“I am no moralist”
Dominik Graf talks about the role that German unification played in a number of his films, such as Morlock, Eine Stadt wird erpresst, and Reise nach Weimar. Marco Abel conducted this interview with the German director by e-mail.
By Marco Abel
Not only was “Morlock: Die Verflechtung” (1993) one of the first non-documentary German (television) films to make German unification its core focus; it was also one of the very first fictional films about this subject to be realized by filmmakers who had been socialized in West Germany, and was based on a book by Rolf Basedow, an author who had likewise been socialized in the Federal Republic of Germany. What was your aim in shooting this film, in the midst as it were of the affirmative wave of “fun culture” that the newly unified country was finding so intoxicating?
In one scene in Basedow’s original film treatment, the West German management consultant Morlock (played by Götz George) wants to speak to the mayor of a small town near Leipzig in the fall of 1992. However, he is not in his office; instead, Morlock finds his very young daughter behind the house, thrashing the building’s wall with a whip. It was quite clear that she was practicing for a job in a new sex club. The scene was cut to avoid “offending” the “brothers and sisters in the East” (as they were defined in postwar West Germany). No offense was meant, however. This was simply the reality that Basedow had recorded. When we were searching for Morlock settings in the lowlands near Leipzig in the summer of 1992, including one in which he could be wearing a cashmere overcoat and find himself confronted by workers at the entrance to a factory, we found the locals happy to help. But when we arrived to do the shoot in the fall, no workers’ council was willing to allow a major West German star onto the company premises. 20 years later, I recreated the scene – which was never actually shot – as an animation in my movie about the Grimm Award, Es werde Stadt: 50 Jahre Grimme-Preis in Marl (2014).
And yet you decided to make the film: which perhaps reveals that you felt a certain “urge” to make the movie even if the original version proved impossible to realize.
The movie was a screenplay massacre, much as was the case with The Invincibles (1994). The Italian co-producers were constantly sending telegraphs to Bavaria Film Studios, saying “we want more outdoor action!”; regional broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk was hesitant due to the need to take East German sensitivities into account; Rolf went on strike and refused to work for a short time; other authors were sent into the field, though most of their work was edited out again, and ultimately 85 percent of what remained was pure Basedow. I had even given up on the movie once, but Günter Rohrbach got me to come back and later conjectured that I had only made the film because of one particular scene: when Morlock’s sidekick Stefan Reck is supposed to tease information out of the company secretary who has been fired. An absolutely wonderful scene, it portrayed a kind of erotic Western colonialism in the German East, though ultimately the cards are turned on the guy from the West because the secretary tricks him by slipping him false documents. I invested a great deal of work and effort into this scene and still love it to this day. But I was hugely motivated to make the movie because of Basedow’s entire screenplay: only he is able to depict the local landscapes, the people, and the destructive wave of corporate selling managed by the Treuhand state holding company in this unique way.
Dominik Graf and Marco Abel in the press zone before Graf's screening at the moving history Film Festival in September 2019 | © moving history – Photo: Juergen Keiper “Eine Stadt wird erpresst” (2006), shot leading up to the Soccer World Cup (dubbed a “summer fairy-tale” in Germany) and based once again on a book by Basedow, returns to the area around Leipzig. The movie picks up on some of the motifs from the “Morlock” film but appears to me to be even gloomier in the way it depicts unification. “Morlock” does at least have a happy ending, albeit a very qualified one. By contrast, the happy ending in “Eine Stadt wird erpresst” can only be imagined in the radical negation that unites the protagonist and antagonist in the end. As in Robert Aldrich’s wonderful late-noir movie “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), everything blows up, though less spectacularly in your film: the fatal hand grenade only detonates just off-screen, yet the disastrous consequence of what Inspector Kalinke had already said before – namely that “the entire country is screwed” – is nonetheless palpable.
In this movie, the people of West and East Germany rip into one another 15 years after unification because the betrayal that the people in the East experienced in 1990 still remains unatoned. Normally I find the bitterness in political films made by people such as Aldrich, Stone or Yves Boisset (who also directed a Morlock!) rather comforting because these great directors give you the sense that you are not left alone with your feelings in the face of this catastrophic state of affairs.
One of the film’s predominant themes is the state of not being alone, something that is called “solidarity,” though this is not an entirely neutral term. The movie takes this word, both as a concept and as a feeling, and critically analyzes it, makes it more complicated, and at the end affirms it. It is this sense of solidarity that those who feel betrayed cling onto as something that the “Wessies” (the nickname given to West Germans by those in the East) cannot take away from them. It is something that is also important to the police and that is undermined by the career-obsessed state attorney. And ultimately, it is what ties the two adversaries together in all kinds of ways: although in principle Naumann accuses Kalinke of having shown a “lack of solidarity” towards him in the pre-unification years, at the end he senses nonetheless that Kalinke is his mirror image. Or that there is an “affective” connection that goes deeper than any of the differences that separate them in post-unification Germany. In short, it appears to me that the way in which this film explores the question of solidarity is one of the main differences from “Morlock.”
