Two documentaries, “Bettina” and “Sorry Comrade”, tell stories about the post-war divide between East and West Germany.
By Philipp Bühler
A lot of the feature films screened at this year’s Berlinale tend to be intimate chamber dramas again due to the pandemic, but Covid hasn’t significantly changed the way documentaries are being made. Actually, Covid may have given filmmakers a bit more time to dig deep into the archives. The Swedish film Nelly & Nadine (by Magnus Gertten, Panorama section) is a case in point. It involved an enormous amount of research, but the colossal efforts were worth it: the result is a gripping portrait of a decades-long lesbian love affair that began under the worst possible circumstances – namely in the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women.
At 73 years of age, Bettina Wegner is still as brazen and non-conformist as ever. In Bettina
, the Berlin singer-songwriter, working with director Lutz Pehnert, looks back on a life of resistance. Although a staunch “Stalin fan” as a child, she soon became persona non grata in East Germany: “Ms Wegner, we can't get along with you, and you can't get along with us.” But she didn't want to go: East Germany was her home. She eventually had no choice, however, and emigrated in 1983. In the meantime, she had a stormy affair with the poet Thomas Brasch, was jailed for pamphleting against the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement, and released successful records in the West. She was for a long time reluctant to keep performing her most famous song “Kinder” (aka “Sind so kleine Hände”), but she does give another rendition in the film. Thanks largely to Joan Baez’s cover version (also sung in German), this gentle anthem of anti-authoritarian upbringing became a standard of the Folk Revival, of which Wegner may be considered a latter-day exponent. She was active in “hootenanny” singing clubs modelled on the American open-mic folk music tradition, but quit when they morphed into “FDJ clubs” – i.e. vehicles for East Germany’s official “Free German Youth” organization.
, screened in the Perspektive Deutsches Kino section), Munich filmmaker Vera Brückner’s feature-length documentary debut, tells another story about the inner-German divide. In the 1970s, Hedi and Karl-Heinz are bound by a great love, but separated by the Iron Curtain. So Karl-Heinz, a West German left-wing activist, makes up his mind to emigrate to the East. But the German Democratic Republic would rather he went back to spy for them – in the West. The Covid pandemic did its level best to sabotage the film’s production, and yet this may be one reason why it suits its subject-matter so well: the couple’s perfectly planned escape from East Germany via Romania turns into an improvised madcap adventure, which, despite some hair-raising mishaps, just barely comes out all right in the end.