Friday, July 31, 2020

The Weissensee Saga

I just finished the final episode of a four-season serial called, in English, The Weissensee Saga. It led me to break my vow not to stay up till 3 a.m. any longer, but to pace myself and recognize that I could actually postpone the pleasure of knowing what comes next, if I put my mind to it. The four seasons of six hour-long episodes each kept me going till 3 a.m. on at least three separate occasions. 24 hours of television don’t come without some wear and tear.

When I ended up in Berlin, in 1963, working for the U.S. Army Security Agency listening in on phone calls between East German functionaries, I was still in my early 20s and very wet behind the ears. I complained that the work was actually quite boring - listening to people fixing water mains or preparing to pick up people flying in from Moscow - but the truth is I felt I was at the very center of the world. The Berlin Wall had just gone up in 1961 and West Berlin was a virtual island. We loved the titillation of telling each other that the Russians could march in and kill us all at a moment’s notice. Here we were, saving Western Civilization, nose-to-nose with the Commies. There was no way I was not going to take myself too seriously.

The trouble with that narrative is that another narrative was making its way into my psyche at the same time. We sat, hour after hour, with earphones on, playing back the recorded phone calls on spools of tape, mining what we heard for information we thought might be of interest to the folks back home at Headquarters in Ft. Meade, in Maryland. Behind us were regular army sergeants with no understanding of what we were doing who tapped us regularly to clean toilets or rake leaves. Some were decent folk, but there were also the occasional mindless types who took pleasure in exercising their power to bully. And at the same time, the voices we heard speaking into our ears were by and large a congenial lot. They often digressed from their work to talk about birthday parties and their kids and grandkids. Real people. Didn’t fit the image of “dirty commies” at all.

Sometimes the contrast got scary. I realized at one point that I was actually looking at some serious cognitive dissonance, and what I might imagine as motivation to defect to the other side. Not really. These were all just disembodied voices and they were, at least theoretically, unaware of who we were and what we were all about. But there was stuff there to at least raise the possibility in our imaginations. And removing the concept of “dirty Commies” and replacing it with intelligent personable men and women naturally led to more curiosity of just who these people were and what motivated their loyalty to this socialist regime. I had read Marx and Engels and Lenin in a course called Contemporary Civilization in college, along with a study of fascism and other forms of totalitarianism. I was young and innocent, and my knowledge of Hannah Arendt was, at the time, abstract and totally bookish. Here, suddenly, I came to see how much of what I claimed to know and understand was due to the completely arbitrary accident of my birth. Listening to these earnest folk through my earphones, eight hours a day, did more than travel and encounter with ever new people and places to cause me to let go of the years of identity marking. I was a New Englander. A Protestant Christian. A young Republican becoming a young Democrat. An American of German and Scottish heritage. A disgruntled soldier. And it was all arbitrary. Here in this bubble, most of the world was outside and there was just me and the voices I got to recognize and begin to build biographies around.

Additionally, because we read the East German papers carefully every day in order to familiarize ourselves with the world these people were living in, I began to note the sometimes quite wide discrepancies between what got reported in the East and what got reported in the West, along with the slants, in each case. I still tended to believe what got into the Western press was true and what got into the Eastern press was propaganda, but there were times when the absence of certain information in the Western papers gave me pause. Why, I wondered, was nobody talking about these things? Why was I not getting the whole picture?

Ever so gradually, I opened up to the possibility that there might be something to the notion that “the truth,” elusive as that term was becoming, might lie, if not in the middle, at least at some point closer to the middle. I got my first awareness of how much in the West was driven by our strong endorsement of individualism. I would expand this view in later years, after making my home in Japan, with its “other-orientation” - the tendency to check in with others before going off half-cocked on one’s own. The binary of the individual, on the one hand, and the whole culture around heroes, from Superman and Batman and the Lone Ranger to Ayn Rand’s Übermensch entrepreneur, and the collective, on the other, became an endless tug-of-war, with no solution. One had to find a balance. Too much individualism and you got vulture capitalism; too much collectivism and you got a lack of initiative. And that awareness begged the question of morality and recasting the Christian message as a form of proto-communism. And that, in turn, suggested that the Christianity I was exposed to in America was heavily influenced by the cultural value of me-first individualism. The gap between the values espoused in the Sermon on the Mount and the values I saw practiced by American Christians began to strike me a woefully hypocritical. I left the church and never went back.

When the wall came down, I watched the excitement from my living room in Tokyo, tears streaming down my cheeks. All those years people who meant the world to me, my friend Achim and my Tante Frieda in Berlin, especially, lived with what they felt to be life upside down, a divided Germany that kept old friends and family from seeing each other and sharing lives in a normal fashion. The tears were in part because Achim and Tante Frieda had not lived to experience the change, but also because the thrill and the excitement of the people climbing the wall and tearing it to pieces with picks and in some cases by hand, was palatable. My French colleagues worried aloud about the possibility that Europe could once again fall under the spell of a bullying Germany. But I worried that the idealists of East Germany were about to be sucked into the triumphalism of the vulture capitalists. I had no love for the DDR, the (East) German Democratic Republic, because it was obvious it had devolved into a police state where one in eight citizens were in uniform, if memory serves me right. But I did understand the dream of the socialist idealists who wanted to build a world of equality, one in which nobody fell through the cracks. You know, kind of like the perfect world Christ spoke of.

