Life behind the Wall
- four decades as the German outpost of the Soviet Realm
The Berlin Wall was a symbol for the division of a country. And a symbol for the division of the world into two enemy camps. It fell on 9 November 1989. The moving and vivid images from Berlin on that evening went around the world. This day marked the end of the Cold War and the end of a political system.
Today, 15 years after the fall of the Wall, this bit of recent history is not yet forgotten. The gaping wound that ran through Germany, through Europe, is not yet completely healed. It is still impossible to foresee the ultimate consequences of the collapse of the Soviet empire and the dissolution of the Cold War fronts. The world order that had been in place for 40 years simply crumbled one day. Reorganisation and reorientation, unrest and wars are now the order of the day. No one can say today what the world of tomorrow will look like.
The eastern European countries are on their way into the European Union, which will now carry at least partial responsibility for its new member states in their transition from one societal system to another. The former German Democratic Republic (GDR, a.k.a. East Germany) had – and still has – a special status in both the old and the new political system. Big Brother kept a particularly watchful eye on this little land which served as the spearhead of the Soviet empire in a divided country. Relations between the two German states were always an indicator of the relationship between the two great opponents – the Soviet and American empires.
The Soviet Union made greater efforts to influence the fate of East Germany than it did of the other socialist countries. And when a reform-minded and open-minded politician came to power in the Soviet Union in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev, the GDR disappeared in short order. There was no time for anyone to wish it farewell...
Perhaps that’s the reason why interest in this "cute" little country is still as great as it is – both in Germany and abroad – even 15 years after its disappearance. International broadcasting companies in twelve countries have already acquired a license for this documentary.
How does one live in a land whose inhabitants are kept in by a wall – as in a prison? A land in which one had to wait 10 years and longer to buy a car? A land without unemployment or homelessness – and on paper (more or less) without crime.
Fifteen years after the fall of the Wall, the Germans are now in a position to reflect on this land with the necessary distance – on this dictatorship, this social "experiment", where, despite everything, normal people lived normal lives. In the 15 years since its collapse, much has been said about this land – about its beginnings and its history, about the factors that led to its sudden demise, about the political dictatorship.
What we wish to do is to tell the story of the people who lived there – people with the same longings, hopes, needs and fears that people have all over the world. Our focus is on the stories of day-to-day life that create an emotional connection – stories that bring us close to the individual people and while doing so help us to get the "big picture". We are also interested in portraying humorous and joyous aspects of life in the former East Germany.
The series will consist of 4 episodes which, taken together, aim to portray the history of the GDR in its entirety. The individual episodes will be ordered chronologically and will deal with a period of about 10 years – yet each of them will highlight a certain topic or thesis.
In each episode, we will tell about five stories, which present enthralling emotional experiences from the life of a protagonist/eyewitness. These stories are told by the protagonists themselves, thereby making East German history understandable on the level of day-to-day life. The stories will be accompanied by additional staging effects that add life to the subjective memories of the protagonists and make it easier for viewers to share their experiences.
These scenes have already been shot on super 16 with 124 actors and a crew of 30 by the feature film director Karsten Laske ("Hundsköpfe") who is also responsible for the dramatisation and the series nature of the films.
The stories of our protagonists are embedded in a narrative level on which GDR history will be presented in its most important points with the help of archive material and interviews with decision-makers in the area of politics or the economy. Archive material will make up about 30 per cent of an episode. In addition to "official" material, much care and effort will be put into finding private film material so as to illustrate the reports of contemporaries as vividly and realistically as possible.
Our aim is to make the series attractive and emotional. Eye-witnesses and contemporaries will not be filmed in front of bland or neutral backgrounds but in attractive locations that have some connection with their personal biographies or that mirror the atmosphere we’re presenting. We’ll be giving them the opportunity to introduce the topic and will then concentrate entirely on the story they have to tell us. The series promises to set a new standard for documentary filming as regards artistic, technical and formal realisation. With the technical and dramaturgical tools of feature films we will go right to the limits of the documentary film genre without, however, leaving it.
The Second World War was over. In the Soviet occupation zone the population had to adjust to the permanent presence of the Russians. There was much antipathy for the occupying forces, but also cooperation with them and even some friendly relations.
The horrors of war were a thing of the past, but day-to-day life was still largely characterised by suffering and fear. Fear of the arbitrary power of a Stalinist-style dictatorship that crushed many a new hope right from the start by means of persecution and arrest of dissenters, intolerance and narrowmindedness, and which drove many to leave. But there was also the will to build a new society, and an air of optimism about the future and the belief that it was possible to create a new and better world on the basis of socialism.
The film covers the period from the founding of the German Democratic Republic to the eve of the construction of the Berlin Wall.
News came in the morning that Stalin was dead. And then they immediately decided on this measure. They didn’t bring anyone up or let anyone go home. They said, "You’re staying in the shaft. We’re organising a watch for Stalin."
Johannes Decker made a career for himself at the Wismut Works (=bismuth) mining uranium for Russia’s atomic bombs. All leading management positions are filled by Russian officers. Decker relates his dealings with the Russians, whom he experiences in the 1950s as the victors of the Second World War.
