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Berlin, Divided Heaven: From the Ice Age to the Thaw
Rebels with a Cause: The Cinema of East Germany
Touring Film Series

Die Architekten (The Architects)

1990, East Germany (DEFA), color, 97 min.
Dir.: Peter Kahane
Script: Christoph Prochnow
Camera: Andreas Köfer
Editing: Ilse Peters
Music: Tamás Kahane
Cast: Kurt Naumann, Rita Feldmeier, Uta Eisold, Jürgen Watzke, Uta Lubosch, Catherine Stoyan, Andrea Meissner, Jörg Schüttlauf, Hans-Joachim Hegewald
35mm, English subtitles
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DVD, English subtitles:
VHS-PAL, English subtitles - renting information

“Telling, finely drawn, superbly acted!” 
The New York Times


Some of the most telling moments of this film, a somber, finely-drawn portrait of life in East Berlin in the final days of the Communist regime, are long panning shots of the city's ugly, factory-like public housing. Shot from moving cars, these views of block after block of anonymous rectangular buildings evoke a joyless environment in which the imagination is systematically stifled and where people live in a state of chronic, low-grade depression.

The film depicts this society's grinding down of Daniel Brenner (Kurt Naumann), an idealistic architect in his late thirties. Daniel, like many others of his generation, is deeply frustrated by life under the old Communists but somehow tolerates it. Hired to design a miniature city on the fringes of Berlin, he fools himself into thinking that he can counteract the prevailing gloom with a cheerier, more innovative approach. Working with a hand-picked team of friends who were classmates in architecture school, he comes up with a design that incorporates rooftop gardens, modern sculptures, architectural variety and generous breathing space.

Daniel's absorption in the project costs him his marriage; his wife, Wanda (Rita Feldmeier), is fed up with a life of scarcity and low expectations. And when he submits his plans to the authorities, they denounce his innovations as frivolous and costly and insist on compromises. A typical demand is that a sculpture entitled "Family in Stress" be renamed "Family in Socialism." The scenes in which Daniel confronts the scornful, intransigent bureaucrats, who address him as though he were a disobedient child, have a chilling psychological conviction.

More than any film in recent memory, this film portrays the destructive impact that a spiritually cold environment can have on the human spirit.  When the attractive, high-strung Wanda leaves Daniel, it is clear that it is the drabness of their lives more than any lack of love that drives her away. Their breakup scenes are acute, superbly acted depictions of a marriage coming apart.

"The decay of a society isn't always signified by a flashy Roman orgy. As The Architects suggests, it can be synonymous with a pervasive, soul-deadening dreariness."
                             -Stephen Holden, The New York Times, Oct. 29, 1993

"The story behind the making of this tragedy is integral to understanding the picture itself. Shooting started in September 1989 as multitudes took to the streets throughout East Germany. By the time the film was finished, East Germany no longer existed. Then and now, East German filmmakers are faced with unemployment. Many of the DEFA studio executives who initially approved this picture are no longer working. Kahane deftly shows the bureaucratic inner workings of the former East German centrally controlled economy. His protagonist (Kurt Naumann) assembles a team of irreverent architects who intentionally goad the powers that be. They want to see just how much they can get away with, and that turns out to be precious little."
                            -Variety, March 11, 1991

"The story about the building is fascinating, particularly the main character's dilemma as a young architect trying to make it."
                                   -Jen Livingston, filmmaker, Paris is Burning

"It is incredible that this film was released at all, and just as incredible how effectively it both challenges the old East German government and touches on universal themes."
                             -Joel Pearce, DVD Verdict, 2005

About the Director:

Peter Kahane, born in Prague in 1949, studied at the Film and Television Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg. His debut film, Women’s Work, premiered in 1984. Prepared for Love and the prizewinning Ete and Ali: (a coming-of-age story featuring two friends who have just completed their mandatory military service), exemplify Peter Kahane’s superb depictions of everyday life. The Architects was his most critical and politically engaged film. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he took a short break from filmmaking before releasing Cosima’s Lexicon (1992) and To the Horizon and Beyond (1999). Since the mid-1990s, he has also been directing and writing screenplays for TV movies and crime series. Kahane is currently working on a feature film for release in 2006.

Major Films: 

Weiberwirtschaft (1984), Ete und Ali (1985), Vorspiel (1987), Cosimas Lexikon (1991).