And that brings me to the Weissensee Saga, the story of two families, the Kupfers and the Hausmanns. Hans Kupfer’s father suffered under the Nazi regime and he has been an ardent socialist from early on. He remains an idealist as he climbs through the ranks of the power structure, and is now, by the start of the series, a leading force in the Office of State Security (the Stasi). He’s a realist, and he knows he is surrounded by forces that are self-serving. These include his older son, Falk.  His younger son, Martin, shows little interest in political things and joins the police force. Hans’s wife, Marlene, is, like her husband, an idealist, and like her younger son, apolitical. Her life is dedicated to home and family, and she leaves the work of the state up to the men in her life.

The other family at the center of this story centers on Dunya Hausmann, a popular and successful cabaret singer. She too is an idealist, and soon begins to find fault with the corruption that has crept into the ruling cadre of the SED (Socialist Unity Party), the Socialists running the DDR. Gutsy and outspoken, she writes and performs protest songs that quickly get her into trouble. She has a daughter, Julia, who is very much on the same wave length as her mother.

The two families become connected when Julia gets stopped for a traffic violation by Martin Kupfer, and the two develop an immediate attraction for each other. Unbeknownst to them both, Martin’s father, Hans, and Julia’s mother, Dunya, were once romantically involved, and Hans’s feelings for Dunya have not disappeared, entirely. As time goes on, he uses his influence to keep Dunya - and later his son, Martin - out of trouble. This puts Hans at odds with the party hardliners, and eventually Falk is given more of the responsibilities once met by his father. As Falk rises in importance to the regime, he reveals himself to be totally ruthless, unafraid to use any means necessary to gain power and control over those he considers “enemies of the State,” i.e., anybody who opposes him. The full range of  one set of character types, hero and villain, idealist and sell-out, are portrayed by the Kupfer family and the physical and psychological destruction of those opposed to the regime can be seen in the Hausmann victims.  What emerges from these character portrayals is a nuanced and ultimately sympathetic picture of the cogs in the East German machine, no doubt aided by the fact that many of the actors were themselves East Germans and had direct personal experience with the characters and events they were portraying.

The series began filming in 2010 portraying events from 1980. The second series jumps to 1987. Julia has been imprisoned and given to understand that the baby she had in prison died at birth. Martin has broken off from his family and struggles in vain to find his way to Julia, who, he has been told, has been released to live in West Germany. Dunya has been blackmailed to work for the Stasi in order to keep her daughter safe while in prison. She participates in the lie that Julia is in West Germany. The third season takes us up to the fall of the wall in January 1989, the fourth to the introduction of the D-Mark, the first real step in the reunification of the two Germanys.

I don’t want to give away any more spoilers for those who might enjoy the soap opera-like events of endless ups and downs. The tension becomes extreme between those, particularly Falk, who are the prime movers of what came to be known as perhaps the world’s most effective police state, and those whose hopes for a socialist paradise are gradually whittled away, leaving them with little hope for the future. I found myself wanting to fling things at the TV screen when watching what Falk was able to get away with, how much he destroyed even his own family, and how complete was the failure of the socialist dream.

I understand the series met with great success in Germany ( ), drawing in five million viewers a night (16% of the total) and was viewed pretty much as an accurate picture of the reality of the Cold War division of the country into two opposing states. You can view it as history told with flesh-and-blood characters or simply as a gripping tension-filled soap opera. As with most series, you get tired of watching characters who do not evolve as people fast enough to make a happy story with a happy ending. And if you are primed, as I was, to see the fall of the wall as a mixed blessing, the elimination of the horrors of a police state but at the cost of a surrender to greed and self-centered behavior, you may find some of the events portrayed as unsettling. How accurate this image is of modern-day Germany, I leave for you to decide. There’s something about watching people struggle up close for ten years or more that makes it hard to let go. Which says a great deal, I think, about the quality of the acting. There are plot twists that made me want to strangle the writers. And some seriously off-putting character flaws.

Nonetheless, the acting is superb. And if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself wondering what those people are up to today and need to be reminded that they are fictional characters.

It helps, of course, that you can look up Katrin Sass, who plays Dunya Hausmann on YouTube and find the songs (and others) she sang along the way that got her into trouble.

Here are a couple:

You may remember Katrin Sass from the film Goodbye, Lenin, made in 2003. She played the mother who fell into a coma. When she awoke, the doctors told her son she couldn't stand any great shocks, so he worked day and night to keep the illusion alive that the DDR still existed. She died without ever learning that her socialist paradise had come to an end. Florian Lukas, is also in both films. He plays Martin Kupfer in Weissensee and the TV announcer in Goodbye, Lenin, who helps her son keep the deception going. 

Two different approaches to telling the story of Die Wende, ("The Turn" - the term Germans use to refer to the process of reunification and reconciliation); it's no small challenge to accomplish this without running the risk of making Westerners ("Wessies") into victors and Easterners ("Ossies") into losers. These two films, each in their own way, work to keep that from happening.

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