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Goodbye to Winter: Women in the GDR

By Karen Rosenberg

Graffiti by Anja and Kerstin

Events in the German Democratic Republic are moving fast and since I interviewed documentary filmmaker Helke Misselwitz last October, the Berlin wall has had large holes cut into it. Long-banned films are finally coming off the shelves, and will be featured at the Berlin Film Festival in February 1990. I met Helke Misselwitz at the Harvard Film archive where she presented her latest film, Winter ade, (Goodbye to Winter), which was awarded both the Silver Dove and the International Film Critics' Prize at the 1988 Leipzig Festival.

While much of the U.S. media jubilantly declares that the West has won the Cold War, Misselwitz expresses the simple mindedness of this analysis. Her words are instructive for they reveal what many East Germans are striving for: a liberalized society inspired by Gorbachev's reforms.

Winter ade is a broad though selective view of women of various regions, classes and ages in the GDR. These women represent numerous occupations—ballroom dance instruction, fish canning, subway driving. Misselwitz in her voice-over commentary explains: "At the age of forty I again leave the town of my childhood in order to discover how others have lived, how they would like to live. On the journey we will talk with each other, meeting at work or at home, by arrangement and also by chance. Sometimes we will only look at them—women and girls of this land."

The section on Christine Schiele, 37, who works in a briquette factory, illustrates some of the strengths of Misselwitz's art. Slowly, she draws out Schiele's dreams and fears. "Is there someone who is tender to you sometimes?" and "What gives you strength in life? " are some of Misselwitz's arresting questions. Schiele responds matter- of-factly, attempting to conceal her pain, that she feels ostracized by society because her daughter is mentally retarded. She wants understanding and more. "I want to find a way back to hope," says Schiele.

Misselwitz, although her profession allows her more opportunity than most, shares with her subjects the deep frustrations over the gap between women's desires and the the possibilities offered to them by the GDR. This unique and extraordinary display of trust between filmmaker and her subjects is largely what makes Winter ade so compelling. Thomas Plenert 's beautiful black-and-white cinematography follows Schiele on her rounds: her unenviable job is to hit flues in the plant with a large hammer to prevent explosions. Without a hint of voyeurism, he enters the showers where she and other women workers struggle to scrub coal grime off their bodies.

The GDR, too, has its alienated punks, like 16-year-olds Anja and Keratin who express their creativity in emotion-charged graffiti—an art form seldom embraced anywhere. After repeated incidents of truancy and misconduct, the girls are sent to disciplinary institutions. Misselwitz joins Anja's family to see her off at the train station. Now persuaded to conform, her far-out hair-do has been tamed. As other meetings show, Misselwitz is sensitive to the frustrations of young women who want to live differently from their elders, but are confused about how to do so.

Almost all the women Misselwitz talks with in Winter ade live without a man, often with children. There is Erika ("Banni") Banhardt, 55, the director of a home for disturbed children and a member of her District Council. Banni decided to have children without getting married at a time when it was an unpopular choice. The increase in options for women supports the film's optimistic title, Good­ bye to Winter.

That socialist societies have long had pockets of liberal thinking as well as bastions of conservatism is a fact that was hardly reported in Cold War America. Our conception of the "Soviet bloc" was monolithic : the theory of totalitarianism did not account for shifting and varied levels of tolerance. Misselwitz's film points to the difference between the relative openness of documentary film and the tight control over television news in the GDR. On International Women's Day, she shows, the television presented only the official GDR: the leadership awarding outstanding women for their accomplishments. By presenting clips from this television show on many monitors at once, Misselwitz creates a Brechtian "alienation effect" which underlines the absurdity of the stiff and impersonal reporting.

Misselwitz also constantly reminds us that much more is "there", than that which can be seen on-screen. Many times shots are gauzed by rain, steam or fog. Strikingly, interviewees on several occasions point out things which the audience cannot see, for example a wild deer, or a ship in the distance.

Finally, we are left uncertain of what the future will bring these women. Banni speaks proudly of her life's accomplishments, but after having had a serious illness she suddenly has a new outlook on personal life. Feeling she has lost time due to the sacrifices she made, she wants to live life more fully. "To get what I want to have, I will fight very hard. After all, one has only one life. Yes, that I will do." Banni does not elaborate on what is that she wants so badly. With this, the film ends with the railroad tracks stopping at the sea, which then appears before us over the icy deck of a ferry as Janis Joplin sings of "Summertime."


