Shaky Sheds on Sinking Soil

This review is odd.  It rests on a misconception about a state that was always more complicated that the caricatures portrayed on our television screens.  This leads to some curious assertions.  Here is one:

It takes some 40 minutes before we begin to understand where we are… (Catherine Wheatley, BFI Notes)

Yet at the very beginning of the film, just after Barbara gets off the bus and is walking through the town, East Germany 1980 appears on the screen.  Why such an obvious error?  Was she tucking the cigarette packet into her handbag, unaware that there will no be opening credits to this movie…?  Although the most banal explanation usually ends up the truest, I think in this case there is a deeper reason for such a mistake.  Catherine Wheatley needs a mystery to dictate the form of this film.  She wants it to be a Kafkaesque place whose concrete identity is only slowly revealed; the moment of revelation sudden and unexpected: ah ha! the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.   She first needs the myth.  Then she needs the particular details to confirm it.

To my mind the narrative proceeds in exactly the opposite direction.  In a very early scene a Stasi officer confirms our stereotypical image of a sinister police state.  That is, right from the beginning we know what kind of place this is.  No mystery here.  Indeed, we feel we know it intimately.  Because of course our prejudices are true!  But then the movie undermines our certainties, until eventually we are shown the threadbare nature of a regime that cannot even track the suspicious movements of a highly conspicuous outsider in a town where everyone else is a local; their behaviour banal, safe and predictable.  Is this the truth?  That the officials that ran the DDR were incompetent?  We feel it must be so.  But then… how efficient and comprehensiveness was this totalitarianism?  Our doubts rise out of the historical swamp and hole our flimsy boat of biases...  Flapping around in the water we are lost and fearful; and some of us seem to be drowning… A friend panics.  He shouts out: were people actually free in this country?

There is something else.  This film is not really about the DDR.  It is about the real lives of a provincial town; a place where people are highly suspicious and mentally narrow; the gimcrack nature of this spy state, with its reactionary moral views, a perfect fit for such an unsophisticated society, where the majority are natural snoopers – their reflex is to peep on the neighbours.  They naturally disprove of strangers; and freely confide their dislike and suspicions to relatives and friends, and even strangers, if they believe they can trust them.i  In the DDR such activities are made difficult because the state may also be one of the listeners; this dissuades many from carefree abuse and moral condemnation, as the same narrow-mindedness that makes them wary of strangers also makes them distrust officialdom.  In East Germany the spy could be an ordinary person; a man crying in the local café while a doctor injects morphine into his dying wife may report him on the following day.  It was the state’s ubiquitous banality that made it so oppressive.

Barbara’s insight is to recognise not only the shabby nature of this state’s existence but how closely it corresponds to the petty sentiments of these provincials, who don’t like outsiders and ‘weirdoes’ - if they had a choice they would lock them up or send them into exile.  This, let us not forget, was the workers’ state.  That is, the state of the real proletariat, not that of the populist ideal portrayed in so much communist propaganda.  Natural conservatives, too narrow in their views to be either radical or liberal, they want life to remain comfortable and safe, which for them requires it be the same as yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that.  Change is a bad thing.  They know it can be traumatic and dangerous.

The script… is finely tuned to the atmosphere of suspicion and subterfuge that pervades surveillance states, in which affection and intimidation become indistinguishable from one another.  Barbara’s pokey flat and even the sterile whitewashed hospital are bathed in dim light and half shadows which make it hard to see.  Characters are framed separately, at obtuse angles, through doorways and curtained-framed windows…  nothing gives these people away except their actions, and even these are unreliable.  They speak in whispers.  Their eyes scour one another for signs of the truth, or hood themselves defensively as they glance away.  A knock at the door has the power to paralyse. 

This is very good.  It is very imaginative.  It has very little to do with this movie. Has Catherine Wheatley read too much Hannah Arendt?  Does she believe a totalitarian state is like a vacuum flask, sucking out all the privacy from the interstices of its citizens’ lives, to leave the public realm insulated and temperate?  This critic is creating this film from out of her own prejudices.  Barbara, in contrast, suggests the poverty of the state’s surveillance, especially when compared to contemporary Britain, where so much of our public space has been colonised by CCTV.   In Ramsgate today Barbara would not be able to climb unseen into the town’s one swanky hotel; while a few cameras will sweep the beaches, forestalling her escape to the sea. 

