Understanding West Berlin

When we think about the end of World War II and the building of the Berlin Wall that divided Germany, many of us are only aware of the basic facts: the East, which was the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was occupied by Soviet forces and the West was a free city that was occupied by American, British and French forces. Many of us will also believe that the East was a secret state that strictly controlled its citizens and obstructed basic human rights, whereas the West was a place of liberty and safety.

But in the eyes of those that fled the East for the West, was the other side really a place of refuge? Was it that simple to be granted the freedom to start a new life?

The Goethe Institut’s Kino 2014 opening night started off with an eye-opening bang. The insightful movie preview of the drama, West, directed by Christian Schwochow was an artistic and educational representation of the difficulties that refugees from the East to West faced. Through this movie, we come to terms with the reality that things were not as pleasant and easy going on the West side as people imagined.

I have to admit, some of the filming techniques used in the movie (although with good purpose) were personally a little uncomfortable to watch. Some scenes were shot to make it look as though the camera was being held by hand, similar to the movie Cloverfield. Whether this was actually the case or not, it is evident that the technique enables the audience to get a real feel of what the particular scene is about, as though they themselves are the ones filming it. The purpose of this technique was clever and definitely succeeded in immersing the audience into what was happening on screen, however it also made it a little difficult and dizzying to watch.

What I really enjoyed were the brilliant close-ups from the camera, such as of the face of the main character Nelly Senff, played by German Film Award for best actress, Jördis Triebel. This particular character was very interesting and complex and with close-up shots of her face, it was very easy to feel the emotions the actress portrayed. This technique lets you into the most personal of spaces and intimate secrets of characters. It’s even more personal than being there in real life.

The setting of the movie was clear from the start. It opens with a snowy scene where Nelly and her son, Alexej, are waiting outside their home. It is winter and they begin to throw snowballs at Alexj’s father before he leaves in a car and drives away. Much of the rest of the movie is shot during the winter time as you can see exhales of steam, shivering people, bleak and damp roads, extra large smoke puffs and all sorts of imagery that cause you to feel the cold, sadness and distress of certain characters. It’s as though the weather is a pathetic fallacy in the story, as it’s almost as though the feelings of the Senff family are portrayed through it.

But let’s get back to the character of Nelly Senff, who I find particularly intriguing. The movie allows the viewer to watch the character of Nelly progress and change as she faces obstacles and hardship, as well as positive events. You can witness this confident, and bright single mother with a PhD suddenly lose herself with the negative events that unfold, causing her to become paranoid, neurotic and lose those closest and kindest to her. Then you see her find herself again and finally accept the past and attempt to move on.

Nelly’s weaknesses are love and deception. When she learns that her son’s father may still be alive, she enters a world of suspicion and paranoia – believing that she is being watched, even on the West side of Berlin. Alexej her son, in an attempt to calm her down and cheer her up, goes out to buy a bunch of flowers and places them in their dingy room in the refugee camp they have been living in. Upon returning home, Nelly sees the flowers and immediately jumps to the conclusion that an intruder has entered their home and that nowhere is safe and private in the West. She seizes the flowers and thrashes them, unknowingly scaring her son and causing the two to drift apart.

This is not the only relationship Nelly unintentionally destroys. In a state of fear when living in the refugee camp in the West (a place where she thought she would be granted immediate safety and freedom), she also nearly destroys a relationship with a fellow man named Hans, who on several occasions, takes care of Alexej and plays and cooks with him. At the beginning of the movie, before Alexej’s father leaves, he hands his son a white sweater to remember him by. Alexej hangs onto this jumper until he meets Hans in the refugee camp who is kind to him. Alexej feels an attachment to Hans, to the point that he asks him to wear his father’s sweater. This in turn makes Nelly feel uncomfortable and later on in the movie she tries to prevent Alexej from seeing Hans.

Nelly’s change in character is understandable. She thought she was fleeing towards freedom, yet comes to find that in the West, it is also difficult for her to settle due to her connections with her ex-lover who she presumes to be dead and who we discover is allegedly a spy. She is interrogated by intelligence agents, as are all refugees who want to enter and is told she must stay in a camp with her son. Here, she shares a dirty communal bathroom and a bedroom. She also learns from others that some refugees have lived in the camp for years and have not yet been allowed to enter the real West and find a job. Once she has been approved by the officers and gained citizenship after weeks of interrogations, the job the employment department offers her is far too menial. She starts to wonder whether fleeing the East was the best decision.

Aside from Nelly, the entire cast was also well played. Native German actors that played American officers even added an American accent when they spoke in the German language, really immersing themselves into their roles. I think the cast was well chosen and the movie worked very well in educating the audience about those that fled the East for the West, as it captured the living conditions of refugees and the difficulties and obstacles they were faced with.

The ending of the movie was positive but there was no absolute final conclusion as to what happened. We see Hans escaping from the refugee camp and getting on a bus to where Nelly and her son have been living since they attained full citizenship in the West. Nelly takes out a turkey from the oven as it is Christmas and we see Hans ringing their doorbell. Alexej goes to check who it is and we see Nelly waiting in her apartment to see who the stranger is. This ending is positive and does not have an absolute conclusion because it is not necessary to see Hans, Nelly and Alexej reunite. Having watched the movie up until this point, the audience already knows and imagines what will happen when they see each other’s faces because of each character’s relationships with one another. Although the characters in the film each faced their personal and social challenges and difficulties, the ending ties everything up perfectly with a warm reunion on Christmas.

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