Eine Stadt wird erpresst is about the “poor people of Gralwitz” battling against the system in the new states of the Federal Republic of Germany. Kalinke is tasked with investigating them. Though he is actually on their side, he is then overtaken by an old Stasi cover-up in the form of Naumann. “The state always takes what it wants,” says one of the Gralwitz locals, which sounds more like something one would have heard in the eighteenth century – the state being the lord of the manor against whom one has to struggle. And undecided people like Kalinke get pulverized in the middle. I believe that Basedow’s humor and irony serve as unifying forces here to some extent. The disputes with the public prosecutor from the West are also bitter, though not humorless.
“Eine Reise nach Weimar” (1996), based on the book by Johannes Reben, is a romantic comedy that nonetheless takes a rather unforgiving look at unification: ultimately, the movie only resolves the bitterness of the protagonist, who was socialized in the East, in a plot twist that almost degenerates into a fairytale, leading to what is only seemingly a happy ending. “Seemingly” in the sense that the off-screen sex that the two have at the end of the film – while the older and well-meaning Pan-European “Svengalis,” who bring our two “heroes” together against all odds, enjoy listening to the sounds of passion in the next room – is quite clearly absurd. It seems almost as if the message were that there can be no happy ending for people who are living in the wrong life, but for those who absolutely insist on a happy ending – well here it is. What motivated you to make this film, especially given the topic of unification and new beginnings that is at the heart of the movie?
Ever since Morlock, I had been infected by the German East. I perceived places, landscapes, and people not only as a political dimension but also as an aesthetic factor. In other words, the architecture, lifestyle, and language of East Germany were becoming increasingly familiar and understandable to me. In the 1990s, I felt that they were more honest than in the West. It seemed to me that the eagerness to renovate and restructure was dishonest and akin to painting over the cracks.
This is also something you address in your short film “Den Weg, den wir nicht zusammen gehen” (2009), which is a contribution to “Deutschland 09.” But if I can just push you on this: viewing the East and the people in it as more honest – could one even say “more authentic” – could perhaps be interpreted as a kind of “orientalization” of the East. As a director who reflects on things to an extreme extent, you must be aware of this “danger.” How did you attempt to counteract this in a cinematic and narrative sense – in the sense of narrative style?
Of course, in all of this it was ultimately Basedow who was the driving force behind my familiarization with the German East in the first place. For many years, he worked as an editor on my films (for example Treffer in 1984); he had also studied at the University of Film and Television in Munich (HFF) like I had and from the end of the 1980s suddenly began writing sensational screenplays. As an author, his first work was a joint episode from the Fahnder series in 1990, entitled Bis ans Ende der Nacht. It was as if he took the authenticity of his research into the police and society in the German East and then created poetry out of it. I believe that those of us who were born in the West in the 1950s had, for the most part, no idea whatsoever about East Germany until unification. It also gives us a different perspective on East Germany, however – on its former present and on its life thereafter. While I naturally also regard lignite mining (which is featured prominently in both Morlock and Eine Stadt wird erpresst – note from Marco Abel) as a ruthless exploitation of nature, I cannot deny that it also has an aesthetic dimension. The lunar landscapes and huge diggers were also symbolic images of what happened to the people as a result of the systems – in the East and in the capitalist West. And what is more, this destruction also has a fascinating beauty.
How would you view the three films in relation to one another?
Perhaps one should also include the movie Der Rote Kakadu (2006). In this film, the brainchild of Michael Klier, East Germany still had a realistic chance – before the Berlin Wall was built – of also being the “better Germany” for young people. I believe that ideological rivalry is productive and positive. Capitalism suffocates the world and urgently needs a strong counterpoint. However, it is always the case that those on the left have argued amongst themselves rather than joining forces to destroy their political opposition. Perhaps they will be given the opportunity to fight once again. The struggle for the best society and way of life must remain in balance, without anybody actually winning.
“Der Rote Kakadu” is about a moment of transition: from the moment when there was still hope, embodied in the enthusiasm of the young – if not about East Germany itself, then about the possibility of another, better life (both in the East and in the West) – to the moment of the “fall,” i.e. the end of love or rather of the experience that, after their separation (Siggi makes it to the West, whereas Luise does not), only memories of their love and hope remain. This hope and its genuine destruction are also featured in brief but intense moments in “Reise nach Weimar,” “Eine Stadt wird erpresst,” and “Morlock” in the character of the incorruptible worker who helps Morlock solve the mysterious crime. This is therefore an important leitmotif that appears in all four films.
Yes, one could summarize it by saying that the story of East and West is a whole series of lies and deception and corruption, mutual exploitation and scheming. Looking back, perhaps one should celebrate the handful of decent people in East Germany. This country that existed in the ideals of these decent people is as it were still worth being celebrated as a dream, and part of this dream is also the solidarity of a community. There were good reasons why East Germany thought of itself as the “better” Germany. Yet in the long term it failed to work just like all other historical situations in the whole battle between Left and Right in the last 150 years. East Germany followed the same path as the devastating defeat of the socialist and anarchist militias in the Spanish Civil War: they were stamped out by bureaucrats and potentates.
