Donnerstag, 12. Februar 2009
Do you remember that joke? ‘Will the last person who leaves East Germany please switch off the lights?’ Twenty years ago this summer the old Eastern Bloc began to fall apart. Tens of thousands of East Germans applied for exit visas, or left the country illegally, many crossing the ‘green’ border into Czechoslovakia, Hungary and then on to Austria and West Germany. As in the early 1960s when the exodus of Germans from the Soviet sector could only be stopped by building the Wall, East Germany seemed to be on the brink of losing its people.
This year the Berlin International Film Festival is marking the anniversary of the fall of the Wall with a series of feature films and documentaries which presaged the coming radical change. The programme is named after Helke Misselwitz’s documentary ‘After Winter Comes Spring’. Shown at the 1988 Leipzig Documentary Film Festival, the film portrayed for the first time ordinary East Germans unafraid of speaking their minds openly in front of the camera.
Earlier this week while waiting to buy tickets for some of the films in the series, I started talking to the man in the queue beside me. Like me he wanted to see Piotr Szulkin’s science-fiction parable of life in a dictatorship ‘The War of the World – The Next Century’ (Wojna Swiatow – Nastepne Stulecie). In fact he had wanted to see it since its completion in 1983 but in those days the film had been banned in East Germany.
‘Where are you from?’ I asked him.
‘Leipzig,’ he replied. ‘I’m originally from Leipzig.’
Coincidentally I’d just read about the ‘discovery’ of a Leipzig apartment which had been locked and left untouched for the last twenty years. According to press reports, it had been abandoned by its East German occupants, who perhaps had decided like so many others to get out as the communist state crumbled around them.
‘It was a kind of socialist treasure chamber with aluminium flatware, plastic dishes and unopened bottles of Vita cola, plus twenty year-old rolls in the bread bin,’ I told him. ‘Evidently the tenant had been in trouble with the police which, I guess, is why he never went back.’
I asked the man in the queue if he’d read the story. He didn’t respond for a minute and I wondered if he’d heard my question.
‘We also left Leipzig that last summer,’ he finally said. ‘My mother told friends that we were going on holiday to Lake Balaton in Hungary, packed the car and drove to the border. We left the car on a track not far from a place called Sopron and – carrying our beach things – walked to the West.’
‘So the Leipzig apartment could have been yours,’ I joked.
He shook his head. ‘No, my father stayed behind, and he didn’t like Vita cola.’
I laughed, he didn’t. He went on, ‘My mother has been back. My brother and sister too. But I haven’t.’
‘It’s been twenty years,’ I said.
Quite suddenly he was speaking loudly, passionately, ‘People forget. People forget about the lies and the spying and stink of the brown coal. They buy a jar of Spreewälder Gurken and get all warm and sentimental, remembering only the good old days, forgetting that we couldn’t travel, we couldn’t choose.’ He took a breath. ‘Why would I ever go back? Why would I want to relive those years?’
‘Because there is no more East Germany, no more Stasi,’ I suggested. ‘Leipzig is a different place today.’
‘I thank God that there are films to remind us of what it was like,’ he said, nodding toward the box office. ‘Of how we dreamed it could be.’
Two spaces came free at the box office windows ahead of us. I went to one, he to the other. After I’d collected my tickets, I turned to continue our conversation, but the man was gone.
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