FINDING THE GOOD IN THE BAD
This interview with scriptwriter Thomas Knauf highlights his impression of the film Die Architekten (The Architects),
as well as presents his general thoughts on architecture in film and
the difficulties concerning the artistic and politial legacy of the
GDR. The Architects was one of the last DEFA films—possibly the
last real GDR feature film from the studio in Babelsberg. The script
was written in 1988 and was shot in fall of 1989. The film, however,
did not premiere until May 1990. All the other last GDR films that were
produced up to the closing of the DEFA Studios in 1992 are known as Wende or post-Wende films.
The film The Architects
came into being during tumultuous times. Just as the filming wrapped
up, the Wall came down. Do you think it's possible to consider this a
kind of subjective legend, like: "A movie brought down the Wall"?
There is no need to come up with a heroic story about the fall of the
Wall. Such a story exists very personally in the heads of all crew
members. Perhaps if only because the final scene at the Brandenburg
Gate, in which the main character unsuccessfully tries to find his
daugther among the tourists on the West side of the Wall, was filmed in
December 1989, only four days before the opening of the Gate. The time
of the filmís narrative literally slipped from the present time
of the shooting, into the past. The same happened to the UFA Durchhaltefilm, Kolberg, which was made in Babelsberg when the Russians had already occupied the town of Kolberg in East Prussia. The script for the The Architects
was written in 1988, but the story had followed me since the mid-1970s.
It's based on true events that happened to a team of young architects
in Berlin, led by my friend Michael Kny. They were asked to design the
cultural and gastronomical buildings for the newly-built "Schlafstadt" ["bedroom community"
outside of Berlin] Marzahn, commissioned by the FDJ [Free German Youth
organization]. The design of the project was considered too modern and
financially infeasible; later on it was changed and then rejected.
Michael Kny stayed with the structural design and engineering firm,
while the other magnificent 17 architects more or less left the
profession altogether, feeling that the quantitatively-oriented
policies reduced them to mere construction engineers.
I witnessed the politicians' discouraging treatment of young and
engaged professionals, whose education had cost the state a lot. After
five useless years of trying to work as a DEFA scriptwriter , I debuted
with my film Rabenvater (Bad Father)
at the age of 36. The film is about a construction scandal in Halle
that was interdicted by the GDR's attorney-general. I focused the
script on his private story. Later on, however, I learned that you
should not make those kind of compromises. After the successful youth
film Vorspiel (Foreplay,
Dir. Peter Kahane), I planned a film about the "unloved" generation of
the 1950s, which was politically mistrusted at all levels of the
leadership because it was still familar with the West. Kahane, who was
succesful with his DEFA comedies, was interested in making a more
serious film. His own script about fighters in the Spanish Civil War
failed. He immediately reached for my script and pushed it through,
despite resistance from DEFA's management. The Managing Director
retired early in 1989 and left his successor to deal with the problem.
Then he passed it on to the Minister for Film, who released it for
production in summer 1989, when wiser comrades already knew that the
situation was not sustainable and that a GDR perestroika
was necessary because of Gorbachev's pressure. That everything came to
such a fast and now well-known end, seems very logical today. But back
then we were overtaken by events. If the Wall had not come down, the
film would have never been released in GDR theaters.
Did you change or write new scenes during the shooting?
We did not change anything, except a short scene set in summer 1989
whose dialogue mentioned the vigil at the Gethsemane Church after the
massacre in Beijing. It's impossible to tell about unfinished
historic processes in a feature film. Feature films always chase after
the present and can only reflect on finished or never-ending realities.
When the film premiered in May 1990 it was already out of date, just
like the GDR's dictatorship of the proletariat; now the audience wanted
to watch Hollywood films. No, the bitter film about the futility of
lofty ideas during the time of "real existing socialism" did not bring
the Wall down. The 147-kilometer-long construction, which you could see
from the moon, was too big for that.
Directors Gorbachev and Bush senior
were needed, as well as the leading actors Modrow and Schabowski and
the people of the GDR as supporting actors...
Future historians will reveal what this GDR revolution really was. I
don't think it happened the way it is still being presented 20 years
later. I think we were sold by Moscow on certain conditions, but the
buyers did not stick to them. They were only interested in GDR real
estate and the eastward expansion of the Deutsche Bank—not in
their poor relatives in the East. Giving them the feeling of having
been led to freedom, after they'd risked life and limb, was truly a
masterful film enactment and should have won an Oscar. We
late-pubescent, young filmmakers in Babelsberg believed in the
reformation of GDR policies until the end, although this had already
been proven impossible on June 17, 1953. At the outset of the GDR in
1949, Susanne Kerkhoff, the Berlin author, thought: "This won't work!"
