ifa: A piece of history was written in Berlin on 9 November 1989. Many East Germans still remember exactly what they were doing on that evening when the Wall fell. You were born in Cologne and, at the time that happened, you were 25 years old. Can you still remember that?
Stefan Weinert: At that time, I was studying in Vienna. That evening, I was sitting in the kitchen of the flat I shared, watching the pictures on the telly. It took me two days to actually believe it. I thought that if anything would fall, it would certainly be something other than the Wall. Naturally I had heard that the border between Austria and Hungary was slowly being dismantled, but I never expected the Wall to fall.
ifa: 20 years later, you made a documentary about five former GDR citizens who were imprisoned after they attempted to flee to the West. What induced you to make this film?
Weinert: The film has a long history. When I was living in Barcelona in the 1990s, I was continuously asked how we Germans deal with the former SED dictatorship. For a long time, I dismissed this as a topic that had nothing to do with me. But at some point I determined that I had absolutely no idea about recent German history. I started to occupy myself with it, but at that time it was very difficult to get any information. Although there were documentaries and reports, most of them were fairly watered down. The brutality of the stories I later heard never played a role in them. In 2002, I moved to Berlin to begin filming, where I was confronted by stories from colleagues about escaping from the GDR and the punishments that were applied. It made me very angry that this had previously never been told. Then it became clear to me that I wanted to work on this topic. Originally, I had planned to make a film, but all of the production companies assured me that nobody wants to watch anything as boring as a film about national security and suppression. And because I had practically no money, I decided to make a documentary.
ifa: Was it an advantage that you approached this topic as someone with a West German biography?
Weinert: Most definitely. Every now and then I was tested with regard to my political views, including my leaning towards 'Die Linke', a left-wing party. The son of one of the storytellers insisted, for example, that I meet with him before I was allowed to speak to his mother. It was very important for them that I myself was not biased, i.e. that my line of argument was not that life in the GDR had been good, and that I would not subsequently distort their biographies.
ifa: In the film, Andreas, one of the protagonists, talks for the first time about his traumatic experiences and the methods used to break his will, such as sleep deprivation, interrogations and isolation. How did you manage to build up trust with the storytellers?
Weinert: It was a very long process. I spent a lot of time with them, just listening, but also telling them a great deal about myself. Altogether, I spent more than three years shooting this film. There is this one moment in the film when Andreas looks into the camera and the audience has the feeling that he becomes aware of the fact that telling his whole story has a real meaning. This look, that possibly he's being listened to for the first time and can make others understand how he felt at that time – this was a very important point for me as well.
ifa: Today, we know that unprocessed traumas can be passed on to the next generation. Were your films also a contribution to the processing of such traumas?
Weinert: In particular, I wanted to give these people a platform and the opportunity to tell their story, especially in the debate on whether the GDR was a rogue state or not. My primary concern was to make these traumas visible, because generally this concerns people who do not appear in public. It is important that we make ourselves aware of the dimensions. If we just look at the number of political prisoners – 200,000 to 250,000 – and consider who else is actually affected by this, then we're not just talking about the person who was imprisoned, but also about their parents, siblings, possibly even partners. Let's take the figure of 250,000: we're actually talking about one million people, just in relation to political prisoners.
ifa: Together with the protagonists you went back to the scenes of the events, for example to Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi prison. How did you deal with the risk that these people might be retraumatized?
Weinert: That's an important question. I was sensitized to recognize the risk; I knew that this could happen. I understood from another filmmaker that two protagonists, also former prisoners, were so severely retraumatized during the shooting that they subsequently had to be sent to a psychiatric ward. I wanted to avoid that at all costs, so I worked very closely with psychologists and therapists. It was important that the storytellers always had the opportunity to quit, that they had a feeling of security and trust. That could, for example, be a dog that was always present during shooting.
ifa: How Germany keeps its past present today is regarded as exemplary. It was only in 2018 that Jan and Aleida Assmann were awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for their research on the culture of remembrance. Is there anything that you think is missing in the current culture of remembrance?
Weinert: In Germany, our culture of remembrance lies in the hands of historians. They determine the social debate, how one deals with the past and, in my opinion, this is a problem. They look at history from a completely different perspective than psychologists or sociologists. I would like to invite historians to include other fields in their work.
ifa: In what way?