In the West, we hear and see a lot about women's private lives. Perhaps too much: it's more difficult to show their intellectual and political interests than their emotional involvement and needs. But I gather that the opposite is true in the GDR, and that's one reason why you made Winter ade.

In our newspaper's, politics is always in the foreground and personal life more in the background. The most important reason why I made the film was that I believe women's fate is the best indication of the quality of life in a society. Marx said very little on the topic of women, but he was right when he said that the progress of a society can be measured by the position of the fair sex. (Although the expression "the fair sex" is old-fashioned and a reflection of Marx's time.) Winter ade takes stock of human relation s. How much do we need other people—not as objects with a material worth but as beings with warmth and tenderness? How much are we concerned and interested in the person who lives next to us, in the family or in the same house? How much do we need and love another? And I don't just mean sexually.

How quickly do we judge young people because they deck themselves out like Christmas trees? Who really cares what goes on inside them -why they think, talk, dress differently ? Young people [in the GDR] take it as a matter of course that they will have enough to eat, an apartment, and a job, but then they ask, "What else is there in life?" Life runs along set tracks and one can't diverge from them. There's no adventure in it, and one can 't express oneself freely or decide freely for oneself—to study for a year in the U.S. or West Germany, for example.


The metaphor of tracks is very strong in your film.

The three structural elements in Winter ade are the railroad journey, the intensive meetings with women, and the observation of daily life. The only fixed aspects of the film was that it begin with my birthplace in Zwickau and end on a ferry on the sea. I definitely wanted to tell about myself in the beginning: by accident, I was born on the road, in an ambulance, right in front of a closed railway gate. And this fact leads into the concept of a railway journey.

Of course, the railroad is a very important means of transportation in the GDR, but its meaning as a poetic symbol is also clear. It points to the existence of closed borders and also to the internal structure [of the country]: there are many tracks in life, but generally you can't depart from the one you're on because the switches are operated by someone else. Women can decide how to conduct their personal lives—to be married, to divorce, or to live with someone. The 85-year-old woman in the film Margaret Busse was forced by her father to get married when she became pregnant, and this is no longer necessary. Since over 90% of women in the GDR work, they are economically independent of men. But one can't decide to go to another country to live for a while and then return. Many wouldn't do it, but they lack the opportunity.


Five years ago, Winter Ade could not have been produced. What was previously taboo?

Anything critical about the leadership or even a realistic assessment of it. We're trying to establish a dialogue between the people and the leaders. Before, there was a wall, not just in Berlin and not just encircling the country, but also between the leadership and the people. Of course, one couldn't assert that in the newspapers or on television ; it was said only in private conversations. There was public opinion and private opinion.


Did your film prove to be catalyst for discussion in the GDR—and if so, in what public places could people exchange ideas?

There is a very extensive chain of film clubs in both small and large cities in the GDR. They order films, use small cinemas with 50 to 100 seats, and invite the filmmaker for a discussion with the audience right after the screening. The club makes up small posters announcing the discussion, and word gets around. They are generally sold out.

There are also discussions in larger cinemas, like the Casino in Leipzig which has over 500 seats. Also, two days after the opening of a DEFA film, be it a documentary or a fiction film, it's customary to hold a discussion in the cinema where the film is running.

There are standard questions—about the method, the title, how I met the women, how it was shot. But then people generally start relating their own, personal experiences. The film has an open structure, so people can add their own stories. Theses discus­ sions are very intense and generally last two hours. They are very strenuous for me since I often do two per night, one after each showing. I've done seventy- five of them (and I could have done a lot more had I accepted all the invitations) because I know there are few opportunities for public discussion and I feel people have a great need to talk.


Is there a feminist movement there?

For the past five or six years there have been women's groups in the GDR, but mostly in intellectual circles. We never had a feminist movement in the way that it existed in the Federal Republic of Germany, because the women's question was officially explained as a class question. When social relations are arranged so that all property belongs to the people and there are no more rich and poor, then all are equal before the law and—the presumption is—women are worth as much as men. What was forgotten was that two thousand years of patriarchy had shaped people's behavior. That became a question for discussion in our society only at the end of the 1960s and the 1970s,with the feminist movement in the Federal Republic and in the other Western countries.


You started out in television, didn't you?

I began in television as a director's assistant and worked my way up. After three years, I moved from a freelance to a regular position as a director. I worked in young people's program­ming and did reportage and entertainment shows for almost ten years. There I learned the craft: the technique of film and of electronic television.