"Today I can no longer remember how I managed to go on living when my husband was in prison. I went on living and I had a goal: when my husband was released, we would escape to the West. That was possible back then via Berlin. One could escape for the 20 pfennigs a ticket for the underground cost."
Frau Danschke and her husband had a specialist shop for electrical appliances in Stalinstadt. On the eve of the uprising of 17 June 1953 someone informed on her husband. He was arrested and given a three-year sentence for provocation and sabotage. Johanna Danschke was suddenly on her own. She continued to run the business alone.
"We’d gone over to the West to agitate and now we were sitting there with a bag of chocolate we’d been given."
Irene Geismeier attends the World Youth Festival in East Berlin in 1951. The young people had been trained in the agitation of „decadent West Germans“ . When they meet an elderly woman in West Berlin who gives them chocolate as a present, Irene encounters a conflict within herself. Not until the chocolate begins to melt does she dare eat it.
"We appeared with our agitprop group in neighbouring villages. Our lorry was covered with slogans. It sort of reminded us of the depiction of the campaign against illiteracy in old Eisenstein films."
In the late 1950s the last private farmers were to be forced to join large-scale collective agricultural enterprises, the so-called LPGs. Detlef Gosselck travels through the countryside as a member of an agitprop group to convince farmers to join the collectives. He becomes aware of the growing pressure on the farmers and tells us about the methods employed: in addition to agitation, electricity is turned off in the villages or the only small shop in the village is closed. He doesn’t realise how serious things are until he learns that one farmer hanged himself and another drowned himself.
The steady stream of people leaving the country was abruptly stopped in 1961 with the building of the Berlin Wall. For many this was a sign that the GDR had lost all raison d’être and would not exist for much longer. For the interim it was largely a question of just getting along with the reality of the situation as comfortably as possible. True believers, however, breathed a sigh of relief. One could now turn to the task of building a new society without the danger of the GDR "bleeding to death".
Many thought it was now possible to build a socialist society that was superior to Western societies in every regard. The early 1960s were a time of socialist utopia. But it was a utopia that still had to compete with Western savoir vivre.
When the Russians marched into Prague in 1968 and put a bloody end to Dubcek’s reform attempts, this put an end to the hopes of many an East German. It was the end of the utopian idea of a more humane socialism. And it was also clear that the Wall stood on more solid foundations than one had imagined...
"In front of the border I shifted into cross-country gear and engaged the three differential blocks – and then I took off: over three concrete slabs that lay there in a line triply stacked, ripped down a screen - a wooden screen so you couldn’t look into the East from the West -and then with momentum through the barbed-wire rolls right into the wall."
He was a young soldier in the army when the wall was built. Two years later he breaks through the wall in a tank and succeeds in escaping to the West, injured. His parents then break off all contact with him - he is no longer their son.
"This firm conviction that were making progress towards a better future – that’s what shaped us. Those were the years in which the Soviet Union also experienced progress."
Gagarin’s space flight filled Dieter Oertel with such enthusiasm, that this working-class child decided to become a researcher of outer space himself. After finishing school, he manages to get one of the much-desired university places in the Soviet Union. He later works in the field of the outer space technology.
"I had learned my speech by heart. The entire government administrations, the Politbureau, reporters, the press were all present; the military band played marching music. Then came the ceremonial moment. Walter Ulbricht, the head of government at the time, drives up and I present him with the key. He then just says, 'well, let’s take a tour of the place'."
Roland Korn is an architect who designs numerous representative buildings in the GDR, among others the government administration building and the Alexanderplatz (Alexander’s Square). It was task to translate socialist utopia into architectural reality.
"Can you tell me how to cure homesickness? Or can you tell me how to fight against love or longing? No, and yet it is so easy: you get on a train or into a car and travel to your homeland and then there is no more homesickness. Or you visit your loved ones and the yearning vanishes. It’s that easy, but it’s not so easy for me, since I live in Germany."
Hildegard Kruse and her husband left East Germany for the West before the building of the Wall. After the Wall had been built, all paths back to their homeland, back to their children, were suddenly cut off. Their efforts to gain permission to re-enter the GDR war all in vain. When her longing become stronger than she could handle, she decided on a highly unusual course of action...
When Erich Honecker took over the reins of power from Walter Ulbricht,it was the beginning of a new phase of socialism – consumer socialism. He postulated the "unity of economic and social policy". Wages and pensions were increased, paid holidays were extended, consumer goods became more available, and an extensive new programme for housing construction was instituted.
This was the beginning of the GDR’s golden years, which brought relative stability and social modernisation. Ten years later East Germany was on the brink of insolvency. The planned economy with its nonsensical subsidies, the primacy of political decisions over any kind of economic necessity, the striving for”the unity of economic and social policy” – all this ended up breaking the back of the state. The failure of the GDR was above all an economic failure.
"I said I would lend a hand. I got myself relieved from my work as best I could, put on workers’ overalls and then tinkered and built things together with head of consumer goods production. 'Tinkered' really is the right word."