Wheatley’s mistake is to confuse Barbara with everyone else in this town.  All may report on all, but she is the only one for whom it matters.  The others, because they accept the society’s rules, are safe, even if the state knows all about them; because most of what they do is too trivial to be taken seriously – it will remain unread in the Stasi officer’s filing cabinet.  And anyway: they already know each other’s business.  In small towns privacy is almost impossible.  The inhabitants will always find out what they each do, while what they think isn’t that important, as nearly everyone shares the same range of opinion.  They are suspicious only of those who they know are different; “odd”, “strange”, “bizarre”, “mad” will be some of the epithets used to isolate the offending person; a verbal quarantine which keeps them safe.  They are wary around Barbara because she is a political criminal, and thus the worst kind of oddball – someone who is arrested for an idea (even if, as Catherine Wheatley argues, it is now only the idea of escape).  There are other differences too.  Barbara is an aloof Berliner, and therefore a cosmopolitan, that is, a sort of foreigner.  This will naturally exacerbate their suspicious natures, which can only reinforce her distance, and her suspicions, and encourage her own aggressive attitudes to a place whose very existence she finds oppressive.  She is an outcast, and she is forced to behave like an outcast, which only makes her situation worse.  Here is a double bind that is hard to break.

But we must be careful.  The locals themselves do not share Barbara’s attitudes; they are clearly more relaxed in each other’s company.  This critic has confused a very specific situation - the introduction of a political criminal into an insular community - with the more general culture of the DDR, which is far more ordinary than she imagines.

…affection and intimidation become indistinguishable from one another…

For Barbara affection does equal intimidation, especially at the start, because it is potentially a threat.  When the film begins she can trust no one, and she has to assume that everybody is a possible spy.  All signs of friendliness will therefore appear as ruses to entrap her; especially as she is planning to escape the country; an illegal activity that could send her back to jail.  This is the reason she is hypersensitive around André, the only person who tries to get close to her.  His affection is a real danger if she reciprocates and loses her self-control. 

André, however, has a very different psychology.  For him coercion and love are two opposite feelings, their conflation in Barbara something he does not quite understand.  By the end of the film she perceives this too; but now other doubts have taken their place: she cannot be sure he is strong enough to resist the pressures of the regime. 

Here is Catherine Wheatley’s mistake.  She should have qualified her generalisation: affection and intimidation are only indistinguishable for Barbara when she first arrives in this town.  When the film ends she recognises affection for it is – as genuine love -, but her doubts remain because she continues to live outside the law, an unusual and precarious situation that André cannot share.

This is the crux.  Barbara knows she is breaking the law, and is conscious that she is exiling herself from the community.  It is this self-willed isolation that makes it hard for her to judge these locals; thus even when she becomes more attuned to André’s personality she cannot know for sure how strong and discreet he is; because their situation will always remain qualitatively different; Barbara the instinctive outsider.  In consequence she cannot properly grasp the essence of the people she lives with; her conscious self-awareness erects its own Berlin Wall between her and the town’s inhabitants, whose lives are governed by instinct and habit.  This town will always be a foreign country for Barbara; the only person she can completely trust another exile like herself; Stella a natural rebel against the East German state.

As the film progresses Barbara relaxes a little.  Outright hostility changes to wariness, changes to a liking that will not allow itself free reign - she pulls herself back when she feels herself falling for André.  She has come down from the craggy mountain, but she will not settle in the attractive village that nestles in its fertile valley…

After those first few scenes where both sides are reflexively wary, and sometimes hostile, Barbara has to wilfully resist the pressures to conform; although this doesn’t stop her gradually accommodating herself to the local society, which she does while continuing to make distinctions all the time (thus she will not help “arseholes” like the Stasi officer).  Few people are bad in this town.  They are just ordinary; weak in the face of a reality they do not understand, and of which they are scared.

