Judge Joel Pearce takes a look at director Peter Kahane's meditation on one man's struggle for creative expression in a repressive totalitarian state.
An idealistic young architect in the final days of Communism
A completely unique experience, The Architects is a heartfelt story of dreams and disillusionment in East Germany, shortly before the collapse of Communism. It is incredible that this film was released at all, and just as incredible how effectively it both challenges the old East German government and touches on universal themes.
Facts of the Case
Daniel Brenner (Kurt Naumann) was a star student in architecture, winning a number of awards in his youth for innovation. He is 38 years old now, and has been able to do nothing of note under the suffocating East German political system. His dreams long since faded, he is surprised when he is offered the chance of a lifetime: He will head up a team of young, passionate architects who are to create a large community center.
He is thrilled with the opportunity at first, as is his wife, Wanda (Rita Feldmeier, Forget America). But it is not long before that excitement gives way to reality. Wanda falls into despair, tired of playing the housewife while Kurt is creating his masterpiece. Kurt's team also begins to realize how difficult it will be to create anything unique in such an oppressive society. He may be forced to compromise until there is nothing left of his original vision.
The Architects is primarily a film about the death of idealism in a closed system. At the beginning of the story, Daniel is already jaded and disillusioned. There is a small spark of life left in him, though, enough that he agrees to take on the project. Once he assembles his team (made up mostly of one-time architecture students who have long since moved on to less frustrating careers), his passion and idealism returns. He is intoxicated with the opportunity to create something new and innovative, to leave his own mark in the landscape of bland, square, uniform buildings. The rest of the film follows Daniel as he fights with his superiors for every little piece of his dream. After a while, it becomes clear that every road leads to the exact same complex: government-sanctioned designs and utilitarian functions that replicate every other community center in the country.
There are a few problems with this closed state. For one thing, a highly controlled system only works if everyone is on board. Once you have a group of idealistic architects that doesn't care about the state, it is almost impossible to come up with a plan that makes everyone happy. More importantly, though, there are some things that can't be made uniform. You can control where people live, balance their finances, put them in the same clothes, and send them to identical community centers all around the country, but you can't make a nation of people conform completely. Individuals will always try to leave a mark on the world, to follow their own desires and make themselves happy. The greatest accomplishment of The Architects is the way that it shows humanity in an inhuman setting.
Ultimately, it's hard to blame these characters for their constant betrayals and the pain they inflict on each other. After seeing the way the system works, it makes sense that Wanda would look elsewhere for acceptance and happiness. The fights between the architects are logical, as each responds to the system in a different way. Even the strictness and conformity of Daniel's superiors make sense within the context that they are trying to keep politicians happy and the populace under control. The breakdown here is in the system, made more poignant because that system had already begun to crumble by that time.
The performances help to emphasize the humanity of the characters. Kurt Neumann is especially strong as Daniel. He has a wide emotional range to cover in the film, and he is as believable when he is excitedly creating the plans as he is when giving up his shattered dreams. Although we don't get to know the other architects well, each of them has a clear approach and demonstrates how unique they are. These passionate performances strengthen the workmanlike cinematography. Many of the scenes have a TV movie look, although there are a few stunning shots and montages.
The Architects is far from perfect. As expected, a film about architects isn't exactly a pedal-to-the-metal thrill ride, and the pacing slows down to a crawl at times. A bit too much time is spent at the beginning of the film setting up the premise, and it gets a bit preachy. As more things go wrong at the end, it becomes dreary and monotonous to watch. Still, this is about as fascinating as a film about architecture will likely ever be, and it is rare to get a peek into this period in history.
First Run Features has released The Architects on a surprisingly satisfying disc. The video quality is sharp and clean, although it has a strangely flat look to it. It was shot on 35mm, but looks more like it was shot on high-definition video (which didn't exist at the time of the film's production). Still, there are few print flaws, and the colors do a fine job of capturing the dreary surroundings of East Germany. The sound is strong as well and, although I'm not a fan of the accordion-heavy soundtrack, it has been mixed well with the dialogue in the original mono.
There are also a number of special features, designed to give social and political context for the film. The first is an essay on the film, which gives a basic overview of the plot but also explains the importance of politics in architecture. Following this, there is an interview with director Peter Kahane. It is a great interview in which he discusses the way that the production of The Architects, one of the most subversive films in East German history, mirrored the experience of the architects in the film. Following this, there is another interview with Kahane, and he further discusses the challenges of making and releasing the film. There is also a text interview with screenwriter Thomas Knauf. There is an audio interview with actress Judith Richter, also, but it is in German with no subtitles. Rounding out the extras are a few brief galleries of stills from the film and set design sketches. These are very useful extras for the most part, and help to explain where The Architects comes from.
Even though it won't draw a crowd of excited viewers, The Architects is an impressive film that captures a political period with honesty and sadness. Anyone fascinated by history and politics will appreciate its vision, and the extra features help to further clarify the film's perspective.
I'm glad that Kahane and crew were willing to fight the system to bring us this honest look at the politics of Eastern Germany.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Interviews with Director
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