Eberhard Obst worked in the Diesel Motor Works Rostock, where giant diesel motors were built for the deep sea fleet. But to guarantee improvements in the supply of consumer goods to the GDR population, the firm is instructed to produce such goods, as are most East German enterprises as well. Half the GDR is then supplied with can-openers from the Diesel Motor Works in Rostock. But then the works manager thinks it’s time for a new product. He collects western advertising brochures for leisure-time boots made of metal at a trade fair and places them on Herr Obst’s desk.
"One Friday in April 1972 I was invited along with other firms to the district committee. We suddenly had to produce a final balance sheet by the following Monday and then hand the business over to state ownership. That was quite a blow. I went home with my heart beating wildly."
Günter Steiner is the owner of a small, successful business that produces cuddly toys and exports them all over the world. He hears of the nationalisation campaign for the first time at the Leipzig Fair in 1972, where he successfully acquires new commissions. When he returns home with a full order book, he gets a phone call. His business is transfered to "people’s ownership" – over the weekend.
"Breakfast was set up as a buffet, and everything was served in a very, very appetising way, and was so colourful. This was all new to me – that one decorated all these tasty things with fruit that belonged to this or that dish, be it with a pineapple slice or a little strawberry."
The Neptune Hotel in Warnemünde is one of the very few luxury hotels in the GDR. But here, too, there are holiday places for the East German trade union FDGB – so workers and farmers can spend a luxury holiday on the Baltic coast at a ridiculously low price. Frau Gaedike is one of the very first to enjoy one of these much sought-after holiday places. The secretary is all of a sudden a crane operator - on paper at least - since such holiday spots are only offered to workers in industry, and
she then experiences a level of luxury that is undreamt-of in the GDR.
"It was as if we were moving to the moon. Everywhere there were giant mountains of topsoil that had to be levelled again. This had been good farming land and the soil stuck to your shoes. One normally would have had to take a second pair of shoes for going into town, so as to look presentable."
A huge flat-building programme is started in the GDR in the 1970s in order to supply the population with new, comfortable housing. While giantic, dreary, monotonous satellite settlements rise up on the outskirts of towns and cities, old buildings fall increasingly into a state of decay. Frau Apolinarski worked in the department "settlement structure" at the Building Academy of the GDR and later in the area of old building renovation for the city of Berlin. She is allocated a newly built flat in Berlin-Marzahn. Which individual flat she receives is decided by drawing lots.
The 1980s in the GDR were on the one hand a time of rigidity and stagnation. On the other hand these were years of a timid awakening. What was it that held the DDR together internally although it was bankrupt? The Socialist Unity Party was able to make use of a power structure that reached into every corner of society. Whether it was schools, factories or residential areas, party structures formed the skeletal structure that the entire state was based on. Propaganda portrays the image of a unified state. But this image was deceptive, and the symbols of one-party rule had lost all meaning.
The rigidity and stagnation at the start of the 1980s caused people either to look for new meaning or to give up any hopes for change. They were either a part of the power structure or an unwilling object of it. They either sought their path within the party or had long since turned their backs on the system.
"So when the average marks of a school were not up to par after the exams, both the school headship and the party secretary were asked: 'What did you as a party group do to ensure that the pupils would achieve better marks?'"
Andreas Fisch is a teacher and party secretary of his school. As party secretary he represents the all-encompassing demands of the party and thus has a say in all matters. This is how the SED (=Socialist Unity Party) attempts to exercise its power and to monitor all areas of life. However, there are serious cracks in the inner party structures. Andreas Fisch himself reaches a point where he can no longer bear the lies, the inflexibility and the arbitraryness. As a consequence he resigned as party secretary.
"Fried sausages, glasses of liver sausage, ham, loins, smoked pork loins. So when you opened the boot of the car, they had to say: 'I’ll take some of that.' There was no other way. There was such a wonderful smell coming out of the boot. That smell opened many a door for me."
In the small village of Wiederstedt the last pub is closed. And the house where the poet Novalis was born had just been taken off the list of GDR monuments which meant that it could now be legally torn down. Party member Gerald Wahrlich decides to renovate the house all on his own. His organisational talent allows him to succeed in restoring the mansion despite the resistance of the district committee and the permant shortages in building material.
"We were terribly anxious when we entered the police station. The door opened and they snapped at us: 'You can’t just come and knock on the door here. What do you want? And the following words errupted from our throats: We want to leave the country!'"
Beathe Ziethens brother-in-law is arrested trying to escape secretly to the West. Consequently, the entire Ziethen family is harrassed, colleagues at work avoid them, and all prospects of promotion are blocked. They then resolved to apply for permission to emigrate. And now their ordeal really starts.
"Paving stones rained down on us – things really came to a head. Twenty of our men lay on the street behind a car that had been overturned. And then one of them just cried out 'Forward!'. Everyone then jumped up and ran into the crowd of people in an uncrontrolled and chaotic manner."
Karl-Heinz Reiche is a student at the Officers’ College in Dresden in the autumn of 1989. In the night of 4 to 5 October he is on duty at the Dresden train station when it comes to violent clashes between demonstrators and the police.