Between April 6thand 12th, the Landmark Theater on W. 57thStreet in New York will be hosting a festival of recent German films of great interest to cinephiles based on the evidence of two press screeners I saw that have much in common besides being well-made. To start with, both have nonagenarian main characters played by two of Germany’s most renowned actors.
As a 90-year old Communist about to celebrate his birthday in opening night’s “In Times of Fading Light”, Bruno Ganz might be best known to most folks for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in “Downfall” but the 77-year old actor’s career encompasses a wide range of heralded roles ranging from art films made by Wim Wenders (The American Friend; Wings of Desire) to Hollywood films like “The Boys from Brazil”. “In Times of Fading Light” is set in 1989 as the Berlin Wall is about to come down. The fading light referred to in the title is Communism’s twilight.
Exactly the same age as Ganz, Jurgen Prochnow plays a 92-year old Wehrmacht veteran named Eduard Leander in “The Final Journey”, who led a regiment of Ukrainian Cossacks during WWII. The film’s title refers to his odyssey to find the woman he loved in a Luhansk village against the backdrop of a new war involving some of the same geopolitical cleavages. Like Ganz, Prochnow has a long and distinguished career and is best known for playing the German submarine commander in “Das Boot”. Deemed controversial at the time for showing German soldiers without the stereotypical mustache-twirling villainy seen in Hollywood films, “The Final Journey” could conceivably be accused of whitewashing Nazi war crimes—that is, unless you understand that his character paid dearly for them.
Despite the reference to Big Themes such as the fall of Communism and the complex relationship Ukraine has to post-Soviet realities, both films are much more about how they impacted two families rather than attempts to resolve them thematically.
As Wilhelm Powileit, Ganz is patriarch to a deeply troubled family that while believing in Stalinist mythologies about the German Democratic Republic has to reckon with the fact that Wilhelm’s grandson Sasha has just defected to the West. Prochnow’s Eduard Leander is also disaffected from his family. After his wife Hilde dies in the opening moments of the film, he tells the funeral attendees at his front door to get lost and then makes plans to take the next train to Ukraine. His daughter is left with the job of throwing away all the catered food that the mourners were to share. Meanwhile, at Powileit’s birthday celebration, the catered food ends up crashing to the floor after a massive table that once belonged to the Nazi officer whose house he was awarded as a spoil of WWII comes crashing to the floor. Like the Nazi regime itself, the table rested on shaky foundations.
Unlike all of the films about East Germany I am aware of, except for “Goodbye Lenin!”, “In Times of Fading Light” does not demonize German Communists, who tend to be depicted as mustache-twirlers like the Nazis they opposed. Since I didn’t need to see a film like “The Lives of Others” to know that the Stasi was bad news, I hoped that this one would be different. Mostly, the people being tortured in “In Times of Fading Light” are True Believers just like the patriarch and through verbal rather than physical abuse. Wilhelm treats his wife Charlotte with disdain. When she orders him to take the pills necessary to ward off various old age illnesses, he hisses at her, “Stop trying to poison me” and hides the pills in the rear of a bookshelf when she isn’t looking.
His stepson Kurt is a college professor who believes in the system but without the rock-ribbed devotion of Wilhelm. No doubt that this is a function of having been sent to a Soviet gulag along with other German Communists who had just been trained to fight against the Nazis. What was their crime? Probably being suspected of spying for Hitler just like other victims in the Moscow Trials. Kurt is married to Irina, a woman he met during his exile in Russia. Like Wilhelm, she is a True Believer. She is also an alcoholic who starts drinking vodka a minute or two after waking up in the morning. We surmise that the “fading light” of Communism is fueling her thirst but she probably drinks to get over the pain caused by Kurt’s barely hidden affair with a younger woman.
Most of the film takes place in Wilhelm’s house as local dignitaries from the party pay their bloviated respects. As each hands him a bouquet and prepares to make a jargon-laden speech, he instructs his housemaid, who he has been sleeping with for years just as openly as his son Kurt: “Take these vegetables to the cemetery.” Suffice it to say that Ganz portrays the bilious elder Stalinist with great flair.
