The Discreet Charm of Private Life in the GDR

  • Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon), dir. Andreas Dresen

    My favorite Andreas Dresen film is Sommer Vorm Balkon. It is small and charming like almost all of his movies, and simple charm is extremely rare in modern-day cinema. When it ends, people leave the movie theatre with a feeling of satisfaction – yet another unbelievable thing in the present-day film world. Before this movie, whenever I saw Dresen’s films I felt there was something more to them and this strongly attracted me. And I love Sommer vorm Balkon for showing precisely “that something”.

    A hot summer. Nike and Katrin live in the same apartment building. Nike is an energetic lady working as a nurse for the elderly. Katrin is divorced, with a teenage son. They are very different and maybe it is because of this that they are best friends. They spend warm summer nights on Nike’s balcony. Drinking, laughing, gossiping… enough for two young women. But, all of a sudden, Ronald, a truck driver, enters this strong and disordered women’s world…

    There are hundreds of such films in world film history. The main characters could be women or men, the story could take place in Paris or Tokyo, Moscow or Madrid, Buenos Aires or Washington. In some countries the title of this Dresen film is translated as Summer in Berlin and that is actually the point. The German capital is the main character of the picture. But not all of Berlin, only the eastern part.
    Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon), dir. Andreas Dresen
    At the time of the Wall, West Berlin became the frontline of the capitalist world’s prosperity. Everything was sparkling, exclusive and exquisite. (Once, an older colleague told me how her German friend had asked her not to go to the KaDeWe roof. In the food storage they had six hundred types of sausages. At that time, in Moscow we did not have sausages at all.) In the eastern part there was nothing but true socialism, which was paradise for the Soviets, Poles or Romanians, but the GDR citizens knew well which side of Germany they lived in.

    Paradoxically enough, the poor and wretched part of East Berlin was more Berlin than the western one. First of all, it still had old buildings that were not bombed in 1945. Secondly, the communist authorities did not destroy the city center and build new houses, which was the case with the Western part because of the Wall. And the third and most important reason is that, by understanding that in a communist country people can be socially active only in the way the Party directs them, GDR citizens inherited the habit of living their lives as privately as possible. It is this very habit that Andreas Dresen captured and presented to us.

    The story of Sommer vorm Berlin takes place after the Wall had already come down and it is unbelievable how the director shows the differences between the heritage of the GDR and modern German life. It is like the differences between Nike and Katrin. It is quite certain that communism is bad and that united Germany is better than the GDR, but by creating a warm and tender psychological atmosphere in this film, Dresen tried to remind us that certain human relationships in the GDR grew only because of the communist pressure. And now that communism in Germany is gone with the wind, let’s not forget that we care about each other.
    Summer in Berlin (Sommer vorm Balkon), dir. Andreas Dresen
    Andreas Dresen was not only born in GDR, but he grew up there and in all of his films we can see and feel this lust for the simple charm of life in that country. I love Sommer Vorm Balkon because it explained this to me in a simple manner. In the 1960s and 1970s in the Soviet Union we had many movies from the GDR – 15 every year. Most of them were awful, but sometimes we could see a trace of this simple charm. Maybe young Andreas saw the films From the Teenager’s Diary, We are on Divorce, Endless Roads or Lot’s Wife. Maybe not, but he quite certainly lived that simple and charming life. In the USSR we also have something similar to this, but unfortunately we do not have a film director who would leave us nostalgic for the things that were nice at the time of communism.

    In modern-day Russia few people know and care about Dresen. His film Grill Point (Halbe Treppe) broke a record in our distribution. It earned 600 (six hundred!) US dollars at the box office. The discreet charm which he captured has gone just like communism, which created this unique situation.

    Sergey Lavrentyev
    film historian and film critic, Russia