But I had a conflict because television doesn't want to see reality as it is. It offers pretty pictures and a lot of excuses and leaves out a great deal. You can't identify with what's in the newspapers and on television. I considered what my next step should be and I thought about studying filmmaking so I could do a different type of work. I entered film school late, at 31. There I studied directing and made films—the first films that I wanted to make.

After you have passed the entrance exam for the film school, you can be accepted only if you are sent by a studio—either by the documentary or the fiction film studio or by television. I was sent by television. When I finished my studies, I would have liked to go back to television to make dramas—fiction films for television—but I was told that first I had to work in television journalism for children and young people, and I didn't want to do that anymore.

So I resigned and looked for work, which is difficult because all the positions are taken. There was no opening at the DEFA fiction film studio so, as a freelancer for the DEFA documentary studio, I made some short, five-minute films and also won the opportunity to make some ten or twenty-minute films.

Then in 1985, I became a special student ( Meisterschueler ) at the Academy of Arts and worked under Heiner Carow who had seen the films I'd made at film school and at the DEFA documentary studio. I had a grant to study for three years and a passport for foreign travel. And being Heiner Carow protegee was helpful because his name is known.

During those three years, I was expected to develop a fiction-film scenario and maybe to produce a fiction film. I had made a five-minute film about a divorced woman for a film magazine and I was asked by the director of the DEFA documentary studio whether I'd like to do a longer film about women. I'd wanted to make such a film for a long time, but I hadn't presumed to present the idea, because I knew it would be a long film, and what chance would I as a freelancer have had to make it? In 1985, only two long documentaries were produced by DEFA each year. (Now three or four are made.) So this was a big opportunity. I made the film while I was a special student at the Academy of Arts, in my spare time. And in 1988, when the film was finished and my grant expired, I got a position at the DEFA documentary studio.


Could you explain the process through which documentary filmmakers get their ideas and films approved?

The newspapers, radio and television are directly subordinate to the Central Committee of the Party where there is a Department of Agitation and Propaganda. DEFA—the fiction as well as the documentary film studios—is under the Ministry of Culture, where there is a Film Minister.

Every documentary filmmaker at the studio can submit proposals each year for a number of films. The decision about whether to produce a film and how long it will be is made by the directorate of the studio and then by the film administration of the Ministry of Culture, in consultation with the film distribution organization, Progress. After a short description of a film has been accepted, the film is entered in the plan for the next year—or two years, since there is often a longer shooting period. At this point, the cost of the film is calculated, taking into account its length, the shooting locations, the equipment required, transportation and hotel expenses, etc. Then this sum is made available.

Next, one has to prepare a literary treatment—an expose or a scenario—but it isn't as extensive as for a fiction film. It can be very short or long, depending on the filmmaker's conception and on that person's previous accomplishments. This literary treatment has to be accepted by the studio directorate and also, for long films, by the Ministry of Culture. When it has passed, shooting can begin.

After the film is finished, it must be accepted by the studio directorate. If they give their approval, it goes to the film department of the Ministry of Culture where the Minister himself reviews the long documentary and fiction films. When approval is granted, then the film gets an official state permit which allows a negative to be printed. Progress Film Distributors decides how many copies will be struck for screenings in the GDR. And then the film enters the movie houses. In the last few years, documentaries have been stronger than fiction films in the GDR. This is related to the fact that one doesn't have to give an exact description of documentaries beforehand, since one can 't know what reality will look like. For that reason it's not as possible to censor a documentary film heavily before it is shot. And once the elements of life and truth are revealed, people are captivated and they accept the film. At that point, it's hard to say that something must be cut or changed. But such cases have occurred. In the past, people had to make compromises, changing or cutting sentences and removing images. Sentences were always more important than images.


Could you give some examples of changes that were demanded?

I made a twenty-minute poetic film Tango Dream (Tango Traum) in which a woman, who is me, is asked to make a film about what the tango is—about getting close to a foreign culture. I come to the conclusion that, since I can't travel abroad, the tango is something that can only be approached and not experienced. At the end of the film there 's a sequence in which the woman—that's me—is looking out of a window, and then a ship sets sail, on a voyage, and Carlos Garde! sings.

The studio directorate said that the ship at the end wasn't acceptable because the woman longs to travel in foreign countries. This scene also contains the longing for warmth, tenderness, and the erotic—a lot is symbolized—but, of course, the longing to get to know foreign cultures deeply, by being there, is also present. We were able to put the shot of the ship at the beginning of the film, but it is less effective there : a ship goes by and then a woman sits in a closed room. It would have been much better at the end.

