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When the Wall Came Down

Rainer Simon began directing at the East German DEFA Feature Film Studio in 1968.
His major films include:
Till Eulenspiegel (1975), based on a film script by Christa and Gerhard Wolf; The Airship (1983); The Woman and the Stranger (1984), which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival; and Jadup and Boel (1981), which was banned by officials and not released until 1988. Since shooting The Ascent of Chimborazo (1989) in Ecuador, his work has focused on the life and culture of the indigenous people there. Simon is also known as a documentarist, writer and photographer. Rainer Simon was the featured guest of the 2008 Filmmaker’s Tour organized by the DEFA Film Library.


Rainer Simon

That evening I had an old friend over, an astrophysicist I had known for many years.

He was a world-renowned expert in solar physics. Despite this, the East German higher-ups did not allow him to travel to the West—neither to attend international congresses, nor to meet colleagues. He was not what was called a „travel-cadre.“ To the point of despair, he asked himself why not. Later, he read in his Stasi files that he had been denied the right to travel because of his contacts with „suspect“ artists . . . such as the authors Christa Wolf and Günter de Bruyn, the sculptor Wieland Förster, and filmmakers Rainer Simon and Lutz Dammbeck.

We „suspicious people“ were allowed to represent East Germany in the West, however. In 1988, I had shot The Ascent of Chimborazo, a film about the cosmopolitan Alexander von Humboldt, in Ecuador, Spain and France. The film had premiered two months before this particular evening. But who was interested in the life of a scientist—even though he had wanted to live a responsible life—in these apocalyptic times in East Germany?

Usually, we didn’t watch television when we got together; but these days, the TV was always on. That’s why we heard Schabowski—a member of the Politburo, and one of the younger people in the Greisenkabinett (the Old Men’s Cabinet, as we said)—babbling confusedly that East German citizens would now be allowed to travel to West Berlin and West Germany . . . with mere police permission. Everyone was allowed to apply for this document. Did this mean the Wall was open?

Our first question was, What will happen to East Germany? If the social circumstances in Poland changed, it wouldn’t affect Poland’s existence. But if there were no Wall, why should there still be two German states? How would this work? Actually, on that evening it was already clear to us that this meant the end of East Germany.

Of course, we couldn’t predict that it would go so fast. And most intellectuals could not imagine that the East German people would vote for Helmut Kohl, instead of Oskar Lafontaine . The civil rights activists in Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch and Bündnis 90 deserved to get elected; they had earned it. But extra-parliamentary rebels were as suspect in the West as they were in the East. Which is why the pragmatists among them, who wanted to gain power, climbed into the crypt of one of the two major parties. As we later saw, this made it possible to climb the ladder all the way up to the Federal Chancellery.

The WEST—the kingdom of unlimited possibilities, flowering landscapes, bananas that grew straight into the mouths of the people and stuffed them up. Jeans and Mallorca for everybody. Even unemployment compensation would cover such expenses. It was a situation that we still could not imagine.

The next day, my girlfriend, her son and I, along with thousands of others, swarmed and pushed our way into West Berlin—without permits, as these had meanwhile become superfluous. The city was filled with „Ossies“—a nickname for people from the East that was apparently created that day. There were long lines in front of the banks, as people tried to get their 100 marks worth of „welcome money.“ A West Berlin couple treated our child to pizza at the Ku’damm Center. When we tried to get home at midnight, there was still an avalanche of people rolling through the narrow, barricaded passage of the Invaliden Strasse checkpoint. It was so packed that the border guards had to use a ladder to haul us up over the Wall, back into the East.

Ten years later, I again watched the television coverage of these evenings. And I noticed something for the first time: The television reports in the West were filled with horror.

Who will pay for all the people coming here from the East? What will be the impact on us? How much will this cost?

Everything was about money.

When the Wall came down, I was preparing for my film The Case Oe (1991), which did not deal with East and West. The film was about Sophocles, the ancient world and antifacism—about not being able to escape crimes and neglect in wartime. Shortly thereafter, a West German television editor questioned the value of this project and recommended that a current topic would make more sense. But in 1990 we did produce the film, in Greece. There we were, in a location in which we had dreamt of making a film...and everyone in the crew was worrying about their jobs back home and the state of their savings after the currency reform. At least in the end the film was current, because the Gulf War had started in Iraq.

But who was interested in that in Germany? We had our own problems. And this would remain so until the world went under.

Rainer Simon, December 2008
January 2009 Issue


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