East German reality finds some reflection in new film

June 3, 2019

Directed by Andreas Dresen
Starring Alexander Scheer, Anna Unterberger, Peter Schneider, Bjarne Mädel & Milan Peschel
German with English subtitles
Showing as part of the German Film Festival

Gerhard Gundermann was a successful singer/song writer in the former German Democratic Republic (DDR, East Germany). He maintained his popularity in the eastern regions after the fall of East German Stalinism in 1990, reflecting the dissatisfaction with the newly-imposed capitalism.

He was a brilliant songwriter and his political spirit reflected all the DDR’s best and worst features.

Gundermann (his stage name was simply his surname) worked as a coal miner during his entire singing career and the gigantic, Soviet-era coal excavator he drove seems to take on a role of its own on screen. It is believed that the strain of over-work from conducting two full-time careers plus family life drove him to his early death in 1998.

In the film, he says that working at the coal seam kept his creativity grounded, but it was more than that – he was politically committed to the working class.

Gundermann loved his co-workers and loved Marxism. He joined the ruling party, but was expelled for his vehemence in reporting safety deficiencies at the mine.

He was also a Stasi spy, which is the film’s central theme, along with his love-life. This is valid as a plot device and makes for a satisfying drama, but it somewhat diminishes Gundermann’s politics.  Throughout the movie, he is shown as a somewhat gangly, naïve and foolish man – and Alexander Scheer‘s performance is faultless. 

But, left out is the fact that, as the DDR freed up before the forced German reunification, he was the most prominent candidate on a left-wing ticket for parliament attempting to democratise East German socialism. That is the act of an independent political thinker.

It was the Stasi’s role to tame such restless and creative individuals by embroiling them in spying. In Gundermann’s case, they were able to play on his genuine socialist commitment. When they realised that he was uncontrollable, they organised other spies to try to disrupt his marriage and career.

Der Spiegel says this film is one of “the richest, most sophisticated and greatest films about the GDR”, which is true enough. But German filmmakers have so far failed overall to capture the contradictions of East German reality.

Gerhard Gundermann was a more sophisticated person than this film allows and the reality he inhabited was more nuanced. The great film about the DDR is yet to come.

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