This is Wheatley’s mistake: she conflates Barbara’s (justified) paranoia with the (relatively) untroubled lives of the locals, erroneously believing that they all experience the same relationship to the regime.  Yet André, for example, is quite comfortable living in this town, his one thwarted desire: to travel to The Hague to see an original Rembrandt painting.  He doesn’t want to escape.  Most of the population think the same.  For these locals are not a threat to the state, which therefore does not directly threaten them.

Of course André must report Barbara to the authorities.  However, as she relaxes into the community the importance of those reports diminishes, until it is the police who have to (mistakenly) inform him of her escape.  He is an innocent, and part of Barbara’s education is to discover this.

The critic, in another excellent passage, disagrees with me:

And as she becomes less wary, so too do we.  As the film moves into its second half; the camera goes in closer, offering a greater preponderance of point-of-view shots and close-ups.  In fact, the entire film hinges on the audience’s gradual transition from looking at Barbara – scanning her features for signs of her inner life – to looking with Barbara, working out who is an ally and who an enemy.  As André, the shaggy haired, soft-eyed Zehrfeld is just unreadable enough to keep us guessing…  his loyalties remain uncertain.  Two of the film’s most tense scenes – masterpieces of subtext – consist of André simply describing an artwork to his colleague.  As he talks quietly, didactically, about a Rembrandt painting or a Turgenev novella, the words are weighted with potential double meanings.  Are these stories a consolation or a threat?

André certainly has conflicted loyalties, but after the first early scenes we stop doubting him; because we recognise the genuineness of his feelings – love melts his very bones so that he becomes a big fat wobbly jelly on a bike, as he rides with Barbara.  But even then she rejects him.  She believes him weak and unreliable; and anyway, she has a lover in West Germany. 

Why has Catherine Wheatley made these mistakes?  Here is the clue:

…which transforms the film in its dying moment from thriller to melodrama.

Not once did I think of Barbara as a thriller.  The heroine’s actions are curious, and they do suggest something clandestine, and when they are revealed we understand their dangerous significance.  But this a minor element in the film, and serves more as a metaphor than a plot device - such mysterious activity symbolises her independence.  Ah ha!  This is why we disagree: because we see the form of the film differently.ii   For once you believe this is a thriller there will a tendency to create the suspense that, except in a few scenes, such as the police search, does not actually exist.  Interestingly, her comments on an earlier Christian Petzold work suggests this implying of a genre that isn’t is part of his directorial style.

Wolfsburg…, on the surface a melodrama about the consequences of a hit-and-run, gave way to a study of social mobility in a town being revitalised by industry…

She should have reflected a little more on what this means for Barbara.  On the surface it may look like a thriller, but it is actually a study of isolation (in a small town community).  Why didn’t she?  Let us speculate…  By accepting the conventional wisdom that the DDR was a police state she naturally expects the heroine to be closely watched, and so in constant danger of being found out and arrested.  The very nature of the state must therefore turn Barbara’s existence into a tale of suspense.  That is, Catherine Wheatley’s initial preconceptions about East Germany as an omnipotent monster dispose her to think of this film as a psychological thriller.

This film is bigger than this.  And the DDR a more interesting country than its totalitarian caricature.iii  According to this film it was a lonely place.  Barbara about the loneliness of the urban sophisticate who cannot fit into the cosy mediocrity of a provincial town, where everything strange is suspect. 

This is not a film about some prison state.  No.  Not all.  It is a universal parable concerned with belonging.  How difficult it can be, for those who cannot conform.

[i] The opening of Wild Strawberries makes this very point – people are only concerned about gossiping with each other.  This leads to a withdrawal from society.  The same egotistical hardness of the hero of Bergman’s film and the heroine of Petzold’s is noticeable.
[ii] Compare with my comments on Pauline Kael’s misreading of Chabrol’s Le Boucher.
[iii] See Michael Hofmann’s comments on the quality of East German literature in his Behind the Lines.