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Coming Out on the 9th

Ralf Schenk is a film historian, journalist and internationally acknowledged authority on East German film. He has written and edited several books on the topic and worked in various capacities on documentaries on Eastern European cinema after WWII. Schenk has also curated many film series and worked on the reconstruction of two East German films, The Beauty (1957) and Miss Butterfly (1965). He is currently working on the history of 70mm films in the GDR.


Ralf Schenk

A very special invitation was sitting on my desk: an invitation for the premiere of Coming Out, the first East German gay film, to be held on November 9, 1989 at the International Cinema in East Berlin. Heiner Carow, the director, had fought for permission to make the film for many years. It was to be a spectacular event and I wanted to be there.

But I also had a convincing reason to skip the premiere. Henschel, the prestigious East Berlin publishing house for art books, had asked me to write a book about the most famous love stories in film history. It was an exciting project and I had not hesitated to accept the offer. And I also took advantage of the opportunity that a project like this involved: I applied for a two-month visa to go to West Berlin to use the libraries and see the films that I wanted to include and were not available in the East. As it turned out, I had received a visa for the months of October and November 1989.

But, to be honest, on November 9, 1989 I went to none of these. Instead, I went to West Berlin to celebrate the birthday of my Italian friend, Cristina. It was around

6 p.m. when I crossed from one world into the other. Cristina, whom I had met in Hungary many years before, had just moved from Milan to West Berlin and wanted to celebrate her birthday in a garden restaurant in Tempelhof. We had red wine and a delicious dinner. Of course, nobody had a radio there, and the restaurant television was turned off. So we missed the legendary press conference announcing the Wall was open.

Hours later, a belated birthday guest arrived and announced the still confused news about the Wall. At that moment, a sudden ambivalence overcame me. On one hand, I felt happiness that world would be open for us East Germans . . . and not only for a few privileged people, like me with my special visa. On the other hand, a queasy thought passed through my mind: everything, possibly everything that constituted East Germany might disappear as fast as the wind.

Based on what I knew at the time, I did not want this at all. I had the same dream as many other people—including countless intellectuals—of at last creating a democratic East Germany. Socialism for and with the people, without the Party claiming sole power and with the voice of all included. Not an annexation to West Germany, but rather our own way. Honest and hard-working, with a sovereign people. What we had demanded a week earlier, at the huge demonstration in Berlin on November 4. A vision.A utopia. But also perhaps a fallacy, as it turned out. Most of the people did not want to participate in the intellectuals’ dream of a reformed socialism. Instead the people decided, without mercy, for the West.

Thinking about it now, I think I had an uneasy notion of all this already on the evening of November 9. My subconscious countered the general exaltation with barbs. When I went back—from the Bahnhof Zoo station in West Berlin, to the Friedrichstrasse station in East Berlin, as instructed—I passed thousands of deliriously joyous people heading West from the East. At the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint, the legendary “Palace of Tears,” I was almost the only person entering the East. Everybody else swarmed in the opposite direction.

I took a taxi home. Anne, my wife, had gone to the premiere of Coming Out with my invitation. Afterwards she had driven home, unsuspecting, and was already asleep. I woke her up.

The next day was Friday. We went to work as usual and on time—perhaps a very German attitude. On Saturday, the first free day of the weekend, we walked from our apartment in Treptow over to Kreuzberg, the closest West Berlin district. We walked through old streets with grey houses and rather unspectacular pubs. Anne, who had never been in the West before, asked, “This is the West?” And I answered, “Yes, this is the West.” But the West we discovered at the time is by now also history, just like the late GDR.

Ralf Schenk, May 2009
May 2009 Issue


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