DEFA Film Library
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Cinema of East Germany
Looking at Miraculi with the Distance of Time
by Ulrich Weiß
At the end of the 1970s, a lake disappeared in East Germany. And with the lake vanished all working equipment over night, including an excavator.
At the time, I was working on Blue Bird, a feature film about Europeans settling North America at the end of the 18th century. A boy gets snatched by the Iroquois and is ritually adopted in the place of an Indian boy who has died. According to myth, the soul of one continues to live in the other. Years later the boy, now a young man called Blue Bird, alias George Ruster, returns to his family against his will. The forest has disappeared, cleared away while he was gone. The land made arable.
He neither can, nor will stay here. Whether he returns to the Iroquois remains an open question; for those who wish it, there is hope.
The lake in the GDR disappeared mysteriously. The film Miraculi attempts a scientifically-supported poetic explanation. Tectonic shifts are at fault, the differing reaction of layers of the Earth to pressure. Nevertheless, here too there is hope: perhaps the bottom of the lake holds healing earth.
At least this is what the scientist tells the people living by the vanished lake.
The screenplay remained unused. After 1989 it became possible to make the film.
At this point, I‘d like to mention that I had long been inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s view of the world and of how to get it on stage – in a narrative representation.
Brecht’s brilliant fundamental idea that reality, which was all-too-familiar and -oppressing, should be distanced in works of art. After WWII, this principle was obvious.
Ruins, rubble. Inside and out.
And when people were forced to accept this reality as their daily life, there grew a desire to imagine life in a different world, so as to make what existed understandable and manageable.
Time-spatially (historically) distanced.
Place-temporally (locally) distanced.
It is in the nature of film to resist such a perspective. It cannot be mechanically transferred to film. A transformation is required, a significant change.
Their own "affinity to the external flow of life" (Kracauer) draws viewers into it, suppresses them with suggestions, spontaneously and instantaneously narrows their view to the immediate, deprives them of their independence, so that they cannot be or become wiser than they are, because they cannot break through with their thoughts and enrich it with their own alternatives.
How is the sovereignty of the film audience to be achieved through creative spectatorship without emotional loss?
After the disappearance of the Third Reich, in which mimetic games had obscured the spirit, a man returns from the war to a ruined Berlin. The man, a human wreck, a former boxer.
Good Old Henry—shot in 1982/83. Seven years before Miraculi.
The man tumbles out of one of those postwar trains, full to overflowing. Weakened or pushed—in his case we don’t know.
A young woman, living in a once luxurious railway car on a siding, lifts him up. Coddles him so he regains his strength. She, a nightclub hostess, takes care of the food; he, the former boxer, tries to get back into business, to box again. A difficult love born of need and coincidence is defiantly affirmed against all the obstacles of the period. A melodrama. He loses his fight because of a life-threatening KO. He could have won when his opponent was losing. But he didn’t throw the punch. He lost his killer instinct. In the war. So people say. At the end, the railway car gets pulled off the siding.
Before that, in 1980-81, a film about anti-Nazi resistance in the Third Reich. About betrayal among those who resist and about the daily pressure brought to bear on people who resisted. About how one can withstand it all in such times.
Your Unknown Brother.
"The resistance of the few against the many people was meaningful," says somebody after the film.
Since the, the world has become smaller. Faster to cross physically, even faster to bridge mentally. The mechanical advantage of speeding up resulting in the contraction of depth, in favor of the superficial? Of train of thought, in favor of information?
Depth means the time needed to get distance on the world and the time needed to get closer to it again. To withdraw, so as to be close to it from a distance and far from it up close. From close up the image disintegrates into a fragmentary space, from a distance it consolidates—only to increasingly volatilize.
The nature of every impression becomes impoverished in its expressiveness and thus appears to be an exaggeration. In each exaggeration the respective Zeitgeist resonates. If what has been exaggerated has overstated the Zeitgeist enough, it is considered heresy (until one day it perhaps reappears as general knowledge).
Cinematography can do this.
An old man who had spent his life in foreign countries and on all the oceans, returns to his village—a fishing village on the Baltic—to spend his remaining years. Absent for too long, he remains a stranger there whence he left, shunned by the fishermen, distrusted, subjected to prejudices, accused of arrogance.
A boy of about 14 becomes his friend. With the temporal distance of age, how could it be otherwise, they get along well. The transfigured wisdom of the man with the open-minded hunger for knowledge of the boy.
The man dies. In his will he leaves his boat to the fishermen under one condition: they may not sell it. The inheritance, like the man in his lifetime, only grudgingly accepted. The boat rots. When the children rebuild it for themselves, the fishermen lose their nets in a storm. In order to recoup their losses, they demand the boat back. The children must understand: money comes before amusement.
Tambari—my first feature film, 1976.
At the end the boy tells his girlfriend: "I too will travel. I will travel around the world."
In Miraculi—my last feature film—the newspaper report that begins the film ends with the information:
"In 1988 a small island resurfaces near Bornea, north of Kudat on the coast of Sabah. In 1990 it disappeared again. Older Malaysian fishermen think they remember that this already happened in 1914 and 1945."
The following story, from a theater rehearsal with Bertolt Brecht, has been passed down:
"We already had our bags in our hands, when a discovery of Brecht‘s held us back: He had always wondered why it was so difficult to talk about his theory of theater with people. How even friends talked about something totally different from what he meant. That an X always turned into a U. At first he blamed his wording, but the more simple the phrases, the more profound the misunderstandings. In fact, in representing his theory of theater he had left half of it out, under the assumption that in theater it was common knowledge: the role of the innocent. Brecht said this very simply, without irony. For him it was a real discovery."1
Written on October 4, 2009
1. Witt, Hubert, ed. Erinnerungen an Brecht. Leipzig: Verlag Philipp Reclam jun., 1966.
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