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German Film Festival 2019
The folk hero with a conflicted past

'Gundermann'.
Detail © Pandora Film Produktion

As brought to the screen in the biopic that shares his name, there’s perhaps no greater embodiment of internalised German conflict than Gerhard Gundermann.

By Sarah Ward

For the bulk of his life, he toiled his days away as a dedicated excavator driver in East Germany’s mines. He also drew upon his hardworking experiences in his music, penning and crooning the songs that made him a folk hero among his fellow GDR citizens. But this voice of the people and conscience of the nation had a secret, albeit one relatable to many during the Cold War. While Gundermann was fighting hard for the socialist cause and singing about the movement’s daily struggles, he was also collaborating with the Stasi, reporting to the notorious secret police body about his friends, bandmates and colleagues.

'Gundermann' isn’t short on complexities. 'Gundermann' isn’t short on complexities. | © Pandora Film Produktion
The trauma of the Second World War has been cast onto cinema screens thousands of times over, as has the turmoil of Germany’s four-decade-long divided state afterwards. Few films on either subject are simply black-and-white — thematically, although the same sentiment applies visually — but the best, at least where the scarred nation is involved, explore the many shades of grey that coloured everyday life. It’s true in The Counterfeiters and Lore, and in The Marriage of Maria Braun and Europa as well, just to name a few. It’s in these footsteps that Gundermann follows. More than just a music biopic, it’s a portrait of competing impulses. Indeed, the context surrounding its central figure is as important as his actions, with his tale playing out at a time when and in a situation where compromise was a daily reality.

LEANING INTO COMPLEXITY

Reteaming Cloud 9 director Andreas Dresen (The Legend of Timm Thaler or The Boy Who Sold His Laughter) with screenwriter Laila Stieler (German TV’s Eine Braut kommt selten allein), Gundermann begins in 1992, when its titular musician (Alexander Scheer) was both popular with the GDR masses and grappling with his previous informant ways as the country reunified. Jumping back and forth across a two-decade timespan, the film unpacks the details behind both aspects of Gerhard’s story, including his spirited championing of workers’ rights, his headline-grabbing willingness to speak up to party head honchos, his engaging music and his messy political ties, as well as his relationship with his friend-turned-wife Conny (Anna Unterberger).
 
Delving into a man so driven to speak out that he put his protests to song, but one still so constrained by practicalities, Gundermann isn’t short on complexities; in fact, when the film overlays Gundermann’s lyrics about nature’s beauty with footage of him literally digging into the earth, it leans into the many juxtapositions inherent in his tale. It’s to Dresen and Stieler’s credit that nothing about the narrative, or about Gundermann’s life, feels as if it has been given a gleefully hagiographic sheen or had the awkward, uncomfortable bumps smoothed out — but if the movie benefits from anything other than its multifaceted true tale, it’s from its central casting.
Gundermann's romance with Conny, a former bandmate with a husband and children, is also complicated. Gundermann's romance with Conny, a former bandmate with a husband and children, is also complicated. | © Pandora Film Produktion

A STELLAR PERFORMANCE

As proves the case with many WWII and post-war German stories, to tell this tale is to not only acknowledge but to embrace several layers of difficulty. Estranged from his father and known to rile up his superiors with his outspoken nature, Gundermann’s plight wasn’t easy even before his involvement with the secret police; his romance with Conny, a former bandmate with a husband and children, is similarly complicated. Despite his lithe frame and spry step, every competing element of Gundermann’s life is evident in Scheer’s performance. He’s never weighed down, but the actor’s time in his alter-ego’s shoes is both grounded by conflict and buoyed by the singer’s desire to make a difference. Even when the musician is at his most blissful, whether perched in his excavator, singing to crowds or pottering around his modest home with Unterberger’s luminous Conny, Scheer conveys of the toll of his contradictions.
 
It also helps that, as assisted by cinematographer Andreas Höfer (Oh Gloria), Dresen peers at his subject with gloss-free eyes — not just emotionally, but aesthetically. Gundermann looks the period part, aided by ample contributions from production designer Susanne Hopf (As We Were Dreaming), art director Michael Randel (Three Peaks) and costume designer Sabine Greunig (Jupiter’s Moon), with the austere architecture, neutral-heavy colour scheme and era-appropriate fashions setting a ruminative mood. The prevailing tone: unblinking. A multiple award-winner at this year’s Lolas, including for best film, best actor and best director, the movie sees all of the ups, downs and broken terrain in-between. When Gundermann leaves viewers intrigued for more, as do the majority of films that unearth Germany’s past, it’s both emblematic of the power of its story and symptomatic of a chapter of history that’ll never stop revealing its complex secrets.

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