Hannes Stöhr’s Berlin is in Germany talks about an East German adjusting to life in a unified nation
What if you were raised in a place that resembled jail, and that’s your default state of being? You don’t know what it is to be free.
Mr Brooks is perhaps modern cinema’s most well-known instance of a prisoner attempting to rebuild a life after release. The character appears in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). He’s an old man when he gets out. He’s seen the odd automobile as a kid, but now they’re everywhere and he can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry,” he writes in a letter to his friends inside prison. He gets a job bagging groceries, but his hands hurt and the store manager hates him. He wonders if he should commit a crime and get back into prison. Then, he kills himself.
Things aren’t quite so dramatic in Hannes Stöhr’s Berlin is in Germany (2001), which is part of this year’s Urban Lens Film Festival, curated by Bina Paul. The website describes the event as “a one-of-a-kind international film festival that brings together filmmakers, academics and urban practitioners to dialogue with each other on cinema and the urban experience”. Berlin is in Germany certainly fits in. The Brooks-equivalent here is Martin (Jörg Schüttauf). He was imprisoned in Brandenburg Prison 9, in East Germany, before the fall of the Wall. When he is released in 2oo1, everything has changed.
For one, he was raised in a surveillance State. As he says later, “You couldn’t say anything, because someone from the Stasi was always there.”
For most people, jail is the unnatural state of being, and the outside — where there’s freedom — is where they long to be. But what if you were raised in a place that resembled jail, and that’s your default state of being? You don’t know what it is to be free.
You don’t know how to be free, how to handle the fact that you can think and say and do anything, anytime, anywhere. And now, you don’t know how to negotiate a world you’ve seen only on a television set.
Martin’s wife, Manuela (Julia Jäger), is now with another man. His friends have vanished. He is unemployable. The ticketing machine at the railway station spits out his East German currency, which implies that the past has been completely wiped out. Saddest of all, he doesn’t know his 11-year-old son, Rokko (Robin Becker). The first time he visits Manuela, he stops at a store to buy something for Rokko. A worker at the store asks what Rokko’s hobbies are. He hesitates. “Hobbies… When you ask me like that... I don’t know what he does or what his hobbies are. But it should be something modern. I saw an ad for it. It’s something where you press with both hands…” He can’t remember the name of the thing. Maybe he should just get a football!
He arrives at Manuela’s home. Rokko opens the door. His mother is at work, and she’s told the boy not to let “strangers” in. What an apt, lovely word this is in this situation: Martin is a stranger not just to Rokko, but to this new Germany. He puts the things he’s bought (including Rokko’s present) outside the door and leaves.
If you recall the Brooks segment in The Shawshank Redemption, it’s fascinating to compare the tonality of the two films. The Hollywood movie is melodramatic. This German one is stark. We are not invited to feel sorry for Martin and weep for him. We are simply asked to observe his plight.
We are simply given the facts. Fact: Manuela lost touch with Martin because he didn’t want her to visit him in prison anymore. Fact. Manuela did not know about his release because she did not apply for the information. (Yes, you needed to fill out a form even for something this fundamental.) Fact: Martin’s psychological state could make him reach out to Manuela (after all, she is his only rooting factor; even his son is a stranger). Fact: She should not promise him too much. “That could make him overreact if he’s disappointed. But don’t apply for divorce or withdraw custody of his son yet. That would be too much for him. He needs you, but he also has to become independent.”
The latter words come from a case officer, and the film depicts Martin’s slow transition to the new Germany. The film’s most moving (again, not melodramatic, just moving) plot point has Martin sighing about the fact that names of streets have changed. “Fritz Heckert Strasse is Engeldamm, Ho Chi Min Strasse is Weissenseerweg. Can you tell me how they could change Helmut Just Strasse to Behmstrasse?” It’s another sign that the old has become new, the familiar has become unfamiliar and has to be made familiar again.
Berlin is in Germany doesn’t tell us about the significance of these names (of the streets), but when I Googled up “Helmut Just”, I found out he was a cop in the GDR who was killed 30 December, 1952, when firing broke out at the border between West and East Berlin. Perhaps this reminder of the “Germany that was” was too uncomfortable for the “Germany that is”. Even Manela and Rokko are now products of the new Germany. It’s not just the physical rebuilding of the country (the renaming of the streets, for one) that Martin has to grapple with. There’s also an emotional dimension.
The good thing is that Martin stays positive. As contrast, we have his old friend, Peter, who we meet as he attempts to jump off a building. After reunification, he went over to the West, to a building site in Stuttgart. “Over there, their own people come first, then Giuseppe, then Achmed, then ‘Easties’ right at the bottom.” Peter couldn’t take it. Martin, on the other hand, has a goal to hold on to, something that will make him get through this fog of confusion. He wants to get to know Rokko and have a relationship with the boy.
Berlin is in Germany is thus a quietly positive story. The predicament that Martin finds himself in is something many people from the East have found themselves in. And many of these many people have managed to land on their feet. Why, Manuela herself has a good job, a good apartment, a good man from the “West”!
Every year, when I go to the Berlin Film Festival, I stay at a hotel very near the Wall. I walk past remnants of the Wall, which are now a cultural artefact, a tourist attraction. And films like Berlin is in Germany give me a glimpse of what it must have been like when the Wall was stone-cold fact.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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