SDozens of films have been made about the GDR since the Wall came down, but none that looked like this: A young woman is sitting in a garden in East Berlin in the early summer of 1989; the sun is shining, the little sister is dancing and the young woman is reading a book and dreams of becoming a writer.
Instead, the police catch her reading western books and she has to work in a factory “for rehabilitation”. It is the images of the women in overalls working on large machines that break with the viewing habits that the public has stored as typical for the GDR over the past thirty years. There is no gray haze over the colors here, no desaturation shows the gloomy past.
The director Aelrun Goette succeeds in “In a country that no longer exists” to find beauty in everyday life and to tell of courage and freedom without falling into the GDR cliché trap. Goette grew up in East Berlin herself, but had to examine her own memory for her film: “Today you have the feeling that you know so much about that time: It was gray in the East, it smelled of coal, and behind every fence post stood a Stasi man. And you first have to grind these images away from your own layer of memory and remember how it really felt, how it really was,” the director says in an interview with this newspaper.
She worked on the film for fourteen years, consulting archive material, photos and illustrated books. Again and again she received rejections, because the story of the young woman who is discovered on the street and becomes a model, who works for the fashion magazine “Sibylle” (the “Vogue of the GDR”) and in the avant-garde fashion scene in East Berlin dives in, nobody wanted to finance her at first. “No one wanted to imagine that there was fashion and glamor in the GDR. And it was even harder to imagine that this topic could be brought to the screen in a visually appealing way,” says Goette.
“The film is based on my life. I was arrested by the police for the ‘swords to ploughshares’ patch. I was only able to do my Abitur after reunification, but I found out later from the Stasi file that I was denied it. I was discovered on the street as a mannequin and didn’t want to do it at first. But then it became a world for me in which I could live out my longing for freedom and find my own identity.” In photos that Ute Mahler took of her, she suddenly discovered a side of herself that she didn’t know. “I saw the photo and I was like, Wow, I would like to be that woman.”
This becoming a woman is also a theme of her film (it is not without reason that the protagonist reads Maxie Wander’s “Guten Morgen, Du Schöne” at the beginning, a book in which GDR women report on emancipation in their everyday lives). Marlene Burow plays the main character of this Suzie as a young woman who is not yet aware of herself. When she is supposed to pose for a fashion shoot in the factory in a golden silk dress next to her colleagues in work clothes, she first looks shyly at the ground. Only when the photographer asks her to show how her machine is operated does she thaw out, become more self-confident and start to smile.
“In a country that no longer exists” is also a coming-of-age film about the last summer before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The characters are drawn just as warmly as the colors that cameraman Benedict Neuenfels captures here, both on excursions by the fashion avant-garde to the Baltic Sea and in the workshops and on the catwalks, between which Suzie’s everyday life takes place: Sabin Tambrea plays the androgynous fashion angel Rudi, who sews wedding dresses from shower curtains that Vivienne Westwood would have liked, Jördis Triebel brings out the most beautiful East Berlin accent for her factory worker Gisela. And Claudia Michelsen, as the strict “Sibylle” boss, speaks in aphorisms when she defines her work with certainty: “Beauty is a promise that there is something beyond mediocrity where calm reigns.” Through the interplay of actors, camera work and the With the script’s new tone, this film expands the possibilities of telling stories from the very land that no longer exists.