Interview : “We were seen as too immature for 40 years and then suddenly we were too old”
The director Peter Kahane on his experiences as a filmmaker before, during and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Berlin - Peter Kahane never thought that, with his film “The Architects,” he would become an eyewitness to the disappearance of the GDR. He mostly thought that it would be a tussle for power with the studio. After several failed attempts to get his films made at Defa, he decided to put everything on one throw of the dice. A failure would have meant, like so many of his friends and colleagues, having to leave the country. Instead, the country left him. Filmed at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, “The Architects” became the last cinema film made in the GDR. In May Peter Kahane celebrated his 70th birthday. The world has changed but still he has to fight for his projects. He came to the interview in a local café in Prenzlauer Berg with his front door key still in his hand. He has lived in the house opposite the café for 40 years.
Herr Kahane, let's talk about “The Architects”. You started filming in September 89 and finished in January 1990. In your story, attempts to change things end in resignation but things were moving on the streets. Were you never tempted to rewrite the script every day?
We actually did start to write new scenes, but most of it was thrown out later on. In its basic structure, the film remains as was planned. I wrote the script together with my friend Thomas Knauf, taking no notice of the censors, and we intended to take up all of the themes and conflicts of that time. That sort of thing doesn't just appear overnight and it can't just be changed overnight. It wasn’t necessary either. My cameraman Andreas Köfer –also an important part of the project — stopped taking notes about the making of the film. Everything about the characters and their conflict stayed just as we planned. What changed was the tone. The film was supposed to intervene into the process that had been going on since the mid-80s. It was supposed to show an active character, an architect, who got involved and fought for his project and fell flat on his face, then into deep resignation but in the end won out. It essentially stayed like that, except that his failure is emphasized at the end and the tone of the film shifted over into the tragic.
As a director, how do you go about changing the tone of a film?
Mainly in the montage and in the use of music.
In the closing image of the film, the main character, Daniel Brenner, is sick next to the VIP stand after the laying of the foundation stone for the building project that was supposed to be his.
Probably not but I don’t really know any more. We re-shot the scene in the local pub – and I'm quite sure about this – in which a colleague of our protagonist talks about being able to do much more under the protective wing of the church. We also filmed the demonstration on 4 November on the Alexanderplatz. At the time I thought we could perhaps have the film end that way. We were still quite optimistic that it would become a story that emphasized the desire for reform. We didn't use that section and the film ended up being a farewell to the GDR.
What sort of effect did outside events have on the filming? People suddenly had a lot of other things to think about after all
Actually, we wanted to start filming in April of 89 but the studio bosses used all sorts of excuses to drag out the starting date. In the summer, when people started leaving via Hungary, we still hadn't started filming for the first time I had the feeling that our film would be dragging along behind events. Nobody had any idea that the GDR would end so quickly, of course. A lot happened during the time we were filming.
One scene in the film is set at the Tränenpalast [the Palace of Tears, a building at the Friedrichstrasse train station where people said goodbye to each other] and the wife and daughter of the architect are going to the West…
That was one of the most moving days of filmmaking in my life. It was before the fall of the Wall, of course. It took a lot of effort to get permission from the border Regiment but we were not allowed to film in a documentary style. That's why I directed all of our extras mixed in amongst the genuine travelers.
There were a few historical days in the autumn of 1989 in which time seemed to leap forward. What affect that have on the film?
I always associate great events with particular locations. On the day that Eric Honecker resigned we were filming upstairs in the House of the Child in the Karl-Marx-Allee. We discussed it and everyone had a different opinion but, in the end, there was no fundamental disagreement about the project. I had a similar experience on October 7th, the day of the notorious police excesses, and on November 4th. The biggest change came with the fall of the Wall. That was the point at which I knew that the film would no longer be the one that we had in our heads. Our film about contemporary events suddenly came to be about the past.
Was there ever a point at which you wanted to stop filming?
Yes, there was. But I couldn't just simply stop. I have too much film discipline in me for that. And it slowly became clear to me that one could conceive of the film historically, that it would be a document because it told the story of those who wanted to bring something to the table and were not allowed to. It was a film that told the story of those who were robbed of their hopes.
The film was eventually shown in cinemas in May 1990.
And nobody wanted to watch it. That's clear to me. All of a sudden people were worrying about other things. The normal business of life. A new life. Who’s going to watch films like mine? The Premiere took place in May 1990 at the last national film festival of the GDR in Berlin. Six months earlier and it would have meant something. But now? The world had changed in that six months.
