuals, for the art scene?

I grew up with him. My father, who left to live in West Germany in 1977 was Biermann’s friend and had signed the petition against his expatriation. We always had a Biermann record at home: Chausseestraße 131. The first record to have been released – only in West Germany, of course. And particularly due to the huge political protest in the GDR that followed his expatriation, he would always play an important role. His literary works were only partially available. To quote him was a near provocation.

How did you manage to produce and shoot a film while your Film Academy “Konrad Wolf” Potsdam-Babelsberg was in a major transition from GDR state school to “reunified” university?

I shot the film at the turn of 1991/92, and it premiered in fall 1992. It was produced by the Film Academy “Konrad Wolf” as my graduation film. This was a little awkward during that time of change. It then became a co-production with [West Berlin producer] Wolfgang Pfeiffer’s MAX Film, who I met at the Berlinale 1990. An independent cinema production at a time when East and West didn’t really exist anymore. I mean, we were reunited by that time!

Trailer Stilles Land

Was the change of system difficult for you? There were two sides: people who despaired because their country and their system had been lost, and the ones that saw new opportunities and seized them. Did you experience the change rather as an opportunity or maybe also as a loss?

That is hard to say. Everything was changing, everything was on the move. If you are in the middle of turmoil like this, you are really more of a prisoner of a healthy pragmatism. One primarily tries to find one’s bearings. I didn’t have work, the insurance system had changed, I received strange letters from the West German revenue agency, which I didn’t understand. The GDR’s bureaucratic system had been much simpler. There were many things that I didn’t understand at first – including the absurd system of film funding: thousands of provincial funds; one application goes here, the other goes there. And there were so many different TV channels! This is something that I am still dealing with today.

Looking back on it, the enormous opportunity to unite these profoundly different parts of Germany into a new whole was clearly missed. At first I was a little a-political. It took me a few years to look at West German society with open eyes. I was somewhat fed up because I felt – and you can see this in Silent Country – that the seismic change of 1989 wasn’t meant as a move towards reunification, but as a move towards democratization, opening up and liberalizing the East German system. We wanted a different GDR, we didn’t want to get rid of it.

Today I am convinced that the entire process could and should have taken more time. But that is easy to say; there was the pressure of the street. I saw it happen in Leipzig in the fall of ’89. First the people at the demos shouted: “We are the people.” A month later they shouted: “We are one people.” And those very same people were the ones who were unemployed a year later and voted PDS [the successor of the East German communist state party SED]. They bit the hand that fed them.

Andreas Dresen was born 1963 in Gera. In the early 80s he began working in theatre and making short films. He studied Directing at the "Konrad Wolf" University of Film & Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Since 1992, he has been working as a writer and director for film, TV and theatre. A selection of his award-winning films includes: Night Shapes (1998), Grill Point (2001), Willenbrock (2004), Summer in Berlin (2005), Cloud 9 (2008) and Stopped on Track (2011).

Part 2 coming soon: Andreas Dresen on going to Paris in May 1989 and his new film.