When one watches these four movies – or even “Die Sieger” (1994), “Im Angesicht des Verbrechens” (2010) or “Der rote Schatten” (2017), which implicitly focus on the effects of unification and explicitly explore the situation of the Berlin Republic – one cannot help but feel that you were and are no big fan of what happened in (and after) 1990.
In my eyes, unification constituted a declaration of West Germany’s moral bankruptcy, a state that I had still more or less been able to accept as my homeland, despite its Red Army Faction hysteria and the mega corruption that prevailed during the 1980s under Chancellor Kohl. Since unification I have harbored very deep disdain for this homeland. That said, I like the people who were hurt and who became victims. These movies are for them – and for me. Dominik Graf and Marco Abel at a question and answer session at the moving history Film Festival in September 2019 | © moving history – Photo: Juergen Keiper I was born in West Germany in 1969, grew up in Chancellor Kohl’s 1980s (with memories of the German Autumn, the vote of no confidence, and therefore also to some extent with the sense that there is something in West Germany that was worth fighting for). Unification left me somewhat cold. My feeling, which I cannot shake off to this day, is that I lost a country – my country, even if I viewed West Germany with a certain emotional distance, which no doubt was the result of my post-1968 school education. I do not know whether there are any films about this feeling, or this experience, both as the mirror image of your depiction of the betrayed East Germans and as a mirror image of the winners-of-history narrative that unthinkingly presents unification as a kind of salvation of the German people.
Isn’t all that – post-unification Berlin and Brandenburg – covered to some extent in Angesicht des Verbrechens? Where East German mayors get caught up in dodgy deals with former East German top dogs who, in turn, are involved with the Russian mafia? The Russian army has withdrawn, and shortly afterwards the Ukrainian Mafiosi were welcomed with open arms by the (perhaps) unsuspecting West German government officials of the 1990s. And into what abysses of the former “East German fringes” did poor nine-year-old Peggy Knobloch disappear in 2001 in Das unsichtbare Mädchen (2011)?
And when Westerners meet in an expensively renovated villa in the state of Thuringia in my contribution to Dreileben – Komm mir nicht nach (2011), that is all post-unification stuff. I am no “moralist,” as Kästner describes his alter ego “Fabian” (Graf’s next film Fabian – Der Gang vor die Hunde will feature him in 2020 – note from Marco Abel); that is a stance that for me is too bereft of opportunity. I only use the telescopic perspective of good screenplay writers to observe the structures of the destruction to which I am a witness.
Yes, that makes sense. But I believe there is a “Western” experience of unification that, without having anything to do with the East, does have something to do with loss and confusion. The loss of one’s own country (however one might have felt about it); the confusion of suddenly living in a different country and of being a citizen of a somehow foreign country without one having really been asked whether this is actually what one wanted. This is really the sort of story that would be set in the West: precisely among that group of people, the post-1968 left-wing generation, who had pinned their hopes on Lafontaine – who as always in his Don Quixote fashion spoke out against direct unification but in favor of reparations – and then had to face the fact that their Western biotope, however problematic it may have been, had suddenly disappeared from one day to the next. How is one supposed to deal with that, emotionally, psychologically, and so forth? That is what I meant by a “mirror image” of the experience of the East Germans: as a Westerner, one also felt betrayed to some extent. Of course, not everyone felt this, yet one was a) guilty by association (the West exploited the East, and as a Westerner it is just as impossible to escape one’s own implication, because it was structural, as it is for white liberal left-wing Americans to escape the fact that they are part of a genealogical line that inflicted genocide on the Native Americans and enslaved Africans); b) relatively privileged, certainly economically and c) unrecognized or indeed simply ignored. In some ways, it is maybe even absurd to say that unification led to one losing one’s own country...
Yes, that is correct. West Germany was stolen from us. I also find that interesting. Perhaps, subliminally, this is also where my identification with the Easterners comes from, who were also stolen from. These two states had far more identity than politicians and the cultural mainstream were willing to admit in retrospect. West Berlin is perhaps the most extreme example. It was a subsidized construct that people like Oskar Röhler never tire of mocking – but I remember it differently. Cozy, yes. But also incredibly tough: urban warfare, the Red Army Faction, drugs, wastelands of rubble at Kottbusser Tor where the Americans practiced urban warfare... I loved it.
Marco Abel is Professor of English and Film Studies and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska. Currently the Dirk Ippen Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, Dr. Abel has widely published on post-unification German cinema, including The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School (Camden House, 2013), which won the German Studies Association’s DAAD prize for best book in 2014, Im Angesicht des Fernsehens: Der Filmemacher Dominik Graf (text + kritik, 2012), which he co-edited, and the first sustained English-language introduction to Mr. Graf’s work, “‘I Build a Jigsaw Puzzle of a Dream-Germany’: An Interview with German Filmmaker Dominik Graf” in Senses of Cinema 55 (July 2010). For more on Dr. Abel’s work, see his web site, www.marcoabel.com.