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Eulogy for Frank Beyer

Delivered by Wolfgang Kohlhaase on October 11, 2006 at the Academy of Arts in Berlin

This was how Frank Beyer described the end of his childhood:
He was thirteen and grew up too fast during the war.  A thousand-year Reich had disappeared. The Americans came and left. The Russians came and stayed. His family, they were the little people, social democrats. When his Hitler Youth shirt became too small for him during the last year of the war and he was supposed to buy a new one, his mother said to him: “Not anymore.”
But his father had fallen in Russia.

School went on and the Rule of Three still applied.  An infantry regiment marches five kilometers in an hour.  The students, now newly radical pacifists, booed out their teacher.  It could very well be the Russian infantry, the teacher said, who had kept his job because he had not been in the Nazi party.  An uncle was arrested, wrongly suspected of war crimes, and later became a broken man. Peers who were going to start a resistance movement vanished.  That was hard to comprehend and shadowy.  But at the same time there were the daily big adventures of the new beginning, an impulse that he received, as many like him received, which was meant for those of the right age and would not be forgotten.  With Brecht’s Hauspostille, he armed himself against Romanticism in German class, obtained a small-gauge film projector’s license, did amateur theater, became a secretary in the local cultural union and transferred to the theater in Crimmitschau, where he was everything: dramaturg, director’s assistant and stage manager. He applied to school to study theater.

And then, much to his surprise, the new surroundings suggested that he should become a film director. It was a coincidence that he did not study in Moscow, but in Prague, with his contemporaries who would become famous in the Prague spring in the 60s.  He came back to a country where a lot was hoped from art, as one could see, but a lot was also feared. At 25, he made his first film. Seven years later, he had already made seven films.

People our age were interested in a cinema that remained true to reality. We looked for examples as much as we could, and it started with the neo-realists but also with Poles, Russians, Hungarians and the French, and we seldom looked at West German film, which still had its cineaste revolution in front of it. Whenever the GDR tackled anything, it lived with shortages, on top of which politics added a shortage of openness. Whosoever described everyday life soon encountered fault-finders. It was easier to cite history. The chatter about the prescribed anti-fascism did not address this point and also did not address Frank Beyer.
The films of his that took place during the bad times of his childhood, from Five Cartridges to Turning Point, needed no regulation. Like, for example, Buchenwald in Thuringia was in the village from whence he came. Jurek Becker, his friend and screenwriter, had survived the Polish ghetto and he did not need to be reminded of it when he wrote Jacob the Liar.

The infamous meeting in 1965, in which politicians detached itself from reality, did not affect Frank Beyer alone. Yet among all the banned films, only Trace of Stones was most spectacularly persecuted with the organized wrath of the people. One did not think that such a thing was possible, and it hurt him deeply and changed his view of the society. After 23 years, when he could see his film once again for the first time, it proved its worth and was evidence for the lost opportunities of the GDR cinema.

For a few years, he was not allowed to make films, and he was transferred to the theater in Dresden. Seen from the outside, it seemed to be a tolerable exile. But for him, it put the sense of any future work into question, as well as any commonalities that had remained.  He gave up nothing that was important to him. He still wanted to make films, and he wanted to do it as a realist, in light of the circumstances as they were. He bore his part of the conflicts that lay in store for him.
Some of his best films were borne out this way.

Remaining true to his views, he was almost always embroiled in debates concerning a few projects or public issues that affected the entire country. He had won stature and credibility, and since he was well-known and respected, nothing was easier for him.

As the years progressed, deeper divides between self-satisfaction and dissatisfaction with our country began to form. This divide concerned not only art and politics, but cut across generations, professions and circumstance.
Friends left, sometimes with heavy hearts.

Frank Beyer articulated reasons why he stayed.  He did not want to leave his audience, to whom he felt very close. He did not want to depart from the field of debate in which he knew among his colleagues that many thought like him. And finally he also worked in the Federal Republic during the 80s and it was clear to him that even the free market had aspects of censorship. The ideology makes itself vocally apparent, and money rules from the shadows.  In any case, he also had private motives for where and how he lived that he did not want to discuss in public.  But he had his fortune and misfortune without problems in his art.

