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Director of IN A LAND THAT NO LONGER EXISTS: "Freedom is a Matter of State of Mind"

Aelrun Goette MPN Bild 1
Photo: 黃志東 © Ming Pao News

By Hilary Chu for Ming Pao News
Translated from original Chinese text by Goethe-Institut Hongkong

If you want to describe people living under totalitarianism, you probably wouldn't call it "freedom". Aelrun Goette, a director who grew up in East Germany, has adapted her personal experience into a film called IN A LAND THAT NO LONGER EXISTS, which depicts a different East Germany, where people are living a colourful life within the restrictions imposed by the regime. The obstacles that prevented them from realising their freedom made it invaluable. "I learnt the value of freedom when I was growing up, because you have to pay for it," Goette says.

Forced to drop out of school because of the peace movement

IN A LAND THAT NO LONGER EXISTS tells the story of Suzie, an East German student who is about to graduate from high school when law enforcement officers reveal that she is wearing a swords to ploughshares badge from the peace movement, putting an abrupt end to her college dreams. Based on the personal experience of director Goette, who was forced to drop out of school because of her involvement in the peace movement, gave up her ambition to become a psychoanalyst, and reluctantly switched to training as a nurse, Goette recalls her feelings at the time: "On the one hand, I was really, really angry, but on the other hand, I thought, 'Well, let's do this, let's make something out of it.”

“Resistance and strength are fun”

This kind of casual, adaptable attitude is common to many of the characters in the film, and is also the attitude Goette sees in the lives of some East Germans. The film's English title is IN A LAND THAT NO LONGER EXISTS, and Goette finds that many people look back at East Germany from a black-and-white perspective, seeing only the perpetrators and the victims, the violence and the fear, while ignoring the lives of the ordinary people who lived there. It's a part of her hometown that she's witnessed, but seldom portrayed. "Sometimes it's darker, sometimes it's more vibrant in the corners, and sometimes you see ordinary people with free will. In the film, Suzie is forced to drop out of school to work as a factory mechanic, and one of her colleagues, Gisela, dreams of becoming a stewardess, but even though her life is far from what she imagined, she remains positive and strong.

There are many optimistic characters in the film, but in the midst of all the constraints, is this positive energy not convincing? Goette explains that she chose to present this side of the story because of her real-life experiences in the GDR, and also because of her own goal in making the film: "I wanted to show that resistance and strength can be a kind of fun, and that it can be the right place to be in your life.” As the saying goes, if life gives you a lemon, squeeze it into a cup of delicious lemonade. While this mentality may seem to be out of place, Goette draws on her life experiences and film roles to illustrate how to be free in a place where she is not free.

The film shows fashion designer Rudi (right), who has always wanted to organise an underground fashion show, and ends up presenting a spectacular show with the support of Suzie (left). The film shows fashion designer Rudi (right), who has always wanted to organise an underground fashion show, and ends up presenting a spectacular show with the support of Suzie (left). | © Ziegler Film/Tobis Film/Peter Hartwig The East German “locally-made” Fashion Scene

Suzie was at a low point in her life when she failed to go to school, but her youthful beauty was captured by a camera and she was accidentally featured on the cover of Sibylle, the East German version of Vogue, and since then, she has been in the colourful world of modelling. As if in a film plot, 18-year-old Goette was indeed discovered on the streets of East Germany and spent four years modelling for Sibylle and the clothing brand VHB Exquisit. Not much is known about fashion in East Germany, and when initially asked to describe the fashion industry at the time, Goette corrected that "industry" was not the correct description. The so-called East German fashion scene was built by a small group of people who wanted to be free, without big machines or money. Everyone knows each other in the scene, and filming is quite "rustic", requiring you to prepare your own clothes and make-up, and only getting 60 or 100 East German Marks for a cover shoot. With little money and a lot of scrutiny, why do these creatives still want to stay in East Germany? "They say, 'This is the place where we can create.’ ”

Learning to live with censorship

Censorship comes from the regime everywhere. Goette remembers a photo of a woman showing a strong, angry expression, which she was asked to change to a smile, which was "even stranger because they had such a strong look in their eyes, and then this strange smile". Whenever the censors felt that a photo had a negative connotation or a political metaphor, they would ask for it to be changed and reshot. In another famous cover shoot, the model was originally standing behind a fence, which was interpreted as meaning she was trapped inside the Berlin Wall, so she ended up standing in front of the fence instead. Dealing with censorship is a learning process, "We have to understand [the boundaries], we always have to break through a little bit and try to say something to the audience from there.”

The creators' attempts sometimes succeeded in escaping censorship, and Goette mentions a symbolic photograph of a beautiful model standing in a smouldering chimney. The image turned out to have social significance at a time when East Germany was plagued by pollution problems, and "sometimes there are strong photographs, but they [the censors] don't see what's in them". It's not just the people in fashion magazines who push the boundaries, it's also the attitude of ordinary people. Rudi, the fashion designer in the film, is based on a male friend of Goette's who remembers him walking the streets of the GDR in tight pants with netting and red high heels. He was proud to be himself, even if he was criticised by passers-by. "If I went to West Berlin, no one would notice me." She quotes this friend as saying, "Well, this is my country, this is where I want to stay.”