Weinert: Perhaps the film, 'The Family', in which relatives of the Wall victims get a chance to speak, is a good example. From the historian's perspective, this is about the biography of those who were shot. But when you watch the film it becomes clear that there are a great many other people behind this biography: the mother, the partner, the siblings, all of whom are also affected. These traumas are also part of history and must play a part in its reappraisal. Sociologists and psychologists can provide an important contribution. I believe that approaching this topic from different angles is an enrichment.
ifa: The film 'Face to the Wall' ends with the quote from Georg Hegel, 'We learn from history that we do not learn from history.' How do you respond to the demands of the AfD Party for a clean break and that we make a '180° commemorative turn'?
Weinert: With our past, a clean break is not possible. It's important to talk about what's wrong, and there's quite a bit of that. I've become more and more aware of this over the past few years. As an actor, I've approached German history from different perspectives. At the beginning of the year, for example, I played one of the Nazi thugs in a Polish series, who was responsible for suppressing the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. In Germany, that's hardly a topic for discussion.
ifa: In September 2019, you travelled to the Australian cities of Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne to hold a series of lectures on behalf of the federal German government. Your films were mainly shown at universities. How did you convey these issues there? The audience presumably had previously had little contact with the history of the GDR.
Weinert: At the beginning of my lecture I would ask who in the audience had read the book, 'Stasiland', by the Australian author, Anna Funder. Generally, the majority of them had. When this book was published in 2002, I completely rejected it. I couldn't understand how someone who had never lived in that period or that country could write a book about East German history. Then, when I began to work on my documentary films several years later, I suddenly found myself in this role and met with the same argument. This experience was my door-opener in Australia. I used the responsibility for the indigenous population and their traumas to create a reference to this topic. Although it is meanwhile popular to start every official event with a reminder of the indigenous population, many of their stories have not been told or told only to a small circle.
ifa: And how did the public react to your films?
Weinert: What I found interesting was that some of the Germans who came to the events had an East German background. To some extent, they responded indignantly, romanticizing the dictatorship. But the audience was very mixed, and there was a great deal of interest. Almost 500 people came to the lecture in Adelaide. What really excited me was the candour and interest of the different groups of people. There were sociologists, psychologists and artists in the audience, people who actively address the issues of our society and who I often miss at my lectures in Germany.
ifa: What ideas and impressions did you take back to Germany with you?
Weinert: I see my view confirmed, that I am right to invite people from other fields to take part in the debate on the reappraisal of the SED dictatorship. Inner German history is not just an issue for historians and former civil rights campaigners, but for all those who address the issues of society and the consequences of a dictatorship. Personally, I plan to occupy myself more intensively with the Australian culture of remembrance. I believe that it is always easier for outsiders to address the unpleasant parts of the past because they have the necessary emotional detachment.
ifa: Which neuralgic points in the German culture of remembrance will you address next?
Weinert: My next film will be about the issue of forced adoptions in the GDR. I was surprised to discover that very little research has been done on this topic, even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was only in 2018 that a preliminary study dealt with this in more depth. A television version has been planned, which will be shown on the RBB channel in the autumn of 2020, but also a longer version for the cinema to do justice to these people and their stories.
ifa: Is there anything else of importance that I haven't asked about?
Weinert: Yes, I'm a bit sad about the fact that today, when we talk about these 30 years since the fall of the Wall, we still compare the former GDR with the situation today. What we experience today is neither the West Germany nor the East Germany as they were in 1989. We live in a different era with other, more complex issues. I find that often people have a very romanticized view of the GDR. In my opinion, the fine nuances as well as the stories from the West are missing. I believe that both sides should listen and talk to each other much more. I regret very much that no real dialogue takes place. There are many notions of how something or someone is. Discontent often arises when people don't know anything about local problems, but talk about them as if they did. The locals then feel ignored. That is why it is so important to accede to people's need to be heard.
Interview by Juliane Pfordte
About Stefan Weinert
Stefan Weinert was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1964 and studied acting, among other places in New York City, as well as stage and film at the University for Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria. Since 1996, he has appeared in international television and cinema productions, working both in front of the camera as well as behind it. His first documentary, Face to the Wall (2009) is shown internationally, for example in co-operation with foundations and memorial centres, in connection with the reappraisal of inner German history. The Family (2013) portrays relatives of the Wall victims.
About the Lecture Programme
From 9 to 18 September 2019, Weinert travelled to the Australian cities of Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne for the Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government. Since its implementation by ifa in 1995, the aim of the Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government has been to convey a current and multi-layered image of Germany abroad.
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