Category Archives: film

The Weissensee Saga (German miniseries)

German Literature Month 2017

Back to German Literature Month and another excellent German miniseries. This time it’s The Weissensee Saga (Weissensee)–the chronicle of two families who live in East Berlin in the 80s. The Kupfers, whose lives are spearheaded by senior Stasi officer,  Hans Kupfer (Uwe Kockisch) and his wife Marlene (Ruth Reinecke), live in a gorgeous home in the prestigious Weisensee neighbourhood nestled on the banks of a lake. They have two sons, the very nasty, ambitious Falk (Jörg Hartmann), and divorced Martin (Florian Lukas) who has a mind of his own. Falk, who is also a Stasi officer, is (unhappily) married to Vera (Anita Loos) and they have one child together. Both sons live with their parents, and while Vera, thanks to life with Falk, is literally falling to pieces under the eyes of the Kupfers, it’s interpreted as ‘her problem’–something she needs to fix.

Enter the Hausmanns: singer and songwriter Dunja Hausmann and her daughter Julia Hausmann (Hannah Herzsprung) who live in a tiny Berlin apartment. Dunja, who is vocal about her criticisms of East Germany, is a known dissident and is under Stasi surveillance. Her performances are monitored and controlled; she isn’t allowed to perform outside of East Germany.  Julia and her German/American boyfriend are stopped by the Stasi one night, and Hans Kupfer reluctantly puts them under surveillance. Hans is seen as a more reasoned Stasi officer, whereas Falk, who is looking for promotion and wants to impress his father, is utterly heartless. Falk appeals far more to the current political climate, so at one point, Hans is moved off to become a lecturer at the Stasi Academy while Falk is promoted (and unleashed) to his father’s job.

Problems erupt when police officer Martin falls in love with Julia. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that all hell breaks loose. These are two people who love each other and want to be together, but we see what happens when Falk, who doesn’t want the taint of being involved with a dissident family, moves to make sure the two lovers are separated. There are scenes at the Kupfer family home which indicate that being involved with the Hausmanns isn’t just  a matter of not wanting to be involved with dissidents. Martin’s attachment to Julia is seen as extremely threatening to the Kupfers, and potentially fatal to Falk’s career. Marriages between politically powerful families cement society. Over time, layers of the Kupfers’ marriage are peeled back and we see a pragmatic relationship built with the bricks of ambition. Interestingly, Martin’s wife divorced him because he wasn’t ambitious enough.

As the series continues, the plot takes us down the dark, twisted rabbit hole of life in East Germany as the Stasi become involved in the lives of the Hausmanns.  Dunja sings a banned song at a concert, and Vera, who can no longer morally turn a blind eye to her husband’s actions, goes off the rails. The machinations of the Stasi (Falk) are incredibly evil, and what happens is mind-blowing. We see how people are manipulated into being Stasi informers: at one point it’s estimated that the ratio of informers when weighed against the total population was 1:6.5.

Watching this is an education in totalitarianism. Forget the benign incompetence of state government. What happens here is so vicious, so heartless, it takes your breath away as it becomes evident how the poisonous tendrils of the Stasi infiltrate every corner of life in East Germany. The series is being lauded as showing what life in East Germany was really like, so forget The Lives of Others.

There are three seasons of The Weissensee Saga so far with a fourth on the way. Do yourself a favour and watch this.

 

Once again, yes I know this isn’t a book, but German Literature Month is about celebrating German culture, and… as I said before you can read the subtitles. You can watch The Weissensee Saga on MHz which is available through Amazon or  Roku. Since MHz is also a distributor, it’s also available on DVD.

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Line of Separation (German miniseries)

German Literature Month 2017

Just as I begin to feel burned out when it comes to books or films about WWII, I come across something new and fresh. In this case, it’s the German three-part miniseries Line of Separation (also known as Tannbach) The series takes place in the fictional village of Tannbach but the situation evokes the very real village of Mödlareuth.  Mödlareuth was partly located in Bavaria and partly in Thuringia. After WWII, the village was divided in half with the northern half of the village falling to East Germany and the southern half belonging to West Germany. Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.

As fellow blogger Lisa knows, I am a fan of the series A French Village, a programme which follows the fates of various characters as they adjust to life under German Occupation. The series (which I’ll admit does have a couple of plot holes, but who cares?) shows the slippery slope of choices faced by several of the characters when asked to ‘cooperate’ with German officials. Line of Separation, a three-part miniseries with each part about 90 mins long, depicts life for the villagers as they transition, abruptly, from life under Hitler to life under the Americans, to life under the Soviets. Naturally, there are casualties and plenty of moral dilemmas along the way. Are the opportunistic more morally culpable than the idealogues?  Are those who disbelieve more courageous than those who swallow the Kool-aid to save loved ones? And what about those who accept the propaganda because it’s too frightening to object or is it perhaps just easier? These are all questions you will ask yourself as you work your way through the series.

