This wasn’t planned, but sometimes things align (in this case, two German films with two anglophone novels) and, well, you just have to go with it.
First of all, I organised a buddy read of Sophie Hardach’s Confession with Blue Horses with Kate.Then the weather was mild enough (i.e no snow) for a couple of trips into Glasgow to take in some German films; both of which dealt with the end of the GDR and what came afterwards. By which time I was in the zone and so spent the weekend reading the third in David Young’s Karin Müller’s crime series.
Let’s start with the films.
Adam and Evelyn, from the novel by Ingo Schulze, are a young couple about to take a holiday in Hungary. Only Evelyn, suspecting that Adam is doing more than fitting dresses and photographing his clientele, travels with her friends. Adam decides to chase after her in an effort to save the relationship. While other relationships come and go during the summer of 1989, Adam’s tenacity pays off, and yet his success means he finds himself leaving everything else behind, as Evelyn decides they will take advantage of an unexpected opportunity to cross the border and flee to the West.
An odd film I must say, in which the dialogue, where characters often speak past each other, is punctuated by long spells of silence. Perfect for depicting sustained suppression of underlying tension, and also for boring the audience rigid. Oops! I have the novel in the TBR and I was going to cull it. A week later I’ve changed my mind, as the book must be better than the film …
Gerhard Gundermann was a German songwriter and rock star, especially popular with former East Germans who were disillusioned after the end of the GDR. He also worked as a full time exacavator operator in the brown coal mines of the Spreetal. Between the years of 1976 and 1984 he worked as a Stasi informer. The film flits back and forth between GDR and post-GDR years to tell of the story of his family life and the rise of his band. His work for the Stasi isn’t depicted, but his shock at reading his Stasi file, when the opportunity arises, is. He doesn’t remember the half of it, and is so ashamed of what he has done, that he begins to confess to those he spied upon. Some of the reactions are priceless, but ironically no-one is quite as outraged as Gundermann himself, when one of his targets confesses to having returned the favour, so to speak! It is an understated laugh-out-loud moment in an otherwise long and serious, though surprising, film about the rehabilitation of a Stasi spy in the reunited Germany, punctuated with plenty of Gundermann’s melancholy, thoughtful songs.
Sophie Hardach’s Confession with Blue Horses also features an escape across the Hungarian border – or rather a failed escape attempt. The Valentin family, husband, wife and three young children, decide to leave, most poignantly, just a year before the Fall of the Wall. But they are betrayed. It is the last time they will be together as a family. The father is killed, the mother imprisoned, two children are returned to their socialist-supporting grandmother, whilst the youngest child is removed by the State as an enduring punishment for the family’s disloyalty.
In 2010, some 23 years after the event, the two older children Ella and Tobi, still bearing the scars of the trauma, are living in London. Their dying mother extracts a promise from Ella not to go looking for their lost brother, Heiko, but she leaves behind some tantalising material. Ella, for whom Heiko’s loss is still a festering wound, can’t leave it at that and sets off on her quest.
She returns to an unrecognisable East Berlin. The Wall is gone, the street’s have been renamed, her mother’s prison is now a museum, and ordinary citizens appear to have forgotten the past. Most importantly her mother’s Stasi file cannot be found. A meeting with a young intern, who is learning to piece together the shredded documents that the Stasi had no time to burn, proves fortuitous. There are two questions to be answered here! Who betrayed the family? What happened to Ella’s brother? And perhaps a third. Can she live with the answers?
The reveal is slow, but nowhere as painstaking as Aaron’s piecing together the shredded documents of her mother’s file. Some of the revelations are breathtakingly painful and serve as a reminder about the cruelties of the totalitarian regime. And yet, there is nuance. Ella’s grandmother was a committed socialist. Even when one of her grandchildren was stolen by the State, her daughter imprisoned, and her own reputation ruined by guilt through association, she continues to believe in the sacrifices needed to build a socialist state from ground zero. And yet, she brings her remaining grandchildren up in a loving, human way. Which made this a more involving read than for example Julia Franck’s Back to Back.
Karin Müller, newly promoted to Major in David Young’s Stasi State, is also a nuanced character, She, too, believes in the socialist state, although how she can continue to do in the face of the state’s unscrupulous ammorality is beyond me. (I suspect the time is coming when she will no longer be able to continue.) Her promotion to head up the newly formed People’s Police comes with a sweetener – a flat big enough to accommodate her growing family – and more Stasi interference than it is worth. But then Karin never makes a move without the Stasi knowing about it, as she is about to find out.
In the meantime, the cash-poor GDR, proud of decriminalising homosexuality in 1968 is not averse to taking US dollars to experiment on its gay population. That’s the fact that lies at the core of the third in the Karin Müller series. How that plays into the death of two young men, the disappearance of the son of Müller’s forensic scientist, and the murder of a West German politician, I shall leave to David Young’s pen. Suffice to say, this is a rollercoaster of a read.
It’s been a while since I read the first two in the series, my reluctance to pick up the third due to the fear of the wanderlust that Stasi Child and Stasi Wolf engendered in me. (Yes, I did travel to Rügen and Halle (Sachsen-Anhalt) after reading them). Well, where is Young sending me now? I’ve already “travelled” to Hoyerswerda via the aforementioned film, Gundermann. (What are the chances?) As for Frankfurt an der Oder, visiting Kleist is on my bucketlist. I could combine it with a hop, skip and a jump northwards to Greifswald to visit Fallada. As you can see, a real life literary tour is beginning to take shape …..