An East German cinema frozen in time
The ghosts of the past are well and alive in this place...
It felt like groundhog day when I landed at Berlin airport on Saturday last week, picked up a white Skoda Fabia from the car rental and headed south-east in it, away from the capital and deep into the flat lands of Brandenburg. Exactly a week earlier I had made the same journey in the same car and visited the same place, one that, before then, I hadn’t been to in 38 years. At least this time, my birth town of Guben on the German-Polish border felt vaguely familiar.
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I had returned to take part in a documentary for German TV on Willy Brandt, West Germany’s chancellor from 1969-1974. His so-called Ostpolitik saw the two Germanys picking up diplomatic relations with one another. He met the East German Prime Minister Willi Stoph twice in 1970, once in Erfurt (East) and once in Kassel (West). But it was also the fact that an East German spy, Günter Guillaume, had managed to become Brandt’s personal assistant that brought Brandt’s chancellorship to an end in 1974. A story of East and West, the documentary will cover both sides of the inner German divide. Called ‘Brüder und Schwestern’ – ‘Brothers and Sisters’, it will run on ARD, Germany’s main public broadcaster, in May next year.
Guben proved to be a great choice for the filming. There are few places as evocative of the history of East Germany. This was evident even in the hotel where I and the film crew stayed. It wasn’t deliberately nostalgic in its design – on the contrary, the furniture was modern, as were the fittings. But remnants of the past reminded us all where we were. There was the brown shower base that was clearly once a part of a classic GDR bathroom suite. The telephone for the room service was from 1991 – in East Germany only around 16 per cent of households had a telephone, so many people bought their first ones in the early 1990s.
The dinner menu also contained many East German favourites. ‘Hamburg Schnitzel!’ cried one member of the film crew in delight when he saw it on the list. There is nothing particularly special about it. It’s like a normal schnitzel but with a fried egg on top. But the delight was caused by the fact that there was something a little rebellious about eating something in East Germany that was named after West Germany’s most mercantile city.
I had the ‘Steak au four,’ another GDR classic: pork fillet covered with ragout fin (also made from pork), which is in turn covered with cheese and baked and then finally sprinkled with Worcester Sauce (itself an East German staple that was produced in state-run factories in Dresden). It tastes better than it sounds – especially when washed down with a Neuzeller beer, the result of a brewing tradition that goes back 400 years in the famous nearby cloister.
Most of the team were East German (from Saxony and Thuringia). So I spent the evening listening to fascinating life stories. But when it came to preparing the shoot the next day, I was a little worried by the fact that some of the team members who had spent the day preparing the venue were still drinking tea as they tried to warm up. There was much talk of hot water bottles, thermos flasks and blankets… With sub-zero temperatures outside, we would be filming in a derelict building with no heating that had stood empty for two decades.
But what a building it was! Guben’s old cinema was beautiful despite the state of neglect, or perhaps partly because of it. The team were right, it was freezing cold, and I soon needed to swap my Chelsea boots (yes, I’m a walking cliche of an anglophile German) for the production manager’s moon boots to stop my feet from going numb. But naturally I wouldn’t complain. I learnt from an early age that there is not much point in complaining about the cold. For one thing, that doesn’t make it any warmer. For another, when I was a child, such moaning was usually met with the old joke that ‘Germans don’t get cold. If they shiver, it’s because they are angry that it isn’t colder still.’ Besides, the mild discomfort was a small price to pay to be in such atmospheric surroundings.
The cinema had once been Guben’s pride and joy. People often think of East German architecture as grey drabness, but there is beauty too. Built between 1954 and 1956 for 1.1 million marks, it was part of the GDR’s ‘National Building Up’ programme. The regime wanted to show that socialism can work and that the backbreaking work its citizens undertook every day would produce beautiful things.
The result was a two-story building that stretched along Karl-Marx-Straße with a representative, symmetrical front in the typical style of the era, complete with columns. Enter through the big doors, and you stand in front of the old ticket counter. From there, you go into a grand foyer with wall murals and a hatch from which drinks and snacks were once served.