Berlin's 'Material' witness

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13 Feb, 2009 Updated Fri 13 Feb 2009 16:46 CEST
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Daniel Miller takes a three-hour history lesson with Thomas Heise's new documentary “Material” about the fall of the Berlin Wall.


Strangely few films have been made about the demise of East Germany. And most of them have tended to be about something else other than the actual end of the communist country.

There were the eastern nostalgia (Ostalgie) pictures – “Goodbye, Lenin” most famously – which showed how things looked in retrospect through rose-tinted spectacles. And there was the Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others,” which used a East German setting to spin-out a morality play.

But Thomas Heise's “Material” is a different proposition. A veteran documentary filmmaker born in East Berlin, his new project premiering at this year’s Berlinale presents archive footage originally shot shortly before and after the fall of the wall. Watching it gives the sense of history being made.

The first remarkable thing about “Material” is the sheer diversity of the footage presented. The introductory scene shows two children playing amongst the scrap of a junkyard. After the credits, Heise shows shots of the West Berlin district of Kreuzberg, which is known for its repeated leftist riots.

A man desperately yells over a police radio: “I am from Kreuzberg. I want to talk. I just want to talk.” Masked youths on the roof hurl projectiles as an armoured water-cannon vehicle lumbers into the shot.

Heise then cuts to scenes from a Berliner Ensemble theatre rehearsal in 1988. The play is Heiner Müller's famous work Germania – Death in Berlin. After that, there is a long section of footage from the spontaneous rallies held across East Germany, as the DDR regime crumbled.

What holds all these scenes together is a question about the role of authority in a group. In the rehearsal scenes, Heise trains his eye on how a director relates to his cast and crew. The footage of the DDR rallies, meanwhile, shows authority put into play – new speakers step up to the microphone, one after another, to be cheered or booed by the crowd.

Heise provides almost no context for the scenes he depicts. Spontaneous meeting follows spontaneous meeting, but the wider context of what is happening is only indicated by what people say in them. This is history seen from the ground, rather than from the perspective of some expert narrator, who has all the facts already hand. Heise asks his viewers the same question which they ask themselves everyday: “What is going on here?”

But Heise is also unusually interested and respectful towards people. This is especially true of the footage he shoots in a prison. Here, both prisoners and guards are presented as intelligent, articulate people, who both feel equally marginalized by the world outside the gates.

The most remarkable footage is the scenes of the riot shot after the Wall fell. The setting is some kind of youth centre, where a group of students has tried to make common ground with a group of skinheads.

Something goes wrong, and the skinheads begin pulling on masks, preparing for battle, as meanwhile the centre comes under police attack. One of the skinheads says to the cowering students: “Some of you students are even stupider than I am.”

“Material” will probably not be a blockbuster. At almost three hours long, and without a strong central narrative, it does not seem very likely to make its way into multiplexes. But I can't recall seeing a smarter film for some time.

As Germany prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Material” makes a key contribution to understanding how history really unfolds. And in a world which might soon start undergoing new political upheavals, the film offers more than simply a history lesson.



2009/02/13 16:46

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