The Architects - Socialist Family in Stress
 The Architects concerns a collective of young East Germans that wins a competition to design a cultural and shopping center for one of the vast new housing blocks in East Berlin’s periphery. Typical of many such projects built throughout the German Democratic Republic, it suffers from uniformity, isolation and lack of identity. The Architects conveys the idealistic attempt of the collective to develop variety and human scale in housing. It is starkly contrasted with the technocracy that has settled into a deadening routine of pre-fabricated building and compartmentalized thinking.
 The collective consists of former architecture students who, having abandoned their profession by choice or circumstance, are brought together by the film’s central figure, Daniel Brenner. Unlike the others, Daniel has remained in the profession but at the age of thirty-eight has not realized a project of any size or substance. Given the opportunity of the competition, Daniel assembles the group that becomes, in effect, his second “family”; one that is juxtaposed with his wife and daughter. Daniel’s fate is to negotiate not only between idealism and technocracy, between “the possible and the utopian” as his office superior tells him, but between these two families and their symbolic function.
 The collective wins the competition and problems begin. Occupying a central position in the project is the sculpture “Family in Stress” depicting a father and mother straining in opposite directions with an isolated child between. It stands for Daniel’s daughter and for the “child” of the second family, the architectural project, as well as for Daniel as he struggles between two families and uncompromised failure and compromised success. These aspects give the film its universal appeal. They are complemented with a convincing portrayal of the complexity and tensions of the architectural design process as we learn, for example, that even within the otherwise united collective one member’s fantasy is another’s chaos. Thus The Architects stands above other films depicting architects as singular heroes (such as The Fountainhead) or in which “architect” is simply coded as “professional.”
 In an overarching sense the child stands for the visionary socialist project that was, like Daniel, fatally caught between the possible and the utopian. Even as the film’s architectural project finds belated but unexpected support from the representatives of the State Security (Stasi) and the Free German Youth (FDJ), the various strands of the story end without socialist redemption. That the script was accepted without incurring the wrath of the state censors owes much to the fact that The Architects was filmed during the tumultuous fall of 1989 as the German Democratic Republic collapsed and, with it, its most nefarious building project, the divisive Berlin Wall.

Building is Political

Thus Peter Kahane’s The Architects belonged to history before it was even fully completed and perhaps more than anywhere the history of Berlin exemplifies the notion that building is political, a representation of power. In the film this sentiment is expressed by Daniel’s former professor as he looks out of his window onto East Berlin’s Stalinallee (renamed Karl-Marx-Allee) that was built during the early 1950s when socialist zeal was at its zenith and the GDR could afford to build impressive “workers’ palaces.” This view is followed by a short montage, a visual critique of the industrialized construction dominating the latter decades of the GDR’s short life, reminding us of the many competing architectural and social visions born in Berlin. These include Cold War competition between East and West Berlin as well as the antipathy of the early twentieth-century utopians towards Berlin’s vast tracts of tenements, the Taylorist-inspired reform movements of Weimar and early modernism, the radical restructuring of the city proposed by the National Socialists, as well as early postwar initiatives to erase Berlin’s center, devastated by Allied bombing, with the aim of creating a city landscape. In an environment such as Berlin’s, the terms “city,” “country,” “housing block” and Heimat (“home”) indicate not only place, but ideological inclination.
 Sprinkled throughout the film are references to architectural history and political ideologies. They can be found in the opening sequence as Daniel busily draws images of crystals and shells (reminiscent of the utopian projects of Bruno Taut and Hermann Finsterlin), when Daniel equates the city with bad air and disease, and in brief depictions of Max’s Berlin apartment (replete with an elevated train and a site for extra-marital sex). They also occur as Daniel visits Max, who is restoring a noble villa, Schloss Lindstedt, located near the palace grounds of Sanssouci in Potsdam. In the film this villa is depicted as belonging to another world, one far removed and very privileged. Underscored by the exchange between Max and the workers about his ability to acquire alabaster plaster, the depiction of the privileging of patrimony and representative structures over social housing hovers between critique and envy. It is emphasized again at Max’s apartment as he tells Daniel that together they will build structures to make the GDR’s modern Palace of the Republic look “like a miserable shack.”
 The Architects presents a running commentary on the interrelationship of the GDR’s social and architectural politics. When Franziska insists that the collective wishes to create a “new GDR architecture,” she is speaking less about stylistic innovation than social regeneration. That her hopeful assertion is answered only with the skepticism of a group of youths joking about the “collapse of new buildings” (einstürzende Neubauten is also the name of a rock group) clearly indicates that the time of youthful dreams is over. As Martin, the photographer, remarks elsewhere: “after thirty-nine years, it is finally time to grow up.”
 For the GDR film was as equally political as building. One of DEFA’s (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft) most fascinating legacies is the intertwining of these two representational systems. Here too The Architects develops topics addressed earlier in Heiner Carow’s The Legend of Paul and Paula (1972) and Hermann Zschoche’s Island of Swans (1983). But The Architects also serves as a bookend to the overall history of DEFA and the GDR. Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Among Us (1946) and Gerhard Lamprecht’s Somewhere in Berlin (1946), depicted Berlin as a city of ruins, symbolic for both the destruction of the Third Reich and the fertile ground upon which the dreams of a better, socialist future would take root.
 If the beginnings of DEFA were marked by depictions of a ruined city full of dreams, then The Architects marks its end: depicting a new city, but one in which the dreams now stand in ruin. As such, The Architects is a poignant and essential chapter in understanding the GDR, its architecture, and its cinema.
 Ralph Stern
 Architectural Historian

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