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People and walls

“Lichtgrenze” (light boundary) – an installation by film director Marc Bauder and his brother Christopher for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2014.
“Lichtgrenze” (light boundary) – an installation by film director Marc Bauder and his brother Christopher for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 2014. | Photo (Detail): R4200 © picture alliance

Two documentary films made in the years after German reunification take a highly personal and nuanced look at the difficulties involved in coming to terms with the past.

By Sarah Schmidt

It was long the case that the debate about post-reunification East German films seemed to revolve around the question of what the right way to remember is – whether one should take a nostalgic view of the past or should criticize the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as an illegitimate state that carried out mass surveillance of its citizens. Two documentary films made in the early 2000s face up to this balancing act by taking a highly personal and nuanced look at life after the fall of the Berlin Wall and at the after-effects of the political and societal situation in the GDR.

Jeder schweigt von etwas anderem (Last to Know), a documentary made by Marc Bauder and Dörte Franke, gives four of the GDR’s estimated 250,000 former political prisoners the chance to have their say and sensitively explores the walls of silence that are so difficult to overcome between the protagonists and their families. There is Anne Gollin, for example, who is still just as forthright about her rejection of the East German regime as she always was – she talks about “dollhouse fascism,” yet at the same time is plagued with feelings of guilt about her now-adult son who, following her arrest in 1982, was placed in a children’s home. Then there is Utz Rachowski, who wrote critical essays at school and was sentenced to 27 months in prison for “inciting criticism of the system.” He tells classes of school students about his time in prison, but his own adult daughters are still reluctant to ask him directly about this. The Protestant pastor Matthias Storck and his wife Tine also fluctuate between an urge to demand justice for what they experienced and the desire to put the past behind them.

And yet, they all repeatedly experience a sense of disappointment and indignation at the failure of politicians and the wider public to recognize the injustices they suffered. Not only that some Stasi officials continue to hold high office or that the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) refuses to pay a victim’s pension to former prisoners – but that today the general public also prefers to remember the pickled gherkins from the Spreewald region or the GDR kids’ TV program Sandmännchen. It is only at commemorative sites and in classes at schools that those personally affected are listened to, though even the children of Tine and Matthias Storck appear not entirely sure whether they perhaps find the GDR portrayed in Good Bye Lenin! more convincing than the illegitimate state they have heard about from their parents. The movie allows its protagonists to tell their version of history, though it also concedes that they might sometimes prefer to keep silent about the time they spent behind prison walls.  

Aelrun Goette’s 2003 documentary Die Kinder sind tot (The Children Are Dead) is also about coming to terms with the past, in this case with one of the most horrific family tragedies of the post-reunification period, which unfolded in the Neuberesinchen low-rise tower block on the outskirts of Frankfurt (Oder). In the summer of 1999, 23-year-old Daniela Jesse left her two sons Kevin and Tobias, ages two and three, alone in their apartment. Wanting to escape her life, the young mother ran straight to her new lover and only returned 14 days later, by which time her two children had already died of thirst. Neither the neighbors nor Daniela’s mother, who lived just a staircase away and was raising Daniela’s oldest daughter, intervened despite the fact that the children screamed for days and beat against the windows with spoons.

Very slowly and deliberately, the film explores how something like this could happen. Goette gradually closes in on the core of the tragedy. She presents archival images of the court proceedings that saw Daniela Jesse sentenced to life in prison for the murder of her children, while members of the public watching the trial called for the death penalty to be reintroduced. She studies Neuberesinchen, once a socialist utopia that was built from scratch but now a series of dilapidated residential blocks in which people who have failed in life eke out a miserable existence. By lunchtime, the local men are already sitting at the bar in Cindys Bierstube, while the women try to escape their feelings of hopelessness and confinement by having one child after another, always hoping that this time the father will turn out to be Mr. Right and will stick by their side for good.

The film opts not to apportion any blame or explicitly to criticize the system, presenting the death of the two children first and foremost as a private tragedy brought about by the dysfunctional relationship between an immature young woman who is unable to cope and her controlling, loveless mother. However, it also portrays an environment that is characterized by apathy and indifference, an environment in which people are left behind as they make the transition from a collective society with its close-knit safety nets and omnipresent control mechanisms to the reality of West Germany, in which everyone forges their own destiny and is left to their own devices all at once. It appears as if the people were living behind invisible walls of helplessness and numb resignation. Aelrun Goette succeeds in painting a nuanced picture of the societal changes in post-socialist society, while at the same time making it quite clear that poverty and social brutalization are by no means a solely East German problem.


Sarah Schmidt © Sarah Schmidt

Sarah Schmidt is a freelance journalist with a background in film and media production. She studied North American culture and literature at the Free University of Berlin and Emory University. She is currently based in Berlin. Her work focuses on transatlantic cultural exchange, film, literature, and urban politics.