The film is an allegory about making films that time. Creatives with their big ideas were being sidelined.
Yes, the film also contained my experience of being a filmmaker translated into the work of an architect. The idea is that filmmakers and architects are both strongly controlled by their respective funders. But it is also an allegory about the path from a great idea to illusion and from illusion to failure. It is an allegory about socialism.
According to Wikipedia "the architects" there were only 5,354 people who saw it in the GDR.
And I feel as though I know them all personally.
The film is being shown again in many special screenings not only in Berlin but in film clubs in smaller cities. You can also download it anytime from Amazon. The more time passes, the more it is perceived as a historical document of 1989.
I'm very pleased about that, naturally. Any film, regardless of when it is made, also tells a story about the time it was made. If I were to make a film about the GDR today, I would tell the story in a completely different way.
What would that look like?
The first thing I would have to do is talk about what is missing from the films I have seen about the GDR. All too seldom are they made by people who experienced the East. For me, I don't capture the mood. In that sense I would like to make a film that was more about experience than projection. The stories told about the GDR are often too melodramatic for my tastes. With that I don't mean too emotional. They should be emotional. The melodrama comes from the clichés the films have dealt with in the context of the GDR.
And these clichés originate in the West, do they? Or is that itself a cliché?
German identity today is based, as far as I am concerned, on decades of differentiation from the East. To be a German today means not being East German. This happened quite unconsciously, even with people who knew the GDR and had friends there. This differentiation has left many traces, unfortunately. East Germans are simply “the other” and that is how they continue to be portrayed in many films. The characters in these films often seem to be projections of the film maker, who imagine what role they would play in a socialist system. They can either be functionaries or one of the oppressed, the dissidents, and we are back with the clichés, and we are at the margins. Of course, dissidents need an antagonist, the Stasi, the big story. What is missing are films that tell big stories about small everyday things, including the political, where the characters are not simply cyphers, but teach us something. It doesn't always have to be about the Wall and barbed wire, as important as stories about the Wall and barbed wire are. But it can be more.
Why haven't we seen any of these films from you?
I've been throwing different ideas into the ring for 30 years, including complete scripts. Once I was just about to start filming a story but then it didn't happen. Perhaps people suspect that I will try to make conditions in the GDR look better than they were because I don't take these big events as my central themes. I've no idea…
It is paradoxical that relatively soon after the Wall came down there were lots of films that took up the East as a theme, but those that could have done so based on their own experiences were sidelined.
Film is always about money. The producer wants a director he can trust with money and that he will make the right film. Prevailing conditions always play a role in that and Easterners did not have any structure. The producer didn't exist in the GDR at all. We have no network. When I say "we" I mean my fellow directors who were older than 40 when the Wall came down. On top of that there was a sort of latent mistrust as to whether we were able to reflect our experiences with the system in a way that fitted. The following generation of filmmakers was welcomed much more openly.
In 1989, although you were 40, you were seen as a part of the group of so-called "young talent" at Defa. What became of your colleagues?
As far as I know, none of my fellow directors from my generation were able to find their feet in the German film scene.
What does Defa mean to you today?
I learned a lot at the Defa and had wonderful colleagues, friends, with whom I worked. Despite this I always felt like a guest at the firm. I never penetrated through into the inner circles, probably because I was not a member of the SED. I never had the feeling that I was a participant, but then I often felt that throughout my life.
You once said that the problem for your generation was never to have gained entry to the GDR, to never have been allowed to participate.
In East Germany, after the end of the war, a kind of holy alliance between the anti-fascists who came back from exile and the war veterans came about. They represented two dominant groups, bound together by their experience of the war – even if they had come to it from very different directions. They held together, even if only for programmatic reasons. And no matter how much we were told that the future belonged to the post-war generation, we weren't really wanted. We were treated like children in the kindergarten. “The Architects” is about that generation.
And then the GDR disappeared and you still weren’t trusted.
For 40 years we were seen as too young and immature and then suddenly we were too old. We went straight from being the follow-on generation to the scrapheap. I think that my generation is defined by that. Personally, that only applies partly to me because I was able to make films after 1989 even if I couldn't deal with all the themes that my heart wanted to.
After the Wall came down people were able to watch the so-called "Cellar films" that were banned in 1965/66 after the 11th Plenum of the Central Committee of the SED. Did they have any relevance for you?
