In 1990, worker’s tore down the border post between East and West Germany at Wartha [near Eisenach in Thuringia State], built not too long before. It was here in 1985 that director Sibylle Schönemann crossed to the West under a system known as “Amnesty”, by which the West bought the freedom of convicted east German criminals. (Retrospective Brochure).
‘Criminal’ has a special sense in relation to East Germany. Sibylle, and her husband, were imprisoned after applying for exit visas and thus ‘interfering with State activities. Sibylle and her husband were imprisoned separately and released under this scheme after a year in prison. Following the breakdown of the East German state and the wall Sibylle went back and made a documentary; visiting some of the sites in which she suffered and interviewing people who were in some way involved in the process.
She starts at the border and then moves onto the prison where she was incarcerated. Later she visits the court rooms where she was tried and the DEFA studio where her behaviour ‘created’ problems that led to the sentence and prison.
She talks to people at all these sites. Some are forthcoming, many are tight lipped and do not want to speak on the issues and events. One interesting person is a young women with whom she shared a cell for a time. They conversed in one of the actual cells in the prison. One got a sense of the pressures and privations which were part of the imprisonment.
One of the key people was the head of the DEFA studio at that time, Hans Dieter Mäde. He attempts to palm responsibility off onto