She committed suicide.
Today, however, it seems that The Architects
is more than a document of a gloomy, but heroic GDR daily life. The
film is convincing because of its illusion-free view of reality and
because it shows its devotion to the efforts of a whole generation.
The film was considered an autobiography of a generation—as
István Szabó called his early works—to which Peter
Kahane and I belong. But this wasn't intentional. The film is like what
Heiner Müller wrote about New York: "A film about a city (East
Berlin) that is constituted by its breakdown. A structure (the GDR)
that consists in its own explosion." The Architects depicts the
moment shortly before the ex- or implosion of the structure quite
accurately. I am happy about this today and sometimes also surprised,
because I ask myself: When have I since had the courage as a freelance
writer to risk my future in the profession for a single film?
Let's talk about the people whom The Architects
tries to capture. Daniel Brenner (played by Kurt Naumann), the
architect who is entrusted with planning the building project,
compromises more and more with party leaders, thereby betraying his
original creative impulse. His wife leaves for Switzerland with their
daughter, while his colleagues abandon the project in frustration. In
the final scene, Daniel Brenner is lying drunk under the bleachers that
were built for the ceremonial ground-breaking of an amputated project.
A ruthless and tragic statement about people in the imploding
GDR, who were put into the situation of having to decide between
leaving the country or breaking down. Could you see no other
alternatives in 1988?
As a securely employed scriptwriter at the DEFA studio, I was not in a
management position or a party member. I had put all my disappointments
behind me. Although I was suspicious of politics after having seen
Russians tanks deploy against striking BUNA workers (my dad was one of
them) in 1953, in 1988 there was no alternative to highly political
films for me. I didn't want to end up a successful writer of nice,
everyday cinema. In 1988 I wrote a historic film about Georg Forster,
the 18th-century naturalist and revolutionary, that was produced
without problems but then disappered from theaters after its premiere.
The reason was that in discussions the audience compared their own
situation with that of the Mainz Republic in 1789; this republic of the
people had failed and engaged people, like Forster, had had to go into
exile. In a situation where there was such bottled-up rage, I decided
to apply to emigrate to the West in 1984; but I later withdrew my
application because I asked myself: What should I do in West Germany, a
place where I don't belong? In 1988, as one of the last young DEFA
artists, I received a so-called NSW [non-socialist world] visa and I
could travel on my own to West Berlin whenever I wanted. A dubious
privilege if you didn't have any West German Deutschmarks. I was able
to travel through the United Kingdom for three months on the 250
British pounds that I had secretly earned for a job at the BBC. The
pressure I felt was gone after this trip, and I felt more free and
courageous. When I wrote the script for The Architects,
I wanted to put an exclamation mark at the end, to show that this was
how I saw the GDR: as a land that sacrificed its most talented people
to cowardly bureaucrats. Later, I realized that I had also described
West Germany with this statement.
In what way?
the first place, insofar as the buildings that went up in the West
weren't any less hideous [than in the East], and they were paid for not
only with private funds but also federal money. Look at West Berlin
(Potsdamerplatz, the quarter with the government buildings, the
Steglitz "Kreisel") or smaller towns in West Germany. Only a blind
person wouldn't see that bad taste in architecture is a problem
throughout Germany. Secondly, thousands of young Germans leave for
other countries to find jobs every year. Somebody who studied
architecture in Weimar, Hamburg or Berlin, for example, can go
straight to the unemployment office. Only those who studied under
Rogers, Meyer or Nouvel in Paris or London has a chance to find work in
Germany. These days you find the more interesting new buildings in
Saxony-Anhalt and, as always, in Hamburg. It has something to do with
construction policy and money. Berlin has been known for construction
scandals and eaves height policy that makes the architecture look like
barracks. The GDR's motto, "Remove the rubble and build something new,"
got a little shot of Albert Speer dimensions: megalomania and Gartenlaube—the
construction misery of the New Berlin Republic. There is no other
European city that has been destroyed regionwide so many times as our
Athens-on-the-Spree. After 20 years of division, Berlin is still a
Babylonian sand box, where you cannot recognize a homogenic cityscape
because of the many gaps between buildings, construction sites and
empty spaces, or you run the danger of having an accident.
