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Friday, November 28, 2014

Filme Friday: Die Mauer - Berlin '61 (2006)

I had a long list of movies to use for this month, but for this last one, I ended up choosing "Die Mauer - Berlin '61", one I had never seen or heard of before this week.  This was a little off the beaten path.  It's a made-for-TV movie from 2006.  Considering that I've watched my fair share of Lifetime movies (guilty pleasure), I gave it a shot.  I did not regret it.


The movie take a slightly different approach than the others I've reviewed and shows a different kind of love story: the love of parents for their child.  Also, unlike the others, its main focus is the early years of the Berlin Wall.  This new perspective worked well.  At first, I found it hard to follow the story and understand how it related to the division of Germany, so I went on the film's Wikipedia page within the first few minutes and accidentally spoiled the first quarter for myself.  Regardless, I still enjoyed the film and found it gripping.

The movie starts on a train before the Berlin Wall was built, which initially threw me off.  After the initial scene, the film cuts to the main characters, a family of three, getting ready for the evening.  The parents are going to a friend's birthday party in what will soon become West Berlin and their teenage son is staying at a friend's house for the night.  It is evident already that the people the son is staying with and the people hosting the birthday party have a different outlook on life.

The parents are on their way home, when suddenly, everyone around them is panicking.  Just like reality, the city was divided without warning.  The parents don't want to return to the East and be trapped, but they also want to be reunited with their son.  Little do they know how much his life is changing as his friend's mom works to mold him into the perfect East German soldier.  Soon, the beginning of the movie becomes clear and helps explain why the family remains separated.

The son being molded into an East German citizen (source:

I've mentioned before that I was only alive for a year while the wall was still up, so my knowledge is limited to other people's stories.  But, while many account years of separation from family members, a lot of the other movies about the subject don't focus on that aspect.  Despite the few extra layers, the movie was about parents trying to make a better life for their family after the city was divided, which included attempting to rescue and even just contact their son.  I found myself even more invested in their journey than that of the star-crossed lovers in Das Versprechen.

Even though the beginning was initially confusing to me, the movie was full of suspense from the first minute.  The viewer is kept wondering what will come from each action and effort.  The characters struggle and fail in realistic ways, but small successes bring hope.  The final few scenes had my full attention.

The father eventually started losing hope (source:

The setting was also interesting.  It's almost the opposite of Goodbye Lenin in that the movie shows only the first few months after the wall went up.  There's a summary at the end of the movie telling what happened in the following years, but the acting ends while the wall is still in its early stages.  Just as the characters in Goodbye Lenin were shocked by how quickly the wall came down, it's shocking here how quickly the citizens of Berlin were shut off from each other.

However, from this film, it seems like something like the wall wasn't totally unexpected.  Not only did the family experience some oppression, but some citizens, like the friend's mother had already bought into the East German ideology.  Soldiers were immediately ready to guard the border and citizens were trapped on one side or the other.  Some of the most heartbreaking scenes show loved ones seeing each other beyond the border but not being able to do anything about it.

Looking for their son beyond the wall (source:

This was a much better movie than I expected.  Granted, I expected to be disappointed, but it was a great film.  Unfortunately, it's a little hard to find.  It is on, but it's Region 2, which won't play on US DVD players or computers.  There are ways around it and most computers can switch regions a limited number of times, but if you find a copy of it, take the opportunity to watch it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Filme Friday - Goodbye Lenin! (2003)

I remember seeing the poster for this movie, hearing some amazing reviews, and thinking it was a comedy (maybe because IMDb labels it as one).  For some reason, that idea stuck with me years after I first saw it and I convinced my non-German-speaking guy to watch it with me.  Oops.

(source: IMDb)

While it's not a movie with constant laughs, it definitely has some amusing moments and is somewhat of a dark comedy.  It is definitely more of a drama than anything else though. The movie is amazing, but I know from experience that people expecting a comedy may be turned off pretty quickly.  It's also two hours long, which is my limit for most dramas.  Regardless, it's worth watching at least once.

The movie begins with the main character and narrator, Alex recalling his childhood growing up in East Berlin.  The scenes shows family home movies, the Sandmännchen TV program, and Sigmund Jähn becoming the first German to go into space.  Alex recalls his father leaving the family for West Germany and this causing his mother to put all her passion towards pushing East Germany's communist agenda.  This introduction leading to the movie's setting shows a rather neutral picture of the East while the wall was up.  It is less politicized and more a story that could happen to anyone.

It is quickly apparent, however, that Alex is aware of what he is missing in the West and disillusioned with the government and his lack of freedom.  Part of this is due to his childhood dream of being the second German astronaut never becoming a reality.  He is instead a TV repairman, living with his mother, and his unwed sister and her daughter.  While he does not hold strong opinions, he still attends a protest with people chanting for freedom of the press and no more wall.  Like many others, he is arrested and sent to jail.

