Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is shopping for a used Trabant.
"The parallels are clear. Things can't go any further, not forward or backward. And so one waits. No idea for what."
When I was in school, East and West weren't just directions on a map. The East referred to the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries under Moscow's control. The West referred to The Free World. The two sides didn't get along, but weren't fighting. Instead they had a Cold War with simmering tensions.
In 1989, something happened that would drastically change the world's geopolitical climate—or at least keep mapmakers busy making revisions: the Berlin Wall, which rose in 1961 to keep East Germans from leaving, fell. The German Democratic Republic would soon fall as well.
With freedom came a lot of sudden change for the people of East Germany. One of those people was Andreas Dresen, one of the last filmmakers trained in East Germany. Instead of having to worry about censors, Dresen suddenly had to contend with financial and marketplace pressures.
"It became clear to me that this could be my first and last chance," Dresen said of his first feature-length movie, Silent Country (Stilles Land).
Silent Country, which came out in 1992, is notable as a record of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the pressures that came across the border immediately.
The DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst brings Dresen's work to American audiences with Silent Country and Short Films by Andreas Dresen. The university houses the most extensive non-German collection of materials from the East German film company, with more than 400 prints.
Facts of the Case
Silent Country and Short Films by Andreas Dresen features a feature-length movie and six shorts on two discs:
Disc One: Silent Country
It's fall 1989, though. People are marching in the streets and a new general secretary is chosen. The theater company is drafting bold resolutions for open discussion and hanging antennas out windows to see the latest news from West Germany on TV.
Kai's moody and tough on his cast. "This is no way to do theater. This sloppiness. I simply have to tell you it's…it's…It's ignorant! I won't tolerate this in the future!" he tells them. A pan of the ensemble suggests they're barely listening. One cast member, Theo, is more concerned about what hat he'll wear than what statement he'll make.
Kai has got the attention of his lovely assistant Claudia. Her tender attention after he walks into a rough bar asking for tea and gets clobbered sets the stage for romance. However, when the Berlin Wall falls and Kai's more concerned about the upcoming production of Godot, Claudia urges him to hitchhike with her to Berlin for the historic occasion.
"Please! Do something crazy for once and forget the dumb rehearsal," Claudia pleads with him.
The thing that Kai's been waiting for has come at last. Will it leave him behind?
Disc Two: Short Films
"What Every Man Must Do…": A documentary shows training and a lonely Christmas for a young married man service his compulsory stint in the army. (1988; 19 minutes; black-and-white)
"The Rats Sleep at Night": A young boy sleeps, stick in hand, in the rubble of a house bombed during World War II. An old man finds him, but the boy won't leave. "I have to keep watch," the boy says. (1988; 10 minutes)
"Far From Klein Wanzleben": Members of the Friendship Brigades live in Zimbabwe as they teach construction work. (1989; 41 minutes)
"Train in the Distance": Does the man who's waiting at a train station really know anyone in Paris? And will the local train ever arrive? (1989; 20 minutes)
"Shortcut to Istanbul": It's also a shortcut to saving on rent when West German fast-food worker Niyazi romances East German hospital worker Karla. (1990; 42 minutes; black-and-white)
I didn't get very far into Silent Country before I had a rough idea where it was headed. I surmised that the idealistic and committed Kai would end up an irrelevancy and even lose adoring Claudia to the lure of the West. I wasn't far off.
Already in 1992, it seems, it was clear to Germans that the fall of the Berlin Wall, while it meant the end of repression and the start of material gains for many, was also bringing harsh realities.
Thorsten Merten makes the audience identify with Kai, even as he throws tantrums at his cast, practically ignores one of the 20th century's most important events, and even snaps at a stray cat that wanders into his tiny quarters. I sympathized with his pain at realizing that he could well be just another footnote to history.
Silent Country depicts a nation in its final days distracted by chaos through small things—from the way everyone gathers around for a news report to the crummy rooms Kai lives in to the overloaded phone circuits once the Berlin Wall crumbles.
If that's what piqued your curiosity, though, some of the short films included in this collection will be more interesting. There's not too much to say about the short, slight "Consequences—Peter, Age 25" and "The Rats Sleep At Night," but Dresen's other shorts are fascinating.
The two documentaries, "What Every Man Must Do…" and "Far From Klein Wanzleben," have their share of propaganda, but seem like unintentional (or are they?) indictments of the way East Germany controls its citizens. The young soldier in "Every Man" spends a Christmas in a bleak barracks as a Party hack offers dubious "good reasons" for his service. In "Klein Wanzleben," the children of the Friendship Brigade members are seen getting an East German education, one which makes sure they're up on the Party slogans and credits the Soviets with winning World War II. Getting to travel isn't easy. "You have to fight for every trip, pass practical exams, be cleared by the authorities and everything," one woman says.
The last two films, "Train in the Distance" and "Shortcut to Istanbul," offer more mundane glimpses into the lives of East Germans. In "Distance," the late train, the clock that doesn't work, and the shared wish to travel are more revelatory than the story. "Shortcut to Istanbul," filmed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, shows the maze of cramped East German apartments, where people sit watching TV because they're too broke to go out, and stores that sell goods that are priced out of reach of everyday people. While things are clearly better in West Berlin, the protagonist, a fast-food worker, isn't very optimistic about life on his side of the Wall, either.
"Distance" and "Shortcut" also are the best films in the set from a creative standpoint. The wistful "Distance" creates poetry from an everyday encounter. "Shortcut" effectively uses black-and-white film to portray the gray city of East Berlin; it's not exactly noir, but it creates a moody atmosphere with shadows.
The picture on Silent Country has some grain and flecks, and there's a momentary freeze around the 1:20 mark. The sound does well enough, though. The short films are somewhat the worse for wear, but of serviceable quality.
The main extra on Silent Country is "Debut Films: Andreas Dresen on Silent Country," an in-depth interview with the director. He talks about getting his start in the environment of bureaucracy and censorship in the former East Germany, and then making a career in the newly unified country. For a look at that career, check out the Filmography with German Trailers; it'll give you a few clues about his work. "Making of Silent Country" shows Dresen at work during a few key scenes from Silent Country. Excerpts of newspaper reviews of Dresen's work are also found in the DVD set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The realization that freedom brought new pressures and problems to East Germany and the rest of the former Soviet Bloc isn't a revelation at this point. Silent Country is an interesting slice of life, but it loses some of its punch when it's no longer surprising.
In the interview, Andreas Dresen wonders why one of his light comedies still airs on TV while Silent Country has disappeared. Perhaps it's because he and others did the job too well. I hadn't seen Silent Country before, but the impressions it left felt familiar.
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst deserves kudos for preserving East German's cinematic history. Silent Country and Short Films by Andreas Dresen offers a rare glimpse of life—and propaganda—in the Soviet Bloc.
The two-disc DVD set is pricey, so buyers are probably limited to those who have a special interest in the fall of the Berlin Wall and East German life. If you can catch Silent Country or any of Andreas Dresen's short films at a film festival, I highly recommend it, though. I hope the DEFA Film Library will bring down the price at some point to make the movies more widely available.
Not guilty. I'll have to go now; my arm's getting tired from hanging my TV antenna out the window.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: DEFA Film Library
• Debut Films: Andreas Dresen on Silent Country
• DEFA Film Library at University of Massachusetts Amherst
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