The film is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Eugen Ruge whose East German father was sent to a gulag. As I was watching the film, I was struck by how much it resembled the filming of a play since nearly all the action took place in a living room and how dialog-driven it was. In the back of my mind, I thought it seemed a bit like a Eugene O’Neill play, especially “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. In researching Ruge’s background, I discovered this was no accident. In an interview he gave to the Boston Review after the publication of the novel, this exchange took place:
Q: You’ve written extensively for the theater. Did writing plays help you to plan and write the novel? Some of the scenes are redolent of the stage, with a small cast of characters in small, confined spaces.
A: I learned to write dialogue from theater. Dialogue is not easy, of course, because it is not “one person says something and the other person answers.” Learning to write dialogue means understanding how people talk. They do not talk by exchanging content; there is always meaning underneath the words they say, and you have to learn this if you’re writing for the theater.
Besides that, there are three main things I learned. One was how to go into a character’s perspective and keep it. I learned that as a theater writer, and I used it in the book. The second thing is not connected with theater in general but connected with the theater of Chekhov. Chekhov, if you remember, for example, Three Sisters, works like this—his plays have big gaps between the scenes, big gaps of years. Something happens, you miss some years, and then you have another spotlight on what happens in the house with the three sisters. This was a principle I learned by translating Chekhov.
The third thing I learned is not to make philosophy instead of writing what is going on. As a theater writer, I learned to keep very close to the action, to what is really happening. In In Times of Fading Light there is little philosophy from the side of the writer. The characters may philosophize, but from the side of the writer there is almost nothing. I do not tell about those characters; instead, I’m almost being with them, and going with them, being a companion to them while they are doing something, concentrating on their actions. Maybe this is not so surprising for an American writer; maybe there is more philosophy in German literature than in American literature.
Unlike the confined spaces of “In Times of Fading Light”, “The Final Journey” is a road movie with scenes filmed in the vast Texas-like open spaces of Ukraine’s farmland. The odyssey begins on a train destined for Kiev with Eduard Leander sitting impassively on a seat as his granddaughter Adele gapes at him through the window of the soon to be departing train. She has been sent to the station to retrieve him by her mother Uli, who gathered up the wasted food earlier that day. She dispatched Adele to look after her conceivably dementia-suffering grandfather even though this task might be considered as the blind leading the blind.
Adele is a promiscuous, nose-ringed, heavily tattooed bartender who is in no mood to deal with a stubborn old man who refuses not only to get off the train but to explain why he wants to go to Ukraine. After she boards the train to gather up Eduard, she is dismayed to discover that the train has begun its journey with her on board sanspassport and luggage.
In the compartment with her are a middle-class German couple who can barely hide their contempt for a Wehrmacht veteran, especially the Jewish wife who lost a grandfather at Babi Yar to exactly kind of force that Eduard led. They are joined minutes later by a handsome, bearded, and gregarious Ukrainian youth named Lew who ingratiates himself with everybody almost immediately, especially Adele who he shares some Ecstasy pills later that night. While everybody is asleep, the two have sex in the train’s hallway.
Once they arrive in Kiev, Lew gives Adele his phone number if she needs help with her father. As it turns out, help is very much required since he insists on crossing the border into the separatist republic where the village of his long-lost love Svetlana lives or lived. He hasn’t heard from her in years and is determined to discover her no matter what it takes, even if it is a trip to a graveyard.
Lew joins the two on their odyssey and is helped along the way by his brother Boris who is in a separatist militia. When they go to a relative’s home in Luhansk, the two begin arguing over Maidan and within minutes begin throwing punches at each other.
But as I said, the film is not about politics as much as it is about families. Needless to say, divisions over Ukraine’s future sets apart the brothers just as much as a past war’s legacy creates frictions between Adele and Eduard. Always a mystery to his granddaughter, the truth about his war criminal past threatens to break ties that were never solid to begin with. Their arrival in Svetlana’s village allows them to move to a higher plane.