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THE ENTHUSIASTS ARCHIVE

Banner stills L to R: Litany of Happy People, courtesy Slovene Cinematheque
Death of Metalosaurus
, courtesy Igor Toholj; and Game, courtesy Slovene Cinematheque

Hello, Berlin! (Guten Tag, Berlin!)
Thomas Werner, Germany (DDR), 1987, 8 mm transfer to Betacam, 11 minutes

CSCS-Hello-01

Still from Hello, Berlin!, courtesy DEFA Film Library
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Hello, Berlin! is a hybrid film. It combines an ambiguous, unresolved, and menacing story of a date between a woman and an aggressive young man with an imaginary sightseeing tour that takes the viewer through the East Berlin of 1987. The “date” was shot by Thomas Werner in black and white and juxtaposed incongruously with a recording of a bland German conversation lesson in which a woman invites a man over to her place on a first date. The “tour” was made out of color found footage from a promotional film showcasing the pleasures and comforts of living in a modernized socialist city. As upbeat synthesized music plays in the background, tourist sites are highlighted, as are scenes of people enjoying the leisure activities of shopping and strolling, swimming in a pool, attending horse races and music concerts, and going to the zoo. The found film, notably, also shows both the massive, monumental exterior and the busy, crowded interior of the Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik), East Berlin’s most iconic public building (which was dismantled in the mid-2000s in reunified Germany, making this film a historic document).

The film has no didactic purpose and may not seem like a thoroughgoing critique of Soviet-style socialism to a present-day viewer, but it captures the tensions of East German life and bursts with bitter sarcasm toward its official image. Notably, it ends with the line, “When exactly will the tour be over?” Indeed, to period eyes, even the most innocuous footage of East Berlin and its tourist attractions likely would have been laden with the weight of living in a divided city. At one point, for example, viewers, both of the film and of the imagined tour, spot the iconic Brandenburg Gate, only to watch the camera demurely turn around without approaching it. What the camera does not reveal but the audience would have known is that the landmark became inaccessible following the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Similarly, the film shows a disjunction between the happy people who are enjoying socialist leisure in the found footage and the strange, inarticulate, and alienated ones who have their date in one of the high-rise apartment blocs that dominated much of East Berlin. After leaving the woman’s apartment, the disaffected, leather jacket–clad young man who earlier carried a bottle of beer in his breast pocket walks alone by the side of a busy road, looking little like the happy citizens in the found film.

CSCS-Hello-02

Still from Hello, Berlin!, courtesy DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts
Amherst

Trained as a silkscreen printer, Thomas (Tom) Werner became a member of the East German Super 8 underground artists’ scene in the 1980s. As Claus Löser writes of the GDR unofficial art scene that emerged in the mid-1970s, “A uniquely interdisciplinary character distinguished the independent GDR art scene: painters performed improvised music, poets transposed their own texts into graphics, musicians became performance artists. It was only a matter of time before artists in search of yet uncharted territories would explore the medium of film."[1] As this film series shows, unbridled interdisciplinarity was, in fact, a shared quality of alternative artistic scenes all around Eastern Europe, and artists around the region turned to film whenever the technology became available to them.

What truly sets Thomas Werner apart is his contribution not only as a filmmaker but also as the publisher from 1987 to 1989 of the underground magazine Koma Kino, a collection of essays by artists in the Super 8 film scene.[2] Since both art and access to art materials were subject to state control in the GDR, the new commercial availability in the second half of the 1970s of Soviet-made Super 8 and 16 mm cameras gave an important creative outlet to underground artists (musicians, painters, writers) seeking new forms of expression.[3] The need for an underground culture became especially dire in the GDR after 1976, when socialist authorities imposed strict censorship after expelling the popular songwriter and poet Wolf Biermann.

First used by painters in the late 1970s, the Super 8 format quickly became a lingua franca in the underground cultural scene in the 1980s because people could use it not only to make experimental films but also to record underground concerts, film provocative works of performance art, and otherwise help stage multimedia events. Precisely because the Super 8 films were produced outside official channels, however, the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, closely monitored the Super 8 scene, so that making a film such as Hello, Berlin! could have serious personal and professional consequences.[4]

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, Tom Werner studied visual communication in Berlin and since then has been producing installations and documentaries. Today, he lives and works as a photographer, silkscreen artist, and filmmaker in Berlin.  — Ksenya Gurshtein

With thanks to Hiltrud Schulz and Christopher Hench at the DEFA Archive at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for their assistance with the research and writing of this text and for their help in making a screening of this film possible in Washington.

 

1. Claus Löser, “Media in the Interim: Independent Film in East Germany before and after 1989,” in After the Avant-Garde: Contemporary German and Austrian Experimental Film, ed. Randall Halle and Reinhild Steingröver (Rochester, NY, 2008), 95. (back to top)

2. The leading authority on the history of GDR’s Super 8 scene is Claus Löser, whose Berlin ex.oriente.lux Archive [ex-oriente-lux.net] contains 130 artists’ films that were created between 1976 and 1989. For more on the Super 8 scene, see the liner notes essay of his compilation Gegenbilder (GDR Underground Films) and the review of this DVD compilation. (back to top)


3. The films were shot with Soviet Quarz 8 mm cameras, which only allowed the recording of 30 uninterrupted seconds. That meant that only very short scenes could be filmed. I am indebted for this information to Hiltrud Schulz of the DEFA Archive. (back to top)

4. Concerning the dangers of making underground films in the GDR, Löser writes, “Following Prussian tradition, the GDR had a law for every possible situation, including illegitimate filmmaking. But the actual law governing the ‘license of permission in film’ was interpreted differently depending on the region of the GDR in which one lived. In Chemnitz and Greifswald for example, it could go as far as home searches, confiscation of film stock, or even arrest. In Berlin, a carnival license was often granted. Of course, all private film production was considered illegal, and everyone that participated was aware of the dangers. Those who decided to enter into this subculture openly demonstrated a refusal to comply with the control and welfare agencies of the state. At that moment, one said goodbye to the career that one had in the ‘system.’” (back to top)