When he received the German film prize in 1991 for his life’s work, he said in his acceptance speech:

"...In the meantime, I have two irresolvable pasts that are about as old as I am, one being a short, 12-year past which I have abundantly worked off in my films, and a longer, 45-year one in which I am rather firmly rooted. And I doubt that it makes sense to tear out these roots... I think your decision to give this federal film prize to a director whose numerous feature films came into being in the DEFA-Studio in Potsdam Babelsberg to be very noteworthy. This is because, if one listens to some voices from the old two Germanies, artistic films simply could not be created there under the conditions of cultural politics in the GDR..."

Though Frank Beyer was now deservedly in a nice situation, he never forgot that this was not the case for others. He could make films about his own opportunities and interests. After all, it was conceivable that one only offered him good material, like the four-part TV series of „Jahrestage“ by Uwe Johnson. It was German history all over again, including what tore it apart and held it together at the time, that was also his history.  He wanted nothing more than what he had wanted earlier.
Nevertheless, people then challenged his, specifically his, artistic, moral and political competence. He could not make the film. Whoever had lauded him for his steadfastness under the pressures of the East had to take into account that he now did not find it to be worth all the trouble to be in accordance with the studio executives. He had brought his conscience with him to the union of Germany.

It was good to work with him. We happily exerted ourselves over our serious creations and when the story that we imagined took a tragic turn, he did not hide his emotion. He typed up the screenplay, when the final version came out, with two fingers on the typewriter and thereby learned it by heart. The honesty that defined him also consisted of daily truthfulness. He had his plan and when he directed, he remained open for discoveries of the moment, which he encouraged in everyone, especially the actors. He looked and listened and decided. He stood in the middle of the scene without any vanity.

His sickness bid a long farewell to his hope of making another film, evidently a comedy. Even in our inartificial existence, he still always watched the comedies.  But we did get to sit together in front of his country home in the still-summery sunshine. With labored breaths, he sang a few bars of an operetta, which he liked to do, a memory of Crimmitschau. We spoke as anybody else speaks and said goodbye in the usual fashion.

And that is just fine, dear Frank. The last film was not filmed, the last word was not spoken.


-Wolfgang Kohlhaase

Copyright Wolfgang Kohlhaase, 2006

Biography - Wolfgang Kohlhaase:

The scriptwriter and author Wolfgang Kohlhaase is known not only for his brilliant story telling but also his prodigious collaborations with some of Germany’s foremost directors.  Kohlhaase was born in Berlin on March 13, 1931. He began working as an editor for several magazines and daily papers in 1947, including the youth newspaper Junge Welt. His career at DEFA began in 1950.  With the film Alarm at the Circus (1954), Kohlhaase began a working relationship with director Gerhard Klein which continued over several years. Kohlhaase and Klein created what become known as the “Berlin Films.” A Berlin Romance (1956) and Berlin – Schönhauser Corner (1957) revealed the influence of neo-realism in stories about the lives of young people in divided Berlin. The last of the “Berlin Films,” Berlin Around the Corner, fell foul of the Party in 1965 and was never completed until after the Wall fell.  The Gleiwitz Case (also directed by Klein) presented the historical episode which the National Socialists instigated as a motive for starting World War II.  With I Was Nineteen (1967) Kohlhaase began his second collaborative relationship - with director Konrad Wolf. The pair brought to life the anti-fascist struggle during WWII in Mama, I’m Alive!, as well as stories about contemporary society in The Naked Man on the Athletic Field, and Solo Sunny which Kohlhaase co-directed.  Based on an episode from Hermann Kant’s autobiographical novel Der Aufenthalt, Kohlhaase wrote the screenplay The Turning Point, which director Frank Beyer filmed in 1982. Beyer also directed Kohlhaase’s The Break (1988), based on an authentic crime case in Berlin 1946.  In the 1990s Kohlhaase continued to develop screenplays that reflected on periods of German history. Inge, April, May was about the adventures of a boy in Berlin at the end of WWII. Kohlhaase’s The Legend of Rita (2001), directed by Volker Schlöndorff, was inspired by actual events involving West German terrorists who went underground in the GDR in the 1970s.  In 2005 he finished Summer in Berlin in collaboration with Andreas Dresen, one of the most successful German directors today.  Kohlhaase is married to the dancer and choreographer Emöke Pöstényi and lives in Berlin.

 

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