I don't think that The Architects
necessarily deals with the bad taste of architecture, but rather with
pragmatism and the understanding of the necessity of shortage. But this
shortage was also an advantage, considering how many houses could be
saved because of it, especially in comparision with the construction
boom in West Germany in the 1950s and 60s.
King Solomon said we should find the good in the bad. If shortage was
the destructive father of the GDR economy, then the mother was the
protector of cultural heritage. The entire stock of old buildings in
Prenzlauer Berg and half of the Scheunenviertel survived because of her.
In the 1980s the Plattenbau
factories suffered from overproduction, because the state didnít
have any money left to build new cities on the frontier. So they
remembered the neglected old buildings and started modernizing city
centers. The factories, however, wanted to get rid of their finished
product and looked for barely condemnable old houses and demolished
them. All of the Rykestrasse, for example, was reconstructed with
Plattenbau buildings. But the
tenants reacted against this. Some of them took modernizing their
apartments into their own hands; they designed and realized, together
with the architect Michael Kny (Daniel Brenner in The Architects),
a gentle concept for modernizing old houses. But the GDR had come to an
end before this concept caught on. Rykestrasse 14, including the cafe
Seeblick, still exists in its original style and tourists from the
southern part of Germany consider this house a beautiful example of
Swabian home decor. I am living in an East German Plattenbau building
in Prenzlauer Berg. I would have never considered living there in the
past. But my highrise with a view of two picturesque cemetries was
built for employees of foreign embassies and is comparable to any
western European building. There is a concierge, mail service, laundry,
house cleaning and reserved parking spaces. What else can you ask for?
Have you ever thought about writing The Architects Part II?
I have done more than think about writing the continuation of Daniel
Brenner's story in unified Germany. But nobody was interested in a Part
II because almost nobody saw the prequel. Even Peter Kahane did not
believe in a sequel. In 2003, the film producer Laurens Straub, an
out-of-the-box thinker, encouraged me to write a comedy about GDR
architects who have to file for bankruptcy for their Berlin office. It
was meant as a farce. Daniel and his partner get made by mistake into a
gay couple by the media. Then they start out again as architects, but
fall in love with the same woman and wind up broke. I wanted to name
the film Marble, Stone and Iron Breaks
[the title of a love song by Dravi Deutscher], but we couldn't find any
funding or television station, even though we had the ideal
cast—with Uwe Kokisch and Michael Gwisdek. I imaged them like
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple.
But unfortunately it didn't work out. Maybe it was a bad idea to write
a German comedy out of the generally tragic feelings about the GDR.
True to the saying, there are not any tragedies worth telling in
capitalism, only farces and satires. The idea of social equality was
good, but its execution was lousy. Capitalism—or the trivializing
"social market economy"—doesn't even benefit the capitalist, as
we now see; but it continues to be cleverly implemented and doesn't go
away. There is no classical sense of catharsis—like in the fables
of Sophocles or Euripides—but rather at most bitter comedies
based on Aristophanes and Seneca. Communism à la russe must be looked at from its beginnings and its reasons, which took a tragic and violent course.
Before writing The Architects in 1988, my plan was to write a script
about Peter Bergner, one of East Germany's most important interior
designers and my daughter's grandfather. But it was a hopeless
endeavor, because it's one of those sinister stories concerning the
Ulbricht legacy. Peter Bergner was a Jew who had to hide in Berlin
during the Nazi era. Someone denounced him and he spent five years at
the Oranienburg concentration camp. In the 1950s he designed
apartments in Pankow for the GDR political elite, but ran into trouble
with the Academy of Architecture during the formalism debate. They
alleged that his designs were too bourgeois and mannerist. When
Ulbricht complained about his desk chair designed by
Bergner—"This chair makes my bottom hurt"—Bergner, the
author of the legendary Wohnraumfibel (Living Space Manual),
was thrown out of the Academy and sidelined. In 1967 he took a rope to
the memorial site of the Oranienburg concentration camp and
commited suicide at the place whose living hell he had suvived.
Ulbricht mandated that there would be no official funeral or obituary
for him. He was to be forgotten forever. This is what I mean by tragic
feeling. Almost all GDR intellectuals, in contrast to their West German
colleagues, got one on the nose by the authorities, at least once. In
this respect, the idea behind The Architects
was not compatible with unification and, in fact, prohibitively costly.
