Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and Alexej (Tristan Göbel) have just crossed the border from East to West Berlin, with the help of Gerd (Andreas Nickl).
The most commercially successful film set in the last years of East Germany was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) which had an enormous international impact through a story about a Stasi surveillance operator and his ‘targets’ which used many of the conventions of the thriller. Surprisingly, however, there have been rather more films about life in the old East Germany and what it meant to think about and then to move to ‘the West’ which work as forms of melodrama, exploring the emotional lives of characters rather than first as thrillers (there have also been comedies). Mostly too these have been films about women rather than men.
It’s possible to trace the development of a group of films about female characters caught up in the emotional turmoil of Germany, and Berlin in particular, between the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nelly the lead character in West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013) is one of the most recent examples of these women. We first see her in East Berlin in 1975 in what seems like a settled domestic situation but then suddenly it’s three years later and she’s entering West Berlin as a refugee with her young son. What follows is a drama about Nelly and her conflicted emotions about being held in a refugee ‘processing centre’ – an Aufnahmelager. There is an element of the thriller in what follows since Nelly finds herself being interrogated about her past in East Berlin and in particular about her partner. Rather than being ‘moved on’ and helped to find employment, Nelly is detained. Yet the thriller element seems to be there to underpin the melodrama. Is Nelly starting to imagine the threats she perceives? Can she trust anybody? Why does her son find it easier to adapt?
West is based on a novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. All three of these ‘authors’ moved from East Germany to the West and we must assume a high level of authenticity in the depiction of the refugee camps. When The Lives of Others was very successful it was heavily promoted and celebrated in the US where one commentator hailed it as ‘The Best Conservative Movie’ of the last 25 years. When West opened in North America it was marketed on the back of celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neither film deserves to be hi-jacked in this way. The attraction of a film like West is its humanity – the way it tries to deal with the personal lives of characters caught up in an ideological conflict. When Nelly answers her interrogators’ questions about why she has come to West Berlin with the response ” . . . for personal reasons” it cuts no ice. What should she say? “I want to be free!” That would be ironic since Western intelligence agents won’t let her go until she tells them something ‘useful’.
There are moments in West when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun come to mind – although the two women are rather different. Maria fights her way through the rubble and chaos of Berlin in 1945 to succeed in the economic miracle of the 1950s. Nelly is perhaps more akin to the trio of heroines played by Nina Hoss in the films of Christian Petzold. In Phoenix (2014) another ‘Nelly’ has plastic surgery and seeks out her husband in the ruins of Berlin in 1946. In Barbara (2012) the eponymous character is a doctor in East Germany trying to get to the West in 1980 and in Yella (2007) Ms Hoss is a woman leaving the East after unification and finding the soulless capitalism of the West is not necessarily the answer. Interestingly, this film uses questions of what is ‘real’ to underline the stress on the character who moves across the border. Finally it’s important to remember Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise 1994) in which a young woman escapes to West Berlin in the 1960s but then meets her ex-boyfriend, a scientist who has stayed in the East, at various international gatherings over the next 20 years. The story ends with the wall coming down in 1989 but again this is not a triumphant ending – the burden of living in the divided Germany is too great for pat solutions to work. Perhaps that’s true for all refugee stories – which stay with the people concerned for the rest of their lives rather than just as fleeting news stories for the more fortunate majority.
Andre and Barbara as Bogie and Bacall?
There was a moment when I was watching Barbara – which admittedly means quite a lot of watching the wonderful Nina Hoss – when it occurred to me that if there was a film like this to watch every week, I’d be very happy. When the film finished, my viewing companions surprised me by not agreeing with my sense of satisfaction. Perhaps they’ll comment on this post and explain why?
Many of the press reports have compared Barbara to The Life of Others (Germany 2006) which proved a major international hit. Barbara is similar in theme, but not in ‘feel’. Some aspects of Das Versprechen (The Promise, Germany 1994) seemed more apposite for me. I think director Christian Petzold set out to make a film quite unlike The Lives of Others in its depiction of life behind the Berlin Wall.
The setting of Barbara is East Germany in 1980. Barbara (Nina Hoss) has arrived in a small town in Pomerania near the Baltic coast to take up a new post in a hospital. Gradually we learn that she has been forced to leave a prestigious hospital in Berlin following her request to leave the country. Having angered the authorities with this request, she is now not to be trusted and is therefore subject to routine surveillance in her allocated apartment and suffers doubly in the hospital. It will take her time to sort out who is unfriendly because they think she is a stuck-up metropolitan type and who has been assigned to watch her closely and report back.
Barbara knows the score and therefore she is reluctant to respond to the overtures of Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who is effectively her boss. He seems warm and welcoming, but is he too good to be true? Forced into moments of close contact (they are paediatric surgeons, working together) he at one point tells her a story to explain why he too has been ‘sent to the provinces’. Is he lying? Zehrfeld, who comes across as a slightly podgy but much nicer Russell Crowe, is very engaging but the film’s production design and cinematography creates a narrative space so pregnant with distrust that we are equally as unsure as Barbara about who to trust. (He clearly is under surveillance himself, but this might be a cover, a double-bluff.)
There is an excellent Press Pack for the film available here (as a pdf) in which Petzold discusses the film at length in terms of what he was trying to achieve and how he and the cast and crew prepared themselves. He tells us, for instance, that the two films that were most important in influencing the story and how he approached it were Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not in which Bogart and Bacall develop a romance in Martinique under surveillance by the Vichy French police in 1940 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons. The latter is one of several Fassbinder melodramas which present the feel and tone of life in post-war West Germany. Petzold showed the Hawks picture to his would-be lovers before the shoot and then looked to create something similar to Fassbinder’s mise en scène in representing the GDR in 1980. He argues that in recent films, the GDR has been portrayed in greys and browns – too symbolically drab and desperate. Petzold claims to have steered away from symbolism as such and tried for a very realist presentation, meticulously recreating hospital rooms etc. Certainly he shows the late summer as full of vibrant colours in the fields, but some scenes still seem to have an expressive edge (on several occasions when Barbara makes dangerous journeys by bicycle near the sea in order to secretly meet her West German lover or to hide incriminating evidence, there is a howling wind blowing). Overall though I think the approach works and the atmosphere is created more by narrative suspense than clunky symbols.
The last section of the narrative is both the most emotional in terms of the potential romance and the most suspenseful. It is also the sequence in which Petzold seems to contrive a thriller narrative with a plot that is either full of holes or too obvious in its direction. I can see these criticisms but neither of them bothered me as I watched the sequence. The careful mise en scène and slow pace – even as the tension mounts – kept me enthralled. I felt both the horror of living in a society where every sound of a motor vehicle or a step on the stair means possible discovery and arrest and the romantic intensity of choosing between security on the one hand and genuine passion but no security on the other. This kind of desperate choice is really what the film is about. I though the film’s ending was appropriate and satisfying and overall I found the film to be humanist in its approach.