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.