Joeseph Beuys said: "Many artists were only good in the GDR." Well,
many stories were only possible in the GDR.
Today when you see the old televised
images of the celebration of the GDR's 40th anniversary , you notice
that there's been no generational change in the GDR ruling elite since
the founding of the country. Most of the founding fathers returned from
exile or concentration camps. They had experienced violence personally.
Did the anger and mistrust of their own people result from their
experiences? Did this thought play a role in writing the script?
Because the character of Daniel Brenner in The Architects
is not a dissenter, but rather a careerist, a yes-man, an architect
with party membership, just what the old comrades wanted.
The founding fathers of the GDR, like all all founders of states, were
paranoid; they knew that the majority of the people would not elect the
communists. These comrades had the biggest problems with their own
children, like Horst Brasch with his three sons. They dealt with the
Daniel Brenners, who were fine foster children of the SED Party, like
Issac treated Esau and Jacob; the father loved Esau, the wild first
child, but mistrusted Jacob, the obedient second son. In the end, the
comrades did not even trust each other and did not speak even though
they lived next door to each other in Wandlitz. The GDR went down
pitifully because the old men in the Politbüro
thought: If the people of the GDR don't want us, they should go back to
being the slaves of capitalism. The Daniel Brenners went down with the
GDR because they were close to the state and supposedly privileged; but
nobody erected a democratic memorial for them.
gets screened on a wide range of occasions and often you are present.
What are the audience's reactions today to a film that can be seen as a
memorial for a vanished privileged class of people?
In the 20th year since the fall of the Wall and the beginning of the end of the GDR, The Architects
is screened more frequently than ever. The film was shown in various
retrospectives in France. And I thought that it was most exotic that
this film opened the symposium Young Filmmakers between Dictatorship and Democracy
at the Filmmuseum Potsdam. As a scriptwriter, I did not even dream of
something like this! Maybe I dreamt about a new wave for DEFA
films in Europe. That could have been impressive. I think the film
makes a good memorial for the vanished GDR. I am 58 years old and also
a relic of the past. Besides, I earn a few euros for film talks and get
around the country. I was invited to a panel about city planning in
Leipzig last year. After the movie, the mayor of the "city of heroes"
talked about the blessing that democracy has been for construction in
the city. The audience attacked him and and told him that nothing has
changed since 1989, because Leipzig's building policy is the
same—authoritarian and removed from the people. I kept silent
during this debate, but I was happy that watching the film and being
reminded of the GDR provoked reactions about the present. The mayor,
who wanted to take me out for dinner after the event, disappered
clandestinely through the backdoor. As someone who was born in Halle, I
always considered the people of Leipzig as self-satisfied, but they
earned my respect that night, since they chased the mayor, who is now
the Minister of Transportation, out of the city.
Let's let history rest and talk
about cinema and film, because a story with history in mind might not
make a good story in the sense of a story whose one condition is to
attract audiences. Nevertheless, large-scale German film and television
productions are obsessed with historical themes. Is this a
Hardly. After decades of penitence, the Germans long for absolution and
a depiction of their more recent history that presents them as good
Germans—a little bit as perpetrators—but above all as
victims and heros. Films like Der Untergang (Downfall) or Rosenstrasse
deal as much with a critical coming to terms with the past as cooking
shows deal with gastronomic culture. History degenerates into social
studies with entertainment value. That is why you will find in all the Das Wunder von... (The Miracle of...) films—whether in Dresden, Berlin, Lengede—a woman between two men. Sex and catastrophy à la tedesca—an Italian synonym for German soup and everything horrendous. Schopenhauer's Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation)
is the new manual for television scriptwriters. Luckily there are
small, inexpensive German films that present our country humanly and
true to scale in the dusky light of the film screen. Reality is always
stronger than wishful thinking, ethics lessons for asocial bankers, or
religion for dishonest do-gooders and enemies of freedom of spirit
won't help. The only church that gives comfort and hope is still, for
me, the movies—although you often feel like a child in the
interview with scriptwriter Thomas Knauf was conducted by director,
dramaturg, and teacher Hannes Hametner (hanneshametner.de) in fall 2010.
The DEFA Film
Library would like to thank Thomas Knauf and Hannes Hametner for making
this never-before-published inteview available.