Of course. Above all, because you can feel that people wanted to change things with these films. They move me still today, even if the rhythm or the aesthetic is possibly a bit outmoded. Back then a lot of it was innovative. It is a terrible thing that this line of development was stopped so brutally.
The result was a much more streetwise ability to fit in.
Yes. Fitting in. With terrible consequences. But many committed Defa artists still continue to look for ways of expressing and showing what they thought was right. In films about fairytales, in historical films, in comedy. Lots of remarkable films were made as a result. The pressure to fit in was a central theme of the GDR, not only for film people. It was part of life in the GDR to remove yourself as far as possible from the straitjacket and to create your own space in order to have fun, to support each other, to exchange opinions and, maybe, to wait for the correct moment. It may not sound very courageous today, but some of these spaces into which we withdrew were often very creative, playful, oppositional and proud. By these spaces I mean what are often known as niches. I don't like the word because all words with a long i tend to sugarcoat things. “Ossi” is such a word. That was the first attempt to solve the problem of the East by sugarcoating it.
What made you want to become a director?
As a child I simply loved going to the cinema. I loved submerging myself into a strange world, to let stories wash over me. In the East I watched Soviet films about horsemen, such as “Chapaev” and “Kochubey” and in West Berlin, in my uncle’s cinema, I saw the Western equivalents. Later, in the children's home, the mobile cinema would come once a week with all sorts of things on the program. I watched everything. And when it was a film only per 16-year-olds and above I would lie secretly behind the screen and watched them from an angle and bank to front. Sometimes I talked to friends spread the load centers and is on the way home from school about what we wanted to become. And as if it was the most natural thing, I told him that I wanted to make films. I surprised myself that I had said those words. I was 15 and I have stuck to it.
Tell me more about this children's home
I'll have to give you a bit of background first. My father studied law in Berlin until 1933 but always wanted to be a journalist. After the years of emigration and resistance he returned to East Berlin in 1945 and worked for the ADN (the state news agency of East Germany) and the Berliner Zeitung.
He was deputy chief editor of the Berliner Zeitung…
Yes. My mother was also active as a journalist at the Nuremberg war trials and then became a foreign correspondent, initially in Prague, which is why I was born there in 1949. As time went by it emerged that he felt most at home in the GDR when he was abroad. It was a way of life that he enjoyed. On the one hand he was loyal to the party but on the other hand liberal and cosmopolitan and he could be both of those things best when he was abroad. For a while we were together as a complete family, 1958/59 in India. My younger sister stayed with my parents and my brother and I had to return to the GDR. We were in a home in Bad Freienwalde for five years. There were about 80 or 90 children there whose parents were something to do with foreign trade. It was a little world which reflected a whole country. I know what provincial life in the GDR was like from these years. This led to conflict with my father later on because I thought that I knew much more about everyday life in the GDR than he did. I was 18 years old. We found our way back to each other later and were very close.
You turned your memories of the children's home into a film script…
Which was definitively rejected. It went on for years. When I first offered the story in the 90s, I was told that no one was interested in the East any more. I remember a conversation with the producer who complained that the film contained neither the Berlin Wall nor the Stasi. I thought that was very funny because the whole thing was set in a village 80 km from the Wall and teenagers were not bothered about the Stasi anyway.
What is the story about?
It is supposed to be a film about growing up in the GDR. Coming-of-age. With all the conflicts of a 15-year-old. There was to be a special role for the head of the school. The model for the film character had a past as an officer in the German army, whereas my father had a past as a leader in the resistance. Now, so, in 1965, both of them were in the same party. I tried to write a story about the problems of the GDR that were also my problems.
The socialist way of dealing with the national socialist past…
Yes. The GDR was founded as an antifascist state and they expended a lot of effort in keeping that status because it was, to a certain extent, a blank cheque for anyone who attached themselves to it, along the lines of: we will forgive you everything as long as you cooperate. This led to the development of many problems that still hang on today. We have a GDR which has not worked through its own history, a lot of family histories that haven't been worked through and a great silence. On the other hand, there was, after the war, a serious level of pacifism amongst the people who were released from the German army as defeated young men. I wanted to show that too. What the compromises were that had to be made in order to construct a country and how that failed. As we can see in the election results now, a lot of repressed stuff is coming back to the surface.
Did you experience anti-Semitism in your youth?
