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My November 9th

Filmmaker Helke Misselwitz is best-known as the director of Winter Adé (1988), the key documentary about women in the GDR that was touring the U.S. when the Wall fell and became the centerpiece of a series commemorating the Wende at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. Misselwitz’s Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman (1989) was one of the documentaries featured in the Rebels with a Cause film series, which premiered at The Museum of Modern Art in 2005. Herzsprung (1992), her feature film debut, is now part of the DEFA Film Library’s series, WENDE FLICKS: Last Film from East Germany. Misselwitz has been a professor at the Academy for Film and Television Potsdam-Babelsberg since 1996.


Helke Misselwitz

On November 9, 1989,

I was at Mount Holyoke College in [South Hadley], Massachusetts.

Film editor Gudrun Plenert, director of photography Thomas Plenert and I, as director, had been on tour with Winter Adé in the U.S. since October 15. The documentary had had its world premiere a year earlier, in November 1988, at the Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Films. And just two months before that, on September 1, I had finally gotten a full-time position as a director at the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films.

Barton Byg, a professor of German Studies at UMass Amherst, had spontaneously invited us to come to the United States after Zeitgeist, a New York distributor, had acquired the distribution rights for Winter Adé. We had left the GDR with mixed feelings on October 15, 1989. It was every East German’s dream to visit the USA. But we were also worried about our children, as we were leaving them at home in a situation that was full of uncertainty.

As recently as October 11, we had been filming interviews—for our documentary Sperrmüll (Bulk Waste)—about the events that had taken place on October 7 at the Gethsemane Church in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. I had given the film material to the lab to be developed. But I had left the sound material with my friends, Christiane and Christoph Hein, as I wanted to prevent the Stasi from accessing it, to protect the people I had interviewed from being harassed or threatened.

No one knew what would happen during the next round of demonstrations—whether or not they would use tanks and shoot. My 15-year-old daughter had wanted to stay home alone, instead of with relatives or friends. I was afraid she might go to the demonstrations. I begged her not to go and asked her teacher to keep an eye on her.

Barton had done an amazing job organizing things and surprised us with a marathon tour that took us to the University of New Hampshire, Bowdoin College, the Harvard Film Archive, Tufts University, the Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, UCLA, the California Institute of the Arts, the Pacific Film Archive, the University of Wisconsin, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the American Film Institute in Washington DC. Our last stop was in the Amherst–Northampton area.

Meanwhile, we were constantly calling Berlin and following the news on TV and in the papers. We started enjoying our tour when the news about East Germany moved from the last to the front page . . . and wished we were on Alexanderplatz on November 4th.

On November 9th at Mount Holyoke, some students started screaming and shouted to us to come to the television, where many had already gathered. We could not believe our eyes! There was Kennedy in Berlin, with his legendary words: "Ich bin ein Berliner." And Ronald Reagan’s words: "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!" Then there was Günther Schabowski announcing that East German citizens would now have permission to cross the border whenever they liked; when asked when this new regulation would go into effect, he looked at his notes and replied, "As of now!"

We thought this must be fiction. So we drove to the nearby mega-mall, where Tomy Plenert bought a shortwave receiver. We listened to the news on the Deutsche Welle station and heard that the East Berlin crowds had brought about the opening of the Wall.

Upon hearing this, my first reaction was: "Oh no! Now I’ll have to go back to working freelance again!"

The next day—November 10, 1989—we held the last screening of Winter Adé, at UMass Amherst. We started late, because so many people came that they had to sit on the stairs and in the hallways. When the name Schabowski was mentioned in the film—in a scene set at the train station in Altenburg—there was a liberating kind of laughter. We got a standing ovation at the end of the film and celebrated with students, professors and other viewers in the aisles until early the next morning. We all sat on the floor, drinking the champagne they had brought with them and everyone said they had never experienced such a nice, relaxed and cheerful atmosphere at the University.

On November 15, after the four weeks away, my friend and daughter brought the Trabant to pick me up at the Berlin-Tegel airport. My daughter proudly showed me some scrapes on her hand: "Look, Mom! I climbed the Wall!"

When we passed through the checkpoint into East Berlin, I dutifully pulled out my GDR passport and white "counting card." But the border guard waved us through. "Stop!" I shouted; "I have to hand in my card, otherwise they won’t know I came back." My friend just answered, "Nobody cares about that anymore."

Helke Misselwitz, March 31, 2009
April 2009 Issue


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