Part I: The Morning After the War opens at the manor house of the aristocratic Prussian von Striesow family.  Father Georg (Heiner Lauerbach) is AWOL (and in hiding) from the German army after serving on the Eastern Front. That leaves daughter Anna von Striesow (Henriette Confurius) and mother Caroline (Natalia Wörner) at home. German refugees trying to flee the carnage take refuge at the von Striesow estate, but they encounter tragedy as Germans come hunting for Georg von Striesow and run right into American troops.

This first episode introduces nearly all of the main characters that we follow over the course of the series. Taking refuge at the von Striesow estate is seamstress Liesbeth Erler (Nadja Uhl) and her two sons Lothar (who’s actually Jewish and not her son at all) and the very serious Friedrich (Jonas Nay). These three characters are central to the drama that unfolds. Liesbeth is a proactive forward thinking character, and there’s just a small amount of info dropped about her background.  Another main character is Hilde Vöckler (Martina Gedeck), mother of a German soldier.

The Schobers are another important family. Herr Schober, who really is a nasty piece of work, had three sons–one who died in the war, another who is missing on the Eastern Front and Heinrich who is crippled and therefore stayed at home. A local girl, Lisa Prantl, who’s pregnant by a French forced labourer sniffs the way the wind blows and makes a beeline for Heinrich Schober.

Under American Occupation, at one point the villagers are gathered together and shown footage of the liberation of Buchenwald, and many of the villagers, particularly older residents, are in denial and remain secretly loyal to Hitler. One elderly lady mutters that Herr Hitler cannot have known that this was happening, and we’ll see where that thought leads her later. Party membership cards are hidden or destroyed, and being Jewish or Communist may be good or bad depending on who is asking the questions. Fingerpointing begins when local Nazi, the opportunistic Schober, who has kept meticulous details of who did what during the war, begins ingratiating himself with the American forces. Already just what everyone did or didn’t do during the war begins to be muddied. But by the end of episode one, the Soviet army shows up, and all is set for change.

Episode II: The Expropriation sees Soviet politics taking hold of the village. Those safe under the American occupation are at risk under the Soviets. Land is divided into 5 hectare holdings and for many of the villagers, or newcomers who have lost everything, communism offers hope for the future. Not so for Anna von Striesow who stands to lose everything. The Soviets use concentration camps for prison camps so Buchenwald becomes NKVD Special Camp Number 2. Known Nazis or anyone suspected of wrong doing are shipped off, many to disappear into mass graves.

This episode shows life in flux for the villagers. Many adapt quickly–especially the young who haven’t yet learned to be wary of ideology and promises of a golden future. Konrad Werner (Ronald Zehrfeld), a District Commissioner sent to Tannbach by the Soviets oversees land division, and while he doesn’t like or appear to agree with everything that happens, he sees the reform (and sells it this way) as a (fairly) bloodless redistribution of wealth.

Episode III: My Land, Your Land. It’s 1952. The Soviet instituted farms aren’t quite working out for the small farmholders. They can’t make a living on the pieces of land they have. The mantra from local authorities who run the town is that the West is a pervasive negative influence on their goals. Well…. yes, but then people are trying to get out not get in, so do you choose to believe the propaganda and swallow it whole and perhaps be a little happier? Or struggle against a system that allows for so few personal choices?

The village of Tannbach operates with a dividing line–an ad hoc border. One half controlled is by the Soviets, the other half by the Americans, and the border is operated by villagers who know each other well.  At first, passage from one side to another is possible, but smuggling is rife and escape is common. A crackdown is inevitable, but what is unforeseeable is that it’s an event that forces villagers once again to make political choices.

Line of Separation is a remarkable series which places a very human story into a political context. We see politics and ideology imposed onto a way of life, and how people scramble to meet new demands for conformity. While the series examines the lives of a just a few characters, there are some big ideas here, huge chunks of history and so inevitably some things are not examined. Count von Striesow’s actions on the Eastern Front are hinted at in the third episode, and up to that point, he’s painted as rather decent. A couple of the scenes are overdone. At one point for example, villagers are carted off to an unknown fate, while other villagers object calling out “It’s just like the Jews.” Yes we get it.

Still this is vastly entertaining and the series illuminates a corner of history I, for one, knew nothing about. This miniseries is highly recommended for German Literature Month. Yes I know it’s not a book but you get to read subtitles. According to IMDB there’s another series on the way.

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