I agreed to the compromise—this was four or five years ago ·but after­ wards I was very sad that I did so. It's not so significant for the film, but you feel bad about yourself if you don't stand firm. I think that had I held out, this image could have remained at the end. Today I wouldn't agree to such a compromise.

And nowadays this ending wouldn't be a problem. Winter ade ends with a journey on the open sea. Of course, there the final image doesn't stand just for the ability to travel abroad, but also for the ability to determine one's actions oneself, and for more individual freedom. One is searching for something which can't yet be pinned down exactly.

I can also mention Volker Koepp's picture about the town of Zehdenick. There was a scene in a tavern where the male workers—brickmakers—wonder out loud why it's so hard to buy Sputnik, which is something like a Soviet Reader's Digest, in the GDR. And why the print run for Gorbachev's book is so small that it can't be bought in the GDR, and one has to get it when one goes to West Germany on a visit. And why one can read so little about Gorbachev in the GDR, and why one can't speak out. The workers say that "they''—meaning those on top, the leaders—need not be so afraid of us or of our getting information.

In order to keep this scene intact, Volker Koepp held out for a long time, almost half a year. But he wanted the film to be released and so, finally, he made some changes. It's still a very fine film but, especially these days, it would be important to have this scene in the film, and it's not there.

In the same scene, the director says, "It's now May 1988. Let's see what the situation will be like in half a year when the film is released. " This too was cut. It would have been very important because, at the end of November 1988, Sputnik was withdrawn from circulation in the GDR and not delivered to subscribers. That was because the October issue, No. 10, had a lot of articles about Stalin and his crimes, and a comparison was made between Stalin and Hitler. Now the journal is permitted again. I hope that, in the present situation, this section can be restored to the way the director wanted it.


In the USSR, documentary film now plays an important journalistic role, reporting on controversial current events.

Our documentaries are also trying to react faster to events because so much is happening in the GDR right now. We filmed at the Gethsemane Church where peaceful demonstrators had been smashed up by the police. After this event, we filmed eyewitnesses, young people who had been there.


Was it possible to film the demonstration itself?

No, the (GDR] television should have, but it didn't. Western television tried to, put their cameras were seized. Some private people shot the event and I would like to find their material and combine it with the testimony of eyewitnesses.

It's the job of newspapers and television to cover such current events and I hope this will improve in the GDR. It has already improved in radio. There's a station for young people, 64, that broadcasts all day, and it has really changed : it tries to examine events realistically and openly. I expect that a lot more changes will occur in the month we are away.


In the USSR, during the Brezhnev era, some films were accepted for distribution, but so few copies were made that they were hardly seen and thus the release was, in effect, largely a formality. Has this happened in the GDR?

Yes, that has occurred. There are films with a very limited number of copies.


Have some films sat on the shelf without being released?

That rarely happens to documentary films. Actually it's sad that there were many such cases in the USSR and few in the GDR: it could be a sign that our filmmakers didn't attempt as much.


What are the GDR documentaries about Western Europe like?

There are the films of Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann who are about sixty and work together. They have a tradition of making films about Nazis who still live, undisturbed, in West Germany. They are very interested in the fascist era and in neo­ fascism in West Germany and elsewhere—in Chile, for example. Their criticism of fascist tendencies is certainly important. It's accepted and supp

orted that the GDR is an anti­ fascist country.

The television reports a lot about West Germany, using it as a negative example. But we know about unemployment and capitalism—we learn that in school. To us, that is agitation and propaganda and not believed. It can't just be all bad, since so many people like living there. You want to see it for yourself; you don't want it predigested any more.

*Despite the rapid changes taking place in the GDR, to date this is still the procedure.


Winter ade (Goodbye to Winter) A Film about Women in the GDR, German Democratic Republic, DEFA Studio for Documentary Film, 1988. 35mm, b/w, 115 minutes.

Heiner Carow, born in 1929, began his career in the cinema as a documentary filmmaker and then moved into fiction filmmaking. He became intensely popular in the GDR in the 1970s for his dramatic features in which young heroes strive to find emotional fulfillment i n social context which is not depicted in a prettified manner. See Sigrun Leonhard, Testing the Borders: East German Film Between Individualism and Social Commitment, in Post New Wave Cinema in the Soviet Union and Eastern. Europe, edited by Daniel J. Goulding, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Volker Koepp Brandenburg Bricks (Maerkische Ziegel), a 34-minute color film made in 1988, won two prizes at the 1989 International Film Week at Mannheim, West Germany.


Karen Rosenberg often writes on politics and film in regard to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Translated from the German by Karen Rosenberg.