West (Westen/Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Alexei and Nelly

Alexei (Tristan Göbel) and Nelly (Jördis Triebel)

West is likely to be one of my films of the year. I was particularly impressed by the performance of Jördis Triebel in the central role and at times I found her mesmerising. I’d go as far as saying that the film reminded me of aspects of Fassbinder’s films and that Triebel made a similar impact on me as Hannah Schygulla when I first saw The Marriage of Maria Braun. I’ve seen West described as a psychological thriller but, although I can understand why, for me it seemed more like a melodrama.

Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her small son Alexei (Tristan Göbel) are introduced first in 1975 when Alexei’s father, a Russian physicist, is about to go on a trip and gives his son a warm sweater to protect him from the cold. Three years later we meet Nelly and Alexei again, this time attempting to leave East Germany for the West with a man who Alexei calls “my new Dad”. Nelly is forced to undergo a humiliating strip search but is eventually released by the East German border control staff and she and Alexei arrive at a reception centre for refugees (Notaufnahmelager) in West Berlin. Lagerfeuer (‘campfire’) is the title of the original novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. I think this helps to explain why it felt very much like a female-centred melodrama.

Once Nelly and Alexei have gone through initial processing at the Aufnahmelager Nelly assumes that she will quickly be able to obtain a job. In the East she gained a PhD and worked in an organic chemistry research laboratory. However, her hopes are wildly optimistic. Although some refugees from the East are processed in a few weeks, others are months if not years in the camp. Nelly has left surveillance in the East only to discover that the security services in the West use similar methods. When she is asked why she has left the East she, perhaps naïvely, replies “for personal reasons”. This doesn’t satisfy the security services and the questioning continues. In the meantime life in the camp goes on and the narrative introduces other ‘refugees’ with different individual stories. As the narrative develops, the audience is required to consider whether Nelly really is naïve, whether she knows something she is not telling or whether in fact she is even imagining some of what happens (one reviewer suggests she is developing schizophrenia). The central issue is Alexei’s father Wassilij (who was not married to Nelly – the West German man who helped Nelly leave the East was not a ‘real’ husband either). Did Wassilij die in an accident in Moscow? Is Nelly hoping to find him alive in the West? Is/was he a spy sent to international scientific conferences? A double agent perhaps?

The narrative is not concerned with finding answers to any of the questions above. Instead the focus is on what happens to Nelly and Alexei and how this is represented on screen. For instance, Nelly ‘sees’ Wassilij on the streets of West Berlin or around the camp. These ‘sightings’ are reminiscent of aspects of Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007), another narrative about a woman from the East, this time moving into contemporary western Germany after re-unification. Petzold made another melodrama with Nina Hoss, set in East Germany in 1980 in the form of Barbara (2012) and one of the earlier films to cover similar ground was Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1995) which featured a woman who had left the DDR for the West and the young man (also a scientist) she left behind in the East. All of these film are essentially female-centred melodramas set during the Cold War and featuring the impact of ‘crossing’ the wall built to keep East and West apart. However, the film which drew the biggest audiences in the West was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) – much more clearly a thriller about how the Stasi, the East German security police, spied on citizens. I must revisit that film but my first impression during its successful initial release was that it did not work for me as well as Das Versprechen and then subsequently the Petzold films. I think that it isn’t helpful, as some reviewers have done, to relate West to The Lives of Others. Instead, it’s worth reflecting on what the experience of leaving the East and undergoing interrogation in the West has on Nelly.

Nelly confronts John Bird (Jacky Ido)

Nelly confronts John Bird (Jacky Ido)

I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but it’s worth pointing out that one of the three significant characters who Nelly spends time with is an African-American intelligence agent – a character who once again invokes Fassbinder (e.g. in The Marriage of Maria Braun the American sergeant who Maria takes up with is played by an actor called George Bird – the character in West is ‘John Bird’). The developing relationship with Bird has a definite effect on Nelly and leaves us wondering about her behaviour. Similarly we wonder about the ‘truth’ behind the story of Hans, a single man who has been in the camp for over a year and is seemingly unable to cope with life in the West. Is Hans a Stasi ‘plant’ sent to spy on refugees like Nelly or a genuine survivor of maltreatment in the GDR? Hans and Alexei become close as the latter struggles with his new life. Meanwhile Nelly befriends a woman nearer her own age, a Polish mother of a small girl and protector of an ageing father. These are German-speaking Poles and so unsure about new life in the West that they are reluctant to reveal their cultural accomplishments. Through these various encounters we gradually begin to recognise that the mistrust between East and West is destroying the possibility of meaningful relationships between people.

The film’s ending is in one sense inconclusive – we don’t get the ‘answers’ a thriller genre narrative promises – but I found it optimistic in terms of potential future relationships. The three writers of this material all made the journey from East to West, either before or after 1989, and I take this to be an informed representation of what that journey meant to large numbers of Germans. I wonder what those same people think about the fate of the Greek population in the current Eurozone banking crisis – with ordinary people trying to live their lives governed by a system that seemingly cares little about their daily lives. I’m looking forward to seeing West again and I’d like to see more by the cast and by the Schwochows. The film’s UK distributor New Wave Films has useful material on its website, including interviews with the Schwochows.

Here’s the trailer from New Wave. Interestingly, the American trailer is slightly different emphasising the thriller, Cold War and geo-political issues.

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