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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: germanhouse.blogs.wm.edu)
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: www.cinema.de)

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: www.cinema.de)

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: www.cinema.de)

Standing against the wall (source: www.cinema.de)

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: www.cinema.de)


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)


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