A Look Back at Communism: Tracking Down East German Factory Workers

By Jess Smee

Documentary filmmaker Volker Koepp made a career in communist East Germany out of documenting the lot of factory workers in the country. Now, with Germany celebrating two decades since reunification, his new film shows how those workers have adapted to life in capitalism.

It is rare that a visit to the local bar provides one's career a decisive boost. But when young East German film student Volker Koepp stumbled into the pub in the sleepy settlement of Wittstock four decades ago, he found it full of dancing young women, winding down after their shifts at a sprawling textile factory in the village.

Over the years, that factory became the focus of a series of Koepp's films, giving a unique glimpse into quotidian East German life in the 1970s and '80s. And now, with his film "Berlin-Stettin," which is currently showing in German cinemas, Koepp shows how his characters are coping with their new lives, 20 years after German reunification.

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Traveling from his childhood home in eastern Berlin to his birthplace Stettin (now Szczecin, in present-day Poland), he passes through the swathes of under-populated farmland which have formed the backdrop of most of his films to date.

And, more to the point, he catches up with the women -- now in their 50s and 60s -- he filmed sewing, sorting and ironing on the Wittstock production line so long ago. They reflect on life after communist East Germany collapsed -- or, as one puts it, "after the West came to us."

Koepp, though, does not have a political axe to grind. Instead, he sought to take his cue from those he interviewed, letting the inhabitants of Germany's far east tell their own stories.

'What Saved Me in East Germany'

"I just document how human lives unfold, listening to how people explain their own experiences," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview. "I never fell into a clear-cut ideological category, not like the films about the victory of socialism which ran on (East German) television. I think that is what is what saved me in East Germany."

The women interviewed in 'Berlin-Stettin' are blunt in their assessments. Elsbeth, one of the former textile factory workers, welcomes the fact that Koepp is now filming in color as it means he can show the bright exteriors of the town's extensive post-reunification renovations. But her praise for the urban renewal quickly morphs into complaints about the acute problem of unemployment. She also laments a rise in right extremist violence, which has become a major problem at a youth club where she worked.

That mixed picture is echoed by Elsbeth's former workmates, who Koepp's early films recorded as forthright young women, dancing in the local discos and voicing their gripes with the running of the production line. "Berlin-Stettin" shows that it wasn't just the now-shut down textile factory which had a bumpy ride into the market economy.

One former factory worker Karin, who joined the freedom protests in 1989, said she was angry and disillusioned by their new reality, especially the gaping wage difference between the two halves of Germany. Renate simply looked sadly around her neat living room and admitted: "I still can't really cope with capitalism."

No Room for Nostalgia

But Koepp's portrait of the tough working life in former East Germany leaves little room for nostalgia. Candid depictions of grinding factory conditions and frequent strife between production line workers and their seniors revealed cracks in the "happy worker" image endorsed by the state. Wittstock textile factory was portrayed as a huge windowless building, filled with an ear-splitting din.

Even worse was an East German brick factory in the small town of Zehdenick, footage of which features in "Berlin-Stettin." There people toiled in archaic conditions and extreme heat, finding some solace in an excess of easily available spirits. One of Koepp's three documentaries about the brick factory was the only film of his to be banned by state censors.

But he said that all his films made before 1989 were scrutinized by as many as three panels of censors. In order to sidestep the famously strict controls, Koepp explained that people became adept at indirectly criticizing the state. "Lots of details were implied rather than stated," he said. "The public were experts in reading between the lines. In some ways it was as if the documentary form had taken over from journalism."

In addition to chronicling the changing fortunes of protagonists from his earlier films, "Berlin-Stettin" also tracks the filmmaker's own autobiography. The 66-year-old was born in Stettin, just before the end of World War II, and his family were among the millions of Germans who fled westwards to escape the advance of the Red Army.

Blighted Eastern Regions

In fact it was his own history which led him to make his latest documentary in the first place: He received a letter from a former neighbor in Stettin who remembered his family and wanted to meet him again. The film begins with a hard-hitting scene in which that neighbor reads out an extract from her childhood diary, telling of how Koepp's mother and other women were raped by Russian soldiers. The film itself is dedicated to his mother.

Reversing the journey of his mother and her four young children, the film starts in Berlin and works its way back to Stettin. By contrast to the blighted eastern regions of Germany, the Polish city Szczecin is depicted as vibrant and youthful: A beacon of life against the increasingly depopulated regions over the border.

Still, despite the aging communities and unemployment which riddle large parts of eastern Germany, Koepp said he does not want to portray an image of the region that is too pessimistic.

"You hear of horror scenarios of the east's empty landscapes and the return of the wolves to this area, but it is also an opportunity," he says. "There aren't that many places left which are not overbuilt and have expansive views all around."

And, the director says, he will likely go back to visit those women he met in that bar so many years ago. "I'll definitely call in on them again," he said. "But in the future without the camera."

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