Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman (Wer fürchtet sich vorm Schwarzen Mann, Deutsche Demokratische Republik 1989)


This DDR film is full of unintentional irony, offering a portrayal of the East German state only a short time before its collapse. Whilst this documentary does not address the social and political contradictions in East Germany the portrait it offers clearly presents a state that is mired in the out-of-date technologies and social administration: the writing is on the wall.

The ‘bogeyman’ of the title is the coal delivery man. A literal translation would be ‘Who fears in front of Black Man’. We visit a private coal company which is run by a woman but whose workforce is entirely male. One sign of outmoded technologies is how many of the homes, including apartments in tower blocks, rely on coal as a heating fuel. Besides running on long after the use in advanced western economies the coal delivery business in Berlin has other distinctive features. The coal can come in sacks but also pre-packed in what look like small suitcases. And the wood for fires comes in neatly bound bundles. When we see customers calling in to place order we hear them asking for hundredweights of fuel. This is a different world from Britain, even when the working class kept their coal ‘in the bath’.

The seven man team faces heavy physical labour and dirty work. By the end of a day they are covered in grit and grime. Whilst there are showers at the depot they are fairly primitive. This applies to all the machinery. The deliveries are made in a motorised truck with some sort of petrol engine but with very low horse power. In the course of the film what seems to be an axle needs repair. The repair work is completely heath-Robertson. It seems to take a couple of days, with hammers. sledgehammers, acetylene torches and sundry other tools. Finally and triumphantly the axle is removed, but how the truck is then made roadworthy stretches beyond the length of this film.

The owner of the business is a resolute and extremely competent woman. She is assisted by her daughter who would take over thee businesses one day. Whilst the machinery might seem primitive the organisation is efficient. The owner is also articulate and talks of her firm and of it social context with fluidity. There is something similar when we hear the workforce answering questions.

The discussion subjects range from the building of the Berlin Wall and possible escape, [one tried], to child abuse and suicide as well as prison and alcoholism.” (Retrospective Brochure)

All are extremely good natured. The view of this segment of society suggests a working class with solidarity and satisfaction. There is no hint of impending doom. As one historian remarked the film has an air of whimsicality but its characters and their situation are completely engaging. The less than sixty minutes of the film offers us in their lives and their work with both sympathy and affection.


The director, Helke Misselwitz, was there to introduce the film. She remarked that when the topic was broached she was determined to find a firm with a woman at the helm. She successfully found one and also one that offered a fascinating set of portraits. The film was also visually satisfying, down to the cinematography of Thomas Pienert which captures the place and the people with unassuming grace. Pienert also worked on the screenplay with Helke Misselwitz. It does seem that this narrative emerged from their working study at the depot.

We also had as short film from the DDR, Nude Portraits – Gundula Schulze / Aktofotografie , Z. B. Gundula Schulze, directed by Helke Misselwitz in 1983. It seems that Gundula Schulze, a young graduate at the time, has become a famous photographer. Then she wrote a thesis on ‘nude photography in East Germany’. At the start we are shown some fairly stereotypical nude portraits, not any different from those that circulate in capitalist societies. Then the film introduces two strands. Nude photographs taken by Schulze of women aiming to present them as ‘whole women’. At times this colour footage is intercut with black and white 16mm footage of working women, here as cashiers at a line of tills in a supermarket. The contrasting images make the point well. And Schulze’s portraits are fine examples of women presented with their own character.

This film ran 11 minutes and had been copied onto a DCP. The feature documentary was screened from a good 35mm print. Both films had English sub-titles.

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