German director Aelrun Goette was interviewed and showed real photographs from the GDR era (pictured). The East German fashion is still current today. The man in the picture is Goette's friend and the prototype of the character Rudi. German director Aelrun Goette was interviewed and showed real photographs from the GDR era (pictured). The East German fashion is still current today. The man in the picture is Goette's friend and the prototype of the character Rudi. | Photo: 黃志東 © Ming Pao News Speaking the truth with mutual trust

At one point in the film, Suzie is kicked out of the group when she is suspected of telling law enforcement officers where her friends are. Living in a totalitarian society, it's easy for relationships to be shrouded in fear, which is one of the darker sides of East Germany, and Goette has seen people kicked out of their social circles on the basis of gossip - a dilemma that everyone is caught up in: "You don't want to suffer from a constant distrust of each other, you don't want to meet people and not know if you can tell them the truth, but on the other hand, you have to understand that it's not always possible to be honest. You have to realise that being honest can put you in jail.” Despite this, she insists that people need to be a community of trust and accept the consequences that come with it, "That's what I experienced in East Germany, we decided to believe, we failed a few times, but it gave us a feeling of breathing. We can breathe". In the film, Rudi is arrested and released, and Suzie anxiously asks how he can always turn bad things into good things, to which Rudi replies, "We have each other, so what can happen?”

With the convenience of life and the surplus of human interaction, Goette discovers that it is easy for modern people to feel lonely. This is in contrast to the East German community, where "in an unfree society, the bonds between people are stronger because the times are harder". People are more concerned with their own interests nowadays, but she believes the key to happiness is to have something bigger than yourself. "That's what I want to teach my daughters, that they can learn to fight for themselves and also for the community they want to live in."

Suzie, a factory worker, becomes a model by chance and enters the restricted but free world of fashion. Suzie, a factory worker, becomes a model by chance and enters the restricted but free world of fashion. | © Ziegler Film/Tobis Film/Peter Hartwig The Wall Came Down: Mixed Feelings

After the release of IN A LAND THAT NO LONGER EXISTS in Germany, Goette says there were many celebrations and tears, including one from a hulking male audience member she met in Munich, who made a lasting impression on her. She quotes the crying man as saying, "I've always hidden my past, I didn't want to tell people I was from East Germany, and this film has given me my dignity back. Even after more than 30 years of reunification, Goette says people from East Germany are sometimes still discriminated against. For those who have not been there, she believes there is a need to learn about the history, and when she talked to her two daughters about East Germany, they used to jokingly say, "It's that little East Germany of yours again.” The film allowed them to discover an unknown side of the GDR, and the fashion trends helped to connect the young audience with the history: "When my daughters came home from the second-hand shop, they were dressed like I was in the 1980s".

At the end of the film, Suzie and Rudi hold an underground fashion show, where Suzie flies around with angel wings, laughing, hugging and enjoying her freedom. The film then ends with the words "Three months later, the Wall came down" in white letters on a red background. The audience knew from God's perspective that the Wall would eventually come down, but the East Germans didn't: "We didn't think the Wall would come down, we never thought it would. So we thought, 'Well, what are we going to do?' "

Goette admits that if the Wall hadn't come down, she wouldn't have been able to continue her studies in East Germany and probably would have left. Until the plan is realised, she asks herself what she should do, "Just enjoy the day. When we wake up and are afraid of tomorrow, it puts pressure on our hearts. Looking back on her time in the GDR, she realises that there were lessons to be learnt, such as the fact that money was not so important in the social system of the time. While the closing line about the wall coming down may seem like a happy ending to others, Goette says that East Germans have more complex emotions: "We know that some things are over. It doesn't mean we want East Germany back, absolutely not. But if you've been through it, you can see the strong part, the strong feelings that come with life."

Fashion is not limited by the times

As we talked, we realised that fashion, as Goette put it, is similar to the concept of freedom, which at its core is not limited by the times, but also by the choices of each individual's mind. How can East Germans be considered free when others may think they are restricted in every way? Goette knows many people who fled to live in West Germany at the time, and looking at them today, many years later, "I wouldn't say they are more free". Restrictions don't only come from the political environment, but also, in today's society, from the market's demands on people's self-image. While today's young people are blindly pursuing a slimmer figure, Goette doesn't feel free at all. It's still important to keep one's inner self free from external constraints and to be true to oneself.

In the film, Rudi asks Suzie if she has any plans to leave the GDR, and the young girl shakes her head and says, "I don't know." Rudi pauses and then says calmly, "Either you're free, then you're free everywhere, or you're not, and the West won't help you.”

The Goethe-Institut Hongkong hosts the KINO German Film Festival every year, and IN A LAND THAT NO LONGER EXISTS is the opening film of this year's festival. Director Aelrun Goette was invited to attend the opening ceremony earlier. 

KINO/23 German Film Festival
Dates: Now to 22 October, 2023
Website: bit.ly/3Felpjc

Writer: Hilary Chu
Photo: 黃志東、Courtesy of the interviewees
Art: 張欲琪
Editor: 朱建勳