Helke Misselwitz

First Spanish Retrospective

I Came for History and I Left With a Heart Full of People: On Helke Misselwitz

I’ve always had a special relationship with films made at the time I came into this world, especially those relating to my culture. It’s as if they were carrying a secret I was not supposed to know about. I learn from them about the sounds I might have heard but didn’t understand and the faces I saw but couldn’t read at the time. Those films let me exist once more, not as the person I thought I was, but as a tiny part of bigger movements. They make me realize who I am.

Helke Misselwitz shot some of her most accomplished works around the time I was born. This time coincided with the so-called reunification of the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany: the fall of the Berlin Wall. Documenting the final days of a dying country, films like Sperrmüll, Winter Adé or Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann tell me more about life in East Germany than my West German education had ever told me. Those films document a changing world. They can be described as journeys through a country which doesn’t exist anymore.

However, it’s better to remain careful because, although Misselwitz is a filmmaker easily associated with DEFA and a strong double emancipation, relating to a people and to women in particular, her films are much more complex than the political slogans under whose banner they were made. Time and time again, I’ve encountered them in a more or less political or historical context, and I always ended up feeling blown away by their sheer openness, curiosity and formal brilliance. I came for history and I left with a heart full of people.

Misselwitz, who was born in Zwickau in 1947 (one year before Rossellini’s Germania anno zero saw the light of day), has followed a rather unusual trajectory within the regulated career system of the GDR. Before studying at the film school in Babelsberg, the director had already trained to be a cabinetmaker and a physiotherapist. She also worked as a moderator for television, a profession that must have influenced her own role inside her films as she is anything but a silent observer. Many of her films gain immensely from her presence behind, next to, or even in front of the camera. She doesn’t interview her protagonists, she encounters them. In her documentary work there exists a shyness of the protagonists towards the camera but also an intimacy between the filmmaker and the very same protagonists. There have been endless metaphors trying to describe the relationship between directors and their protagonists but none has convinced me as much as one provoked by a scene in Misselwitz’s magnificent Winter Adé. The film follows a train route from Misselwitz’s birth place, Zwickau, to the Baltic Sea. On the way the filmmaker talks to different women about their life and work in socialism. At a diamond wedding, she talks to the elderly wife and husband. Suddenly, we see her dancing with the husband and talking to him. It’s a sort of interview but it’s done in dancing. Such a moment describes Misselwitz’s approach perfectly: she dances with people.

Whoever she films interacts with her. In Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann Misselwitz touches the tattoos of one of the coal suppliers. The woman in charge of the company in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, who she is portraying, tells the filmmaker when to cut. Her presence is not only felt in every second, it is essential for the tender and direct approach of her films. Misselwitz is a filmmaker who understands politics through human exchange and simply looking at things in the way she perceives them. It’s not about making arguments, it’s about seeing. Very often she employs two parallel threads in her films. One is concerned with how something is looked at and the other shows what it really looks like. In Aktfotografie – z.B. Gundula Schulze she intercuts reflections on the representation of women in commercial photography with images of women living their daily life. After plunging into the celebrations regarding the diamond wedding in Winter Adé, she has another talk with the wife in which she learns about the husband’s betrayals and the lack of love in what seemed to be such a nice relationship. Misselwitz, furthermore, repeatedly films television sets, embedding official narratives and media in a contradictory world.

Raising her daughter while living in a boarding house, Misselwitz studied film but decided to become a freelance worker after school, a highly unusual and risky endeavor in the GDR. During the 1980s she made some fascinating documentary shorts as her path towards becoming a feature film director was at first made impossible by the male-dominated film system in East Germany. It was only later that she worked with famous DEFA director Heiner Carow and, after the collapse of the GDR, was able to realize feature films. However, as is often the case, her struggle brought about some of the strongest films ever to be made inside the GDR.

Take her short Marx-Familie, for example. In the film, which was commissioned for the centenary of Karl Marx’s birth, Misselwitz combines personal texts of the philosopher and his wife about their poor living conditions with historical photographs and filmed images of an abandoned East Berlin apartment. The latter is typical for her detailed observations of furniture, rooms and the little objects that have by now been transformed into strange nostalgic memorabilia. The film describes an absence of people, but also of utopias. Her films seem to say: Look! This is what it looks like! Like most of her work, it can be understood as a portrait of people living in the shadow of history. Misselwitz creates snapshots in time. Her films can be understood as photographs in movement. Very often, she literally asks the people she is filming to stand in front of the camera as if it were a photograph. But then they still move, they are alive instead of being ghosts from a past we can barely grasp anymore. This becomes very apparent in a film like 35 Photos. Commissioned on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of East Germany, the film portrays a woman born in the year the GDR was founded via 35 photographs and some images of her talking about them.

Misselwitz cares for those whose lives do not correspond with the official GDR narrative of happy families, healthy work environments, and gender equality. In her films I get to know the divorced, lost, poor, workers, dropouts and punks. She gives a voice to those who were asked to remain silent. Thus the filmmaker captures all the cracks and inconsistencies of a system bound to fail its people. However, it doesn’t come without its ambivalences, as her films also foreshadow the negative aspects of German unification still not overcome by a society that seems to be politically separated to this very day.

Misselwitz was not the only artist giving voice to women working and living inside the GDR. There was, for example, Maxie Wander, who published an important book called Good Morning, My Lovely in which 19 women of different ages talked about their lives. In German we use the term ungeschminkt when we want to describe how something is unvarnished and gritty. It literally translates as without make-up, a double connotation which fits the portraits of women in Misselwitz’s films very well. Somehow she creates a protected space in front of her camera in which women finally feel free to speak out. Films like Winter Adé or 35 Photos also deal with the act of narrating one’s life. They confront us with the necessity and powerlessness of words; they are oral histories clinging to the emancipatory effect of speaking. Misselwitz’s films are in strong accordance with Bertolt Brecht’s lines: “Scheue dich nicht zu fragen, Genosse! / Laß dir nichts einreden / Sieh selber nach! / Was du nicht selber weißt / Weißt du nicht” (“Don’t be afraid of asking, brother! / Don’t be won over, / See for yourself! / What you don’t know yourself, you don’t know”). There is a firm belief in the eyes of her protagonists, especially in Winter Adé, that cinema can help them. They believe in truth. It may be naive, but it is beautiful and honest.

History has always moved faster than cinema. This becomes very obvious when confronted with a change as vast as the – as we have to learn more than 30 years later – not so final fall of the Iron Curtain. There is no end to History. No medium has proven that better than cinema, which is itself always in movement. The Times They Are A-Changin’, always. In Sperrmüll the events leading to the unification of East and West Germany overtook the original idea of portraying young musicians and giving a true image of GDR youth. Instead, the Berlin Wall came down more or less during the shooting and, following those events, the film transforms into a document of lost identities and young people insecure about what to do with their new opportunities and lost utopias.

So, what can I learn about the time I was born into a world of change from those films? Most of all, that this time is not over yet because, then and now, it is occupied by people, human interactions and their stories of trying to survive. Misselwitz touchingly but never sentimentally captures the smallness of humans confronting life and thus reveals their greatness.