ifa: A piece of history was written in Berlin on 9 November 1989. Many East Germans still remember exactly what they were doing on that evening when the Wall fell. You were born in Cologne and, at the time that happened, you were 25 years old. Can you still remember that?
Stefan Weinert: At that time, I was studying in Vienna. That evening, I was sitting in the kitchen of the flat I shared, watching the pictures on the telly. It took me two days to actually believe it. I thought that if anything would fall, it would certainly be something other than the Wall. Naturally I had heard that the border between Austria and Hungary was slowly being dismantled, but I never expected the Wall to fall.
ifa: 20 years later, you made a documentary about five former GDR citizens who were imprisoned after they attempted to flee to the West. What induced you to make this film?
ifa: Was it an advantage that you approached this topic as someone with a West German biography?
Weinert: Most definitely. Every now and then I was tested with regard to my political views, including my leaning towards “Die Linke”, a left-wing party. The son of one of the storytellers insisted, for example, that I meet with him before I was allowed to speak to his mother. It was very important for them that I myself was not biased, i.e. that my line of argument was not that life in the GDR had been good, and that I would not subsequently distort their biographies.
ifa: In the film, Andreas, one of the protagonists, talks for the first time about his traumatic experiences and the methods used to break his will, such as sleep deprivation, interrogations and isolation. How did you manage to build up trust with the storytellers?
Weinert: It was a very long process. I spent a lot of time with them, just listening, but also telling them a great deal about myself. Altogether, I spent more than three years shooting this film. There is this one moment in the film when Andreas looks into the camera and the audience has the feeling that he becomes aware of the fact that telling his whole story has a real meaning. This look, that possibly he’s being listened to for the first time and can make others understand how he felt at that time – this was a very important point for me as well.
ifa: Today, we know that unprocessed traumas can be passed on to the next generation. Were your films also a contribution to the processing of such traumas?
Weinert: In particular, I wanted to give these people a platform and the opportunity to tell their story, especially in the debate on whether the GDR was a rogue state or not. My primary concern was to make these traumas visible, because generally this concerns people who do not appear in public. It is important that we make ourselves aware of the dimensions. If we just look at the number of political prisoners – 200,000 to 250,000 – and consider who else is actually affected by this, then we’re not just talking about the person who was imprisoned, but also about their parents, siblings, possibly even partners. Let’s take the figure of 250,000: we’re actually talking about one million people, just in relation to political prisoners.
ifa: How Germany keeps its past present today is regarded as exemplary. It was only in 2018 that Jan and Aleida Assmann were awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for their research on the culture of remembrance. Is there anything that you think is missing in the current culture of remembrance?
Weinert: In Germany, our culture of remembrance lies in the hands of historians. They determine the social debate, how one deals with the past and, in my opinion, this is a problem. They look at history from a completely different perspective than psychologists or sociologists. I would like to invite historians to include other fields in their work.
ifa: In what way?
Weinert: Perhaps the film, “The Family”, in which relatives of the Wall victims get a chance to speak, is a good example. From the historian’s perspective, this is about the biography of those who were shot. But when you watch the film it becomes clear that there are a great many other people behind this biography: the mother, the partner, the siblings, all of whom are also affected. These traumas are also part of history and must play a part in its reappraisal. Sociologists and psychologists can provide an important contribution. I believe that approaching this topic from different angles is an enrichment.
ifa: In September 2019, you travelled to the Australian cities of Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne to hold a series of lectures on behalf of the federal German government. Your films were mainly shown at universities. How did you convey these issues there? The audience presumably had previously had little contact with the history of the GDR.
Weinert: At the beginning of my lecture I would ask who in the audience had read the book, “Stasiland”, by the Australian author, Anna Funder. Generally, the majority of them had. When this book was published in 2002, I completely rejected it. I couldn’t understand how someone who had never lived in that period or that country could write a book about East German history. Then, when I began to work on my documentary films several years later, I suddenly found myself in this role and met with the same argument. This experience was my door-opener in Australia. I used the responsibility for the indigenous population and their traumas to create a reference to this topic. Although it is meanwhile popular to start every official event with a reminder of the indigenous population, many of their stories have not been told or told only to a small circle.
ifa: And how did the public react to your films?
Weinert: What I found interesting was that some of the Germans who came to the events had an East German background. To some extent, they responded indignantly, romanticizing the dictatorship. But the audience was very mixed, and there was a great deal of interest. Almost 500 people came to the lecture in Adelaide. What really excited me was the candour and interest of the different groups of people. There were sociologists, psychologists and artists in the audience, people who actively address the issues of our society and who I often miss at my lectures in Germany.
I believe that both sides should listen and talk to each other much more. I regret very much that no real dialogue takes place.
ifa: What ideas and impressions did you take back to Germany with you?
Weinert: I see my view confirmed, that I am right to invite people from other fields to take part in the debate on the reappraisal of the SED dictatorship. Inner German history is not just an issue for historians and former civil rights campaigners, but for all those who address the issues of society and the consequences of a dictatorship. Personally, I plan to occupy myself more intensively with the Australian culture of remembrance. I believe that it is always easier for outsiders to address the unpleasant parts of the past because they have the necessary emotional detachment.
ifa: Which neuralgic points in the German culture of remembrance will you address next?
Weinert: My next film will be about the issue of forced adoptions in the GDR. I was surprised to discover that very little research has been done on this topic, even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was only in 2018 that a preliminary study dealt with this in more depth. A television version has been planned, which will be shown on the RBB channel in the autumn of 2020, but also a longer version for the cinema to do justice to these people and their stories.
ifa: Is there anything else of importance that I haven’t asked about?
Weinert: Yes, I’m a bit sad about the fact that today, when we talk about these 30 years since the fall of the Wall, we still compare the former GDR with the situation today. What we experience today is neither the West Germany nor the East Germany as they were in 1989. We live in a different era with other, more complex issues. I find that often people have a very romanticized view of the GDR. In my opinion, the fine nuances as well as the stories from the West are missing. I believe that both sides should listen and talk to each other much more. I regret very much that no real dialogue takes place. There are many notions of how something or someone is. Discontent often arises when people don’t know anything about local problems, but talk about them as if they did. The locals then feel ignored. That is why it is so important to accede to people’s need to be heard.
Interview by Juliane Pfordte