Eastern Promises: Journey to a Homeland Lost in the War

By Christian Neef in Sovetsk, Russia

Part 2: A Brezhnev Portrait in the Restaurant

Mueller-Stahl's first discovery in Sovetsk is that Vladimir Putin's Russia is a mysterious country full of contradictions. It all begins at the Hotel Rossiya, where he is being housed; the finest accommodation on the square, right behind the Lenin memorial.

The hotel is run by the local oligarch, a man of Lithuanian origins who naturally also represents Sovetsk in the regional parliament. In the basement, he's set up his restaurant in Soviet-era style. Guests are welcomed by a portrait of the sclerotic former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to which hundreds of red plastic spades have been pinned as a symbol of failed communist construction projects. American music blares out from behind the bar. On the menu, pork escalope is described as "The KGB Never Sleeps". Other fare includes "Mao's Legacy" (slices of beef) and "Beat the Fascists" (rolled pork).

Mueller-Stahl is a man of refined tastes who has been a passionate painter for the past 60 years and whose paintings now fetch high prices. He is somewhat perturbed by the surroundings.

Reluctant to Enter

The unease continues the next morning when he is driven to places he remembers from his youth. The Jakobsruhe park he cycled through as a boy is now neglected, while the house of his birth in the former Lindenstrasse is pretty run-down.

The tower of New Church, where his grandfather once preached, has been sawn off, and the windows are bricked up. The church now serves as a factory. Even Queen Louise Bridge, where Armin was picked up by the police as a four-year-old while attempting to run away to Lithuania for reasons he no longer remembers, has lost its charm. Incidentally, the lovely Church of the Teutonic Order, like so many old German buildings, survived the wartime bombardment. But, in 1965, the Russians needed a burning German church for their Soviet war movie "Father of the Soldier" -- whereupon the architectural gem was destroyed.

Newspapers will later write that Mueller-Stahl stood teary-eyed and deeply moved in front of the house in which he was born. In reality he is simply reluctant to go in. He doesn't want to see his old apartment on the third floor because he still has every detail engrained in his mind and because strangers would open the door to him. So he prefers to remember it as it was.

The Russians ask him if the town has improved. Mueller-Stahl -- the would-be bridge-builder -- squirms while searching for the right words. Eventually, he replies that the town clearly lacks the money "to give it back its former luster."

A poster on the wall of his alma mater -- Meerwische School, which now calls itself School Number 4 -- proclaims "We are part of Russia." But then he walks into a fifth-grade classroom which is studying history and, suddenly, as if grasping for the lyrics, Mueller-Stahl quietly intones the Russian folk song "Vo pole beryoza stoyala" ("On the field, there stands a birch tree"). He learnt it from his mother, who spoke fluent Russian and could therefore sustain her extensive family in 1945 in Russian-occupied Prenzlau, his father having died in the last days of the war.

Building Bridges

The authorities in Sovetsk have pulled out all the stops for the celebration: The town's best accordion player and the best pianist are there. The Tilsit Ensemble sings the traditional German song "─nnchen von Tharau." A television crew is on hand, and there are many speeches.

The local oligarch conveys the congratulations of the governor of Kaliningrad Oblast. The director of the museum recounts how she came across the name Mueller-Stahl and calls on the townspeople to be proud that they brought forth a Hollywood star. The German consul praises Sovetsk for finally wanting to link the past and the future, and the mayor hands over the medal of honor.

Then Mueller-Stahl gets up, lean and with a straight posture. He has brought a present: his "Urfaust" lithographs. He appears just like people know him from his movies: friendly, but also very controlled. There's no sign of the joker inside him. Mueller-Stahl finds openness difficult. He speaks once more about bridge-building and about mutual understanding, about how he heard Yehudi Menuhin playing Bach's Chaconne at Berlin's Titania Palast theater in 1946. In the middle, Mueller-Stahl relates, Menuhin suddenly stopped, pulled out a scrap of paper from his pocket and read the letter of a Jewish woman offering Germans the hand of reconciliation. "After that, the music had a different meaning. Suddenly there was a bridge of understanding," Mueller-Stahl says.

Then he recalls shooting "The Power of One" with Morgan Freeman, who introduced him to Nelson Mandela. Mueller-Stahl repeatedly bumped into the South African leader at the same reception, and the third time Mandela had spontaneously taken him into his arms. "That's how it should be between people," Mueller-Stahl says. "But that only happens rarely."

Stony Faces

Among the many other guests in the hall sit six Russian honorary citizens of Sovetsk as well as Zinaida Rutman, the widow of the seventh. They are a senior medical consultant, a soccer coach, a war veteran, a historian, a female parliamentarian and two female teachers. Their stony faces are hard to read. Rutman's face is expressionless. Mueller-Stahl is bemused.

The translation into Russian leaves a lot to be desired, as the interpreter knows neither Menuhin nor Bach's Chaconne. And of course the people of Sovetsk know little about Mueller-Stahl himself. A few know him from the Anglo-Russian co-production "Attack on Leningrad," in which he played Field Marshall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, the German officer who imposed the blockade on the city in 1941. Some have seen the 2008 drama "Buddenbrooks," adapted from the Thomas Mann novel, the wonderful "Shine," which earned him an Oscar nomination, or the 2009 thriller "Angels & Demons," in which he played a shrewd cardinal alongside Tom Hanks.

But are the seven people in the front row annoyed by the glamour of this not entirely modest cosmopolitan standing before them? Does he diminish or oppress the honorary citizens of Sovetsk who never left this near-forgotten town? Or do they see this German, whose countrymen they fought so bitterly to drive away, as an intruder into their microcosm? Are they thinking about their own lives?

'You Don't Really Want Us'

A few steps across the square, a feast has been set out in the Hotel Rossiya. It is a typical Russian spread, and the long table bends under the combined weight of all the dishes. The conversation immediately turns to German visa policy. "You won't let us come to the West. You don't really want us," one person says. "So much for building bridges."

But perhaps the vodka loosens the tongues because, suddenly, the eldest honorary citizen of Sovetsk, a 92-year-old man from Siberia, stands up. He says something like "Young whippersnapper" to the 81-year-old Mueller-Stahl, kisses him and welcomes him to the circle of honorary citizens.

Then the next man stands and admits that, for decades after World War II, none of them believed Sovetsk would remain Russian. "That's why we destroyed everything that was German, everything that didn't have a roof anymore. In 1988, representatives of the cities that wanted their old name back held a meeting. That was already in Gorbachev's time. They also decided Sovetsk should be given its old name back," he explains. "When I told the town council here about the decision, they thought I was crazy."

Then he turns to the mayor and says, "Apparently the town was once really beautiful. All native Tilsiters say it could never be rebuilt as it was. But you, mayor, have to do that."

Up until this moment, Mueller-Stahl was pretty certain that bridge-building is easier said than done, and that he probably wouldn't ever return to Sovetsk again. But now he does start talking again. He reminds people that former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is now 93. If he followed his example, he'd have another 10 years ahead of him. He could therefore return 10 more times. The entire day, he has been evasive in answering questions about whether he'd ever come back.

Suddenly 80-year-old Zinaida Rutman taps on her glass, pushes her chair back and stands up. Immediately, a broad grin spreads right across her previously expressionless face. She announces to the mayor and all the other guests: "I definitely want to live long enough to see this town called Tilsit again." And she sits down again.

Everyone falls silent. And stares.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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Map: Location of Sovetsk


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