East and West TV repairmen teaming up (source: IMDb)

While with the group of protesters in jail, Alex learns that his mother had a heart attack and fell into a coma.  Alex remains devoted to his mother, constantly visiting while she is still unconscious.  However, the world continues to move around them, and within a couple of months, the wall is down and the citizens of East Berlin have newfound freedoms.  Outside of his hospital visits, Alex also moves on.  He visits the West, indulges in the new culture, and starts dating a hospital nurse he had met at the protest.  Then, in another sudden turn of events, Alex's mother wakes up.

Alex's first trip to West Berlin

The doctor warns Alex that any shock may cause his mother to fall ill again or even die, and Alex is faced with the challenge of hiding this new world to protect his mother. While everyone is initially on board with this plan, his relationships with his girlfriend, sister, and friends become strained because of these efforts. It leaves the viewer wondering if he can pull it off and whether he should.

A fake newscast created to fool Alex's mother (source: IMDb)

The interesting thing about this movie is that it focuses on a generation wanting freedom and change, not knowing their wish was about to come true. The time when the country was divided only lasts for a short part of the film, but the division influences everything. 

The film also did not seem to take one side and sympathized with all citizens. While there were freedom fighters like Alex's girlfriend, there were plenty struggling the adapt to a unified Germany. This contrast is shown mostly by age. Those in their 20's and younger are eager to embrace everything new, while older generations either aren't sure how to proceed or want things back to normal. There is an ambiguity to who is right, if anyone. I finished watching with a sense that every system is broken.

Alex's sister at her new Western Burger King job (source: IMDb)

There is an idealism that is reborn in Alex because of his charade. He recreates history for his mother to explain certain things he can't hide. His imagined history paints a picture of how East Germany could have been successful. Alex seems to accept that the West has it's faults, even though he prefers it. But, his stories intertwine East and West ideals, showing an impossible idealism. He accepts that no system is perfect, but wants his mother to experience the best version he created. 

Perhaps being slightly older than Alex's character made it easy to relate to this movie on my second viewing. I understand thinking there must be a system and a way to fix everything and feeling lost at the realization that nothing like that can exist. We all hold different ideas of what is best and have our own views of how to accomplish similar goals. I've come to love a German saying recently: "Gerade, weil wir alle in einem Boot sitzen, sollten wir heilfroh darüber sein, dass nicht alle auf unserer Seite stehen." Roughly translated, "since we're all in the same boat, we should be glad that not everyone is standing on our side." We need the diversity of thoughts and opinions to function. This was part of the problem with East Germany: people were heavily censored and could not express their differences. And if they tried, they were punished. By the same token, the ideals that helped shape East Germany should be considered and not ignored. Not everyone can be satisfied, but we all should be free to believe what we want and generally live how we want. Obviously, I'm not a fan of East Germany or what it did to the country as a whole, but especially after decades of separation, both sides need to be considered. 

Alex and his girlfriend struggle too maintain the charade and embrace the new freedom (source: IMDb)

This movie is very thought-provoking and it should be. The subject matter is heavy, even just in the characters' personal lives. It's a great story that leaves a lot of "what if?" and "what really happened?" questions to ponder. The part when the family revisits their old vacation home really made me think during this viewing. It's interesting how some people changed themselves to cope with a horrible and unfair situation. 

A very telling moment near the end (source: IMDb)

Definitely not a movie to watch casually, but it deserves a viewing. It gives a great look into what Berlin and its citizens faced after the wall came down. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Filme Friday: Das Versprechen (1995)

This is the first of my "Fall of the Berlin Wall" Filme Fridays.  It's one of the most popular German movies of the genre and gives a good overview of life in Germany from the time the wall went up in 1961 to its fall in 1989.

Whenever I think of the story of the Berlin Wall, I think about the movie "Das Versprechen," also known as "The Promise".  Many people who studied German are familiar with this film because it's a great teaching tool for German history and culture.  It's also a really good, albeit really long, movie.  At its core, it's a love story, but there is also plenty of action and suspense.  A word of warning: this is a tearjerker.  That's especially true for people like me who cried when Wilson floated away in "Cast Away".

Film Poster (source:
After the first few minutes of the film, the action starts.  Teenagers Sophie and Konrad, who are dating and clearly in love, plan to escape East Berlin with their friends shortly after the wall begins construction in 1961.  The group leaves a dance and opens a manhole cover to go into the sewers, but Konrad trips and realizes that he will now put the group in jeopardy if he tries to join them.  He closes the manhole cover, promising (there's the movie title) Sophie that he will join her in the West as soon as he can.

