For years, my idea of post-WWII Germany resembled something like this: on the East-side of an arbitrary, but monumental grey wall, was a statewide gulag with everyone, eerily marching against brightly coloured propaganda posters of rosy-cheeked children. On the West-side, tousle-haired tweenies listen to pop and rock in American malls. In essence, my understanding of two post-war ideologies was reduced to their cultural touchstones. It was not until I saw Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 tragicomedy Good Bye, Lenin! that this history took on any human aspect.
“I remember seeing that film with my mother,” Bettina Kinsky, co-ordinator of the German Film Festival, tells me on the phone from Melbourne. “She cried at something as simple as the Spreewald pickle scene. There is a sense of nostalgia when she remembers life as it was.”
“Films like Good Bye, Lenin! and Sun Alley (Sonnenallen) show the normality of life in East Germany. It wasn’t all violent suppression and censorship: it was also an everyday domestic reality for many people.”
Balloon, the opening night offering of this year’s festival, begins with a family, affectionately bickering at a school assembly. However, a couple of glances over the shoulder are enough to establish the paranoia beneath the veneer of family life; the paranoia generated by constant surveillance by the Stasi becomes instantly palpable.
“I was very young when the Wall fell, but there are so many stories about spies within friendship and family circles,” Bettina tells me. “For example, my father was once fired from his job for expressing views against the regime. Later we found out that his cousin had informed on him.”
Knowledge of this paranoia makes the Balloons’ plot seem initially quite unlikely: two families living in the East attempt to cross the Wall via a homemade hot air balloon. Nonetheless, the film is based on the story of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families who covertly stitched together thousands of yards of fabric in their cellar, all the while keeping a hawk’s eye out for the vital, but very rare, northerly wind.
The incident was indeed quick to capture the attention of American filmmakers, despite not being so widely known even in West Germany. Doing what they do best, Hollywood turned the story into a Disney confection, in the slightly trite tradition of ‘great escape’ genre. The result was Night Crossing (1982), directed by Delbert Mann and starring John Hurt and Beau Bridges. However, the film failed to impress the two families.
Fast forward to 2018, and Michael Herbig’s attempt in Balloon has received much wider critical acclaim. Herbig, Bettina tells me, is a very well-known comedian and entertainer in Germany who is known mostly for his satirical takes on the western and sci-fi genres (Manitou’s Shoe, 2001 and Dreamship Surprise, 2004 respectively); Balloon is his first ‘serious’ film.
Herbig’s background as a comedian is still evident in this film, with the suspense and pacing constructed in a way that only one with excellent comic timing could master. It is not a slow simmering tension, with the main characters experiencing the paranoia of Stasi observation for much of the film. The tension builds and releases much in the same way as a comedian delivers a punchline. It is the first film I have watched in a while where the audience was very audibly and visibly on the edge of their seats, thanks to some very savvy and fluid editing.
However, it was not only clever film-making that had the audience chatting in the foyer afterwards: “People at every opening night have walked out of the cinema and started telling everyone their own stories of domestic life and escape—especially those with some connection to East Germany,” says Bettina. “It is not just a thriller; it is a very touching and moving film.”
The German Embassy have also curated a separate program of three films which “aim to show that life then was not as black-and-white as history would have us believe”. Among them is Gundermann, a 2018 biopic about the eponymous folk singer and Stasi informer—a film that was highly successful at German Film Awards (or Lolas) earlier this year, claiming Best Film, Best Actor and Best Director. Gundermann was something of an East German equivalent to Bob Dylan: a multifaceted folk singer who gained popularity especially amongst displaced and disillusioned citizens of the former German Democratic Republic post-1989. He was later found to have reported on his friends and colleagues to the Stasi. “Sometimes,” says Bettina, “people do the wrong things for the right reasons, just as they do the right things for the wrong reasons. This is something that these films really expose.”
In the face of globalisation there is now, perhaps more than ever, a need to interrogate the question of nationalism and the concept of national narrative. The brilliance of this festival’s selections is that they generate opportunities for questioning: they promote alternative storytelling, in doing so examining the nature of belonging after so long in enforced separation. There is always something we could learn in reliving our own history.
The German Film Festival runs until June 12. For more information visit their website.