East Germany. Summer, late 70’s. Three years after her boyfriend Wassilij’s apparent death, Nelly Senff decides to escape from behind the Berlin Wall with her son Alexej, leaving her traumatic memories and past behind. Pretending to marry a West German, she crosses the border to start a new life in the West. But soon her past starts to haunt her as the Allied Secret Service begin to question Wassilij’s mysterious disappearance. Is he still alive? Was he a spy? Plagued by her past and fraught with paranoia, Nelly is forced to choose between discovering the truth about her former lover and her hopes for a better tomorrow.
WEST premieres in New York City on Friday, November 7 at the Anthology Film Archives. Commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and see WEST on the big screen. Anticipating the film’s NYC theatrical engagement, David Teich spoke with Director Christian Schwochow about the film’s themes of border, identity and diplomacy.
Find Tickets to ‘WEST’ at Anthology Film Archives – HERE
Explore the Interactive Map of the Berlin Wall – HERE
What drew you to Julia Franck’s novel?
The novel is different than the film, but the inner core is very similar. Julia Franck spent almost a year in a [West German] refugee camp when she was a child in the ‘70s. A lot of her personal experiences went into her novel. When I read her book ten years ago, it felt strange and familiar at the same time. My family and I also emigrated from East to West Germany when I was a child in 1989. My parents’ applied for an exit permit in the late ‘80s, and the application got accepted the day the Wall came down. I never experienced life in a camp like Franck did, but growing up, my parents had always talked about leaving East Germany. My father had gone to prison when he was 18 for trying to escape from to West Germany. And I always remember my parents speaking about leaving one life and stating a new life, even though they only knew what they were leaving, but didn’t really know what to expect from life in another country.
So just how difficult was it to emigrate from East to West Germany?
It was very difficult, and it was different in the ‘80s than it was in, say, the late ‘60s. If you were 60 and almost retired, or if you had ancestors or family members in the West, it was a lot easier than if you were 20 or if you didn’t have anybody. It was especially difficult for intellectuals, because East Germany wanted to keep them in the country. But there were some people who were allowed to travel from East to West—for example, actors, musicians, and writers. And many of them just wouldn’t come back. But some people would never be allowed to get out. Ordinary people like my parents had to write an application, and in most cases those were not accepted. And you could always try to send a second application, but it could take five or six years before you got an answer. Others succeeded within one year. It varied. And most people who asked for an exit permit before ’87 would lose their job, which was very difficult for them. I mean, you wouldn’t become homeless, but still, it hurts so much to have a certain job, and suddenly have to work in a cemetery [like Nelly], or do other low level work, just because you wanted to leave the country.
When you and your family emigrated to West Germany, what was it like trying to adapt?
People spoke the same language, but still, it was a completely different system. We felt free, and our new future had started, but still it felt like being a child again, having to learn how to communicate, how to walk. It was very difficult to adapt. In fact it’s still difficult for some people, even 25 years after reunification, to cope with this new life. I think everybody experienced emigration in a different way. I mean some people would get a passport, and they would get even some money from the West German government, and if they had friends or family, they could start a new life quite easily. But for others, like people who went through the refugee camps, it could take much longer to transition.
Did East Germans face a lot of prejudice when they arrived in West Germany?
Yes and no. I was eleven years old when my family moved to Hanover in West Germany, and I was the first East German person in the new school. And yes, people had very wrong images of the East. People there were surprised that I was a happy child. They had the impression that life in the East was similar to life in the Third Reich. They thought that all people from the East must have faced oppression from the government and the Stasi, and must be very depressed—that they must be hurt and broken, or sick and mentally handicapped. So I experienced something that many people from the East experienced: Suddenly you start to defend the state that you just left, even though you desperately wanted to leave it.
When people look back on this era, do you think they tend to oversimplify things, casting East Germany as the bad guys and West Germany as the good guys?
For many years, it seemed pretty clear to everybody: Communism bad, Democracy good. But we’ve learned about all the bad things the secret services of both systems have been up to. Ever since Edward Snowden, we know far more than we knew before. But even during the Cold War, world politics were very complicated.
Aside from your own experiences, is there anything that particularly fascinates you about the difficulties that refugees face in transitioning to life in a new country?
This is such a universal subject, because there are still so many refugees all over the world. Germany is one of the richest countries in the world, but still we don’t welcome people. I mean of course we let a few come in, but it’s not as if we have open arms. And the expectations of refuges from other Western countries are so different to the reality they have to face when they actually emigrate to one. As someone who kind of experienced being a refugee in ’89, I’ve often thought about the lives of people like Nelly, the film’s main character. In the film, there are four people in particular who have decided to come to West Germany: There’s Hans [whom Nelly meets in the refugee camp], there’s John Bird, the agent from the United States, Krystyna, a second class refugee, and Nelly, who wants to start a new life, but then gets caught by her own past. They’re all the same age, but their chances at success are so different. When I read [the book], I realized how uneven the conditions can be for refugees, even when they’re in the same situation.
In your opinion, do most movie make starting a new life in a new country seem easier than it really is?
Most stories [about emigrating] have very clichéd ideas: Here is unhappiness, but over there is happy life. So films often end at the very moment where somebody escapes, because the filmmakers assume that this is just a happy ending. Even today, commercials, brands, politicians, they try to tell us it’s easy to start a new life. But I’m always interested in the more complicated truths. I wanted to show how long and how difficult certain processes are. It’s so hard to end one life and to start from zero, and to leave the past behind. When I started researching, and speaking to people who had so many hopes, I found that they always felt that the past traveled with them wherever they went. Not just back in Cold War times—this is something that people always experience. Whenever you want to start a new life or a new relationship, what you left behind might catch up with you. Still, I think can make the best of your new life, even if you’re traumatized.
How would you describe Nelly’s relationship with her son, Alexej?
I guess the biggest danger for Alexej is the possibility of losing his mother. She gets so trapped in her paranoia that she doesn’t see that the only person she can really trust is her son. He’s the only one who will surely always support her, the only one who’s pure. And still she just doesn’t see him anymore.
When it comes to the average East German child’s experience of emigrating to West Germany, just how representative is Alexej? And do you relate to him?
My own experience was much less difficult than Nelly’s, but I still remember very clearly how it kind of ended my childhood in a few months. I experienced the whole autumn of ’89 in East Germany, and I saw all of the demonstrations, and my parents were very involved in them…In the end of the film, I show Alexei and Nelly in a kind of classical mother/son situation: It’s Christmas, and he steals a cookie. But still, he’s aged so much within such a short time. I actually wrote the script with my mother, and we wanted to remind ourselves that it wasn’t a very long time ago that we were in this situation. We made the film for German audiences, and we wanted to remind them that this kind of childhood was possible not so long ago.
Nelly can be stubborn, assertive, and even unlikeable at times. Was it important to you that she not come off as a victim?
Nowadays, we like people in movies who are victims, but in real life, we don’t really like victims. But we also don’t like or tolerate people who have their own voice, who are impolite, who don’t accept the rules. In East Germany, women always worked. They esteemed themselves very highly, and they wouldn’t say yes all the time. Nelly is a character who’s expected to be thankful and grateful, but she’s just not. She thinks, “I’m a human being—what’s wrong if I say what comes to my mind, if I state my opinion on things?” It was very important to me that I portray this kind of imperfection, which I consider very human and in a way very healthy. I wanted to create a character who doesn’t fit, because that’s far more interesting than a victim. I don’t like to see victims in films.
— Interview conducted and edited by David Teich