Sophie and Konrad at the dance (source:

The sewer scene that follows is a little gross, but keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat.  While the others escape, Konrad's parents find him and notify the Stasi police because they had been searching for Konrad since he disappeared.  This small part gives a glimpse into life in East Germany where nobody was safe from surveillance and friends and family would turn each other in.  So, yes, Konrad's own parents turn him in to the Stasi to be interrogated, but it's clear that they do this to protect him and themselves when they imply that it would be worse if they were discovered instead of willingly going to the police.

Sophie waits for Konrad, not wanting to leave without him (source:

The interrogation is brutal, especially for a teenager, and full of East German propaganda.  The Stasi have their own reasoning for the wall being built and insist that it's more to protect than to contain.  The film continues by showing Konrad's life in East Germany contrasted with Sophie and the other friends who escaped in West Germany.  Neither is even sure if the other survived the night of the escape and Sophie's friends doubt where Konrad's loyalty lies since he did not join them.  This separates the lovers further even though Sophie still believes Konrad will join her and Konrad still intends to find a way to the west.

Over the next several years, Konrad becomes a physicist in the East and Sophie moves in with her Aunt in the west and finds work in the fashion industry.  These career choices are reminders of each protagonist's situation: Konrad is stuck in the very structural, rule-filled East while Sophie is free to be a creative individual in the West.  The police state grows in the East as more guards are trained to patrol the border and given orders to shoot anyone trying to escape.  Konrad longs to escape, but the longer he waits, the harder that is.  He makes an attempt one night when he is assigned night guard duty, but is stopped by a friend, who is also on the guard.  Though he is not harmed, Konrad is once again at risk of being turned in by someone close to him.  This is not the last attempt Konrad will make to be reunited with Sophie.

A trip to the East (source:

Standing against the wall (source:

I really don't want to spoil the movie by summarizing further.  There is so much in this movie beyond Sophie and Konrad's love story.  Their story provides great symbolism for the division between East and West because of the wall and the uncertainty Germany faced when it was reunited 28 years later.  The movie spans the full 28 years from the beginning to the fall of the wall, so it is understandably long.  And, at times, it gets slow, even with several fast-paced scenes.  I definitely understand why not every person would enjoy this film, but it's an accurate depiction of what was happening while Germany was separated.  Even though lovers being separated seems too convenient, it was very common for families and loved ones to find the wall between them with almost no way to communicate or see each other.  The wall tore the country apart and created two very different Germanys.

Without spoiling the ending, I will say that I hated it at first, but came to appreciate and understand it over time.  It left me expecting more to the story, but only given intentional ambiguity.  Overall, this is not necessarily one of my favorite movies, but I would still recommend it because of how well it presents Germany history from 1961-1989.  It's easier to understand how the separation affected a whole country when presented with people to empathize with, even if they are fictional characters.  I promise you will love and hate Sophie and Konrad throughout the movie and find yourself in an emotional roller coaster the entire film.

The fall of the wall in the film (source:

It is long and a little heavy on the romance story at times, but if you have the chance to watch this movie, you should.  It's available to purchase and rent on Amazon.  Apparently, this movie is not available on iTunes.  The title and poster are displayed, but the download is actually for a completely different movie.  It is probably available for purchase elsewhere; just be aware of different country codes if you buy a DVD.  You cannot watch German-coded DVDs on US DVD players.

If you find it and watch it, you will learn a lot!

American movie poster (source: IMDb)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Filme Friday x4 in November

November 9, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.  This may not sound terribly spectacular, but it's huge in perspective.  The wall was established on August 13, 1961 and cut off West Berlin from East Berlin and East Germany.  It tore the country apart and tore families apart.  Even today, its lasting effects can be seen, most notably in Berlin.  Half of the country endured communism while the other half had democracy.  This lasted until November 9, 1989, over 28 years later, when the wall was torn down.

I was barely 1 year old when the wall came down, so I don't remember what the division was like, but I've heard about it from many people.  I have family that lived in the East and family that lived in the West.  My parents and grandparents have shared stories about being terrified going into East Germany to visit.  I've heard about how family in East Germany was anxious and paranoid even outside of the East and how free they felt to be out of there.  It's hard to convey how much this impacted so many people and how powerful and symbolic the wall coming down was.

So, why not let some movies try?

I don't intend to review movies every week because I honestly don't have the time to rewatch them and write about them so often.  But, this month will be an exception.  I plan to review 5 movies this month: 1 on each Friday and possibly a non-movie post on Sunday, November 9.  All of them are related to the Berlin Wall in some way and paint a picture of how things were before, during, and after it.

I really hope that people will watch at least one of these movies as a result.  I'm excited to see them all again myself and maybe learn some things I didn't see or know before.  Please share your reactions and stories in the comments too!  I'm interested in hearing from you all.