There were of course cases but I have to say that people were not really aware of what they said. Everything sounded just colloquial in an unconcerned way. For example, if we ran around on the sports field “until we felt as though we’d been gassed” or people said things like: “you dirty Jewish pig.” And when things got too loud in the children’s home the head would use his favorite phrase: “we are not in some sort of Jewish school.” Many people were not really conscious of what they said or heard. The problem was that nobody really spoke up against it. At least, I can’t remember anyone doing so. Anti-Semitism in the GDR was also not a theme. It was just language. But at some point it could become more. Did become more. Suddenly with there were neo-Nazis in the GDR. Well, supposedly suddenly. Looking back, it is difficult for many East Germans to accept that there was anti-Semitism in their country. Pointing to it in the West Germany doesn't help much. It's like dealing with the dangerous virus. If you don't take action it hibernates. Somehow. And then, in spring, it becomes dangerous…
Were there conversations about this issue with your Jewish colleagues at Defa? Did you talk about being Jewish at all?
Not at Defa. We had other things on our minds. But when I arrived in Berlin, when I was 16, I had lots of Jewish friends, mostly emigrants. It was a big subject amongst them. Most of them had artistic ambitions, wanted to go into the theatre or become painters. It played an important role amongst us but I never became a member of the Jewish community. Our branch of the family was not religious and we didn't live any sort of Jewish tradition. My parents didn't do that. My connection to Jewishness can be best described with Woody Allen's words: I'm Jewish, but I don't know the tunes.
Have you ever thought about writing a history of your family? It's not as difficult as writing a film.
Everyone is writing their family histories at the moment. But I'm not a literary writer. I'd have to see if I was up to it. I've written a lot of film scripts, but that is something different. You write: he comes. He goes. He says: colon. You’re trying to turn all of the reflections that play a role in prose into action, into dialogue and images. That's how I'm conditioned now. I think I can do it, too. Anyway, I haven't finished with film yet. Maybe I'll do it when I know that the films have all dried up. Then I’ll sit down to write.
What are you working on the moment?
I've always got several projects on the go because I know that there are always fallow periods. I am furthest on with a treatment about a German female opera singer. She is sentenced to death in 1943 by a German special court in Prague because she has helped Jews to flee. When it became clear to her that she wouldn’t be pardoned she started a love affair with someone on death row. It is a moving, tender, and naturally quite platonic love story. It is a true story and we have lots of secret messages from her. They show a woman who does not want to die devoid of love, and who didn't want to be a victim. I’ve been working on the project for many years. The script is finished, I have a producer and a leading actress and now I hope we will also have some money to make the film.
That’s also a story from the past. Have you decided not to deal with the present?
No, I’m interested in it as well but I think that looking back can also help us understand the present. I’m developing a story together with the colleague that deals with the 90s. The period after the Wall came down. We want to try to look at those years in an authentic and critical way. What happened to those people who now vote for the AfD? Or to the children who were punks and were beaten up by the Nazis — under the eyes of the police? Or with women, who were so proud and independent, and then unemployed? Or with old people? In a baker’s shop in Prenzlauer Berg in 1990 an old woman said: “they’ll slaughter as old women first…” Of course, they didn’t slaughter them but they disappeared anyway. The old people left Berlin for the suburbs or the provinces while the young people left the provinces for the West. And the Westerners took up the most important posts in the East. That was when all of the problems we have today started.
In an interview in 1993 you asked for patience towards Easterners. Has anything changed?
We need more than patience today. We need understanding. We need people to abandon their hardline positions and listen.
Haven’t we actually gone backwards?
Maybe, but I have the feeling that this anniversary will be used to discuss the problems with German unity much more intensively, with the structural and economic decisions that have led the political landscape to look like it does. Reunification has benefited the extreme right most. Those guys found their feet straightaway. The further left you move, the more complicated it becomes. The craziest example of this was the way that the SPD was completely marginalized during the process of unification. It is about time that we said quite clearly what has not functioned.
It has been 30 years, after all…
Germany always needs a long time to come to terms with its own past.
At the same time a new sense of stagnation is spreading. The demonstrations of the climate activists are merely an expression of this. It is young people, specifically, who can hardly be said to have been influenced by division and unity, who are saying: "we can't go on like this."
But there are essential differences. In the GDR we dreamt of a democratic republic, of an open, liberal system; of the rule of law. That's what we have now. This transformation has happened, despite all the problems. I know what you mean. There are similarities in the general mood. The sense of a need for change is enormous but at the same time we have something to defend. This sense we had in the GDR of stagnation and oppression, this sense that we were simply being administrated, that's gone today. We have the opportunities to shape the future and we should use them.