Ahorn | Thursday May 2nd, 2013
by Andrew Horn
There is a sub genre of documentary films where a filmmaker goes on a quest for a parent or important figure in his/her life only to be rebuffed, disappointed, or otherwise hit a dead end, turning the film into a portrait of the filmmaker rather than the attempted subject. We’ve seen it play out from “Roger And Me”, to “Looking For Fidel”, to the film I talked about last week, “Mother’s Day”. But the film, “Dragan Wende – West Berlin” or how the trabant invaded West Berlin and ruined my uncle’s kingdom”, provides a refreshing change, partly because Vuk Maksimoviĉ, the nominal “seeker” turns over the nominal “authorship” of the film to co-directors Dragan von Petrovic and Lena Müller and participates as the cameraman, but mostly because the subject of the film, Vuk’s uncle Dragan – who enjoys shaking off unwanted callers by claiming to be away on indefinite vacation in Barcelona – not only accepts him, he lets him move in, and immediately proceeds to suck him into his rather questionable lifestyle.
Dragan – who comes off as a kind of Harvey Keitel on a bad day, channeling Ratso Rizzo on a good day – was once a darling of Ku’damm night life working at all the hottest bars and discos of West Berlin. For Vuk, who grew up in Belgrade, Dragan was the hero of all his father’s stories of the glittering wild life of Berlin during the time of the Wall.
Vuk discovers him today, working the door of a whore house called Caligula, where the sign outside offers, “99 Euros – All you can eat and all you can f*ck”, and Dragon gets a cut for every customer he can rope in off the street. But there’s no time for disillusionment, Vuk is too busy being the butt of his uncle’s jokes, jibes and crabby sense of affection. Dragan would like nothing better than to see Vuk following in his footsteps so as to keep a good job “in the family”.
And the family we are introduced to includes Dragan’s best friend Dule – who made and lost millions several times over, and if he now owes the German government 5 million Euros in fines for various forms of financial fraud, he also claims to be sitting on a secret bank account of 290 million, which he unfortunately can’t access because his partner died with the account number; his other friend known as Zlatko the Baker – a former West Berlin party boy and wheeler dealer who gave up hustling to raise a family, who is happy to gives us tips on various forms of theft now that the statute of limitations has past; and Dragan’s father, Mile, who as a Yugoslav guest worker helped build West Berlin after the war and who, though a committed Communist, grudgingly admits that he reaped the benefits of Capitalism. Happily retired back in native Yugoslavia – though stubbornly refusing to accept that it no longer exists – we meet Mile on his annual visit to Berlin to re-affirm his “residency” so he can continue claiming his pension. Dragan calls this “the worse 10 days of the year”.
But what begins as something like a Berlin version of “Grumpy Old Men”, actually develops into a rather unique perspective of Cold War Berlin. We get to see it through the eyes of this bunch of former boosters and petty crooks who, coming out of the former Yugoslavia with it’s own rather unique take on Communism, knew how to play the system(s) and reap the benefits of both East and West. As far as Dragan is concerned he’d rather have the Wall back, only 10 meters higher. “America was the left bum and Russia the right and we we’re the asshole inside. But we were living! I lived like Count Yorga, The Vampire – clothes, money, girls…and now?! Phooey!”
But for all his complaining, Dragan stubbornly holds on to the past, and somehow or other makes it work. Just not so well. Following him through it all feels like a Seinfeld comedy, basically about nothing, but peppered with odd characters and situations. And the film happily follows the Seinfeld formula of “no hugging, no learning.” For a semi-delusional, Dragan’s living the dream.
If Dragan would love to turn back time, the characters portrayed in Petra Tschörtner’s 1991 film “Berlin Prenzlauer Berg 1990” are looking to the future. They just don’t quite know what future they’re looking to. While nowhere as snarkily witty as in “Dragan Wende”, the view we get here of the end of Berlin as an island is arguably just as unusual and unexpected for those of us on the outside.
Presented in the festival as a retrospective look at Berlin, it is all the more poignant for being captured as it happened, and seen today as a frozen moment of time and place – the Prenzlauer Berg district of the former East Berlin in the summer 1990, beginning in May and climaxing in July with monetary union. Reunification was still to come. It was a time in between when the lid was lifted off East Germany and the load of hay had not yet fallen.
The film begins with a broadcast from a pirate radio station, Radio P that originated out of a communally occupied building on the corner of Wilhelm-Pieck-Str. (named for the former President of East Germany) and Schönhauser Allee. A pirate station because, as they say, “we can’t wait for whatever law or whatever country to be worked out”.
Their determination is contrasted by a scene in a clothing factory where the workers have to confront the fact that in the new no-longer-East Germany, no one wants their clothes anymore. The owner of a clothing store contemplates the necessity of an all new inventory.
Meanwhile in another part of town, a group of young people are opening a club – which later became the well known music venue, the Knaack Klub. Their aim is not to be a commercial venture but to provide a place where the local kids can come and feel at home and that everything can be like it always was – in a good sense. A tv set in the room is showing a report on the expected “good life” that is coming. They all burst out laughing.
East German queers let loose for a wild night in a drag club. A rollicking birthday party in a beer hall is interrupted by the arrival of a young woman dressed as a cowgirl, handing out free Marlboro cigarettes. An old woman walks down the street singing a song that goes, “and now we can laugh”. She and some friends meet in a neighborhood bar. Feeling loose and tipsy, one of them declares, “The wall can stay but the shit needs to go.”
We see another group of young people trying to put together a community center. Self described anarchists, they see Anarchy as work – work on yourself. They get attacked by a neo-fascist gang.
On June 30 at midnight a newscaster reports that the DM has now become the official currency of East Germany. Monetary union is celebrated in the Franz Club, where a rock band plays the East German national anthem and a girl in clown make-up throws money in the air like confetti.
In the early morning hours, workers in the kitchen of a curry wurst stand are talking about the new goods and the new prices. No one knows what will happen next, but they open for the day and make their first sale.
The film ends with a shot of a building being demolished, clearly indicating the end of an era. But one wonders how much change the filmmaker anticipated at that time. Seeing the film today it’s amazing to see how much is literally not there anymore. Not the drag club, not the Franz Club, and, as of a couple of years ago, not even the Knaack Klub. Also gone is the beer hall, the clothing factory, and community center. The pirate station, the building that housed it and the person who ran it are also no longer with us. The filmmaker, too, has gone to her reward.
But we’re left with a film that’s both revealing and relevant today as a simple and unassuming slice of life. As Walter Cronkite used to say, “and that’s the way it is.”