Filmmaker Interviews

Thomas Knauf: 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 film's narrative literally slipped from the present time of the shooting, into the past. The same happened to the UFA DurchhaltefilmKolberg, 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?


In 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 didn't 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.



The Architects 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 misunderstanding?


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 haunted house. 




Extra info:

This interview with scriptwriter Thomas Knauf was conducted by director, dramaturg, and teacher Hannes Hametner ( in fall 2010. The DEFA Film Library would like to thank Thomas Knauf and Hannes Hametner for making this never-before-published inteview available.

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