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Getting into Conversation with Each Other: An Interview with Andreas Dresen

October 3, 2019

© Bernd Harnisch

October 3, the Day of German Unity, celebrates a very important day in German history: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany in the 1990s. This year’s celebration is particularly special, as it marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall, which paved the way for German reunification in 1990 and was a turning point in the political history of the world.

In recent history, many Germans have used media and the arts as a vehicle of expressing the impact the wall and its ultimate collapse had on German culture. Films and paintings can uniquely capture the struggles of East and West Germans and their families in a divided Germany.

One prime example of this is Andreas Dresen’s 2018 award winning film, GUNDERMANN. This film is a biographical portrait of the extraordinary and contradictory life of East German singer/songwriter Gerhard “Gundi” Gundermann. The film, which documents his time as a coal miner and informant for the state before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a huge success in Germany despite Gundermann being relatively unknown in former West German states.

This film hits close to home for Dresen himself, who also grew up in East Germany and was a fan of Gundermann as a child. When asked about the motivation behind making this film in an interview, Dresen explains that he was drawn Gundermann’s story because “[he was] a person who was embroiled in the system and yet, in a certain way, also became a part of the opposition.” This film reminds its viewers of the power of storytelling and understanding a nation’s history to build towards a better future.

Read the full interview with Andreas Dresen below:

Getting into Conversation with Each Other – An Interview with Andreas Dresen

How and when did the idea for “Gundermann” come about?

The film was a matter close to my heart. I belong to the many fans of Gerhard Gundermann; I liked his music and went to his concerts. Apart from the great songs, I was also interested in his political story – a person who was embroiled in the system and yet, in a certain way, also became a part of the opposition. Screenwriter Laila Stieler and I wanted a more nuanced view of East German stories, beyond the frequent clichés. This work took a total of 12 years.

What was your reaction when it became known that Gerhard Gundermann had worked for the Stasi?

Somehow this was almost a normal situation at the time – a kind of witch hunt in which many prominent artists were also discredited: Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf, every week there was a new helpless target. That was also quite irritating. And then there was Gundermann! Of course I was disappointed when I found out, but the reasons he gave for his cooperation with the Stasi and the way he faced the accusations demanded respect. Nevertheless, the whole thing didn’t stop me from listening to his songs and continuing to go to his concerts. Most of his fans remained loyal to him.

What was the reaction to the film in Germany?

Actually, I had expected there to be a big controversy, but that didn’t happen at all. The film was hailed as a nuanced performance and was very well received by the audience. Interestingly enough, “Gundermann” did not only do well in the East of Germany but many people from the former West also found the film helpful to get a more nuanced idea of life in the GDR. The film really made the “leap across the border.”

Apropos “Leap across the border”: We are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this month – how do you see the state of reunification?

Even after such a long time, there is still a lot of injustice and we are facing huge challenges. It is important that we remain interested in one another and that we tell each other our stories. The different experiences in the West and East during the division are a special trait of our country. It can be interesting for everyone to deal with the history of others. This is true in both directions, of course. I would also recommend East Germans to deal with the West German “economic miracle” of the 50s or the ‘68 movement. Our history makes us rich; one can learn from our manifold experiences and that helps us to cope with the present.

How is your relationship with the USA?

I was in the US for the first time in the year 2000, and I went immediately to New York – I found the city very impressive. It was the very first time I booked a hotel room online, then I walked through New York and had the worst fears that the hotel room didn’t exist, that it was all virtual. Later I lost my heart to the West Coast. I find the cosmopolitanism of Los Angeles and San Francisco fascinating. And I experienced Boston as a great liberal city. I am very happy to be able to return to all these cities and to experience Seattle for the first time.

I’m always very happy to be in the USA. But the last time was some years ago and I am curious if and how the country has changed. I have always found the American film public to be very open-minded. I’m very excited about the American perspective on Gundermann’s character.

Our Year of Germany has the optimistic motto “Wunderbar Together.” What can the USA and Germany learn from each other?

Germany can learn much from the USA about how to deal with a multicultural population. Even though everything may not always be exemplary, the USA has a great deal of experience in forming people of very different backgrounds into a single nation. The USA is a classic country of immigration, an experience that is still very new for Germany and from which we can learn a lot. On the other hand, I recommend that Americans equally explore the depth of European culture that has grown over many centuries. Cultural exchange should not be a one-way street – by the way, this also applies to my own genre. I believe that German and European films have a lot to offer, even if you have to use subtitles.

 

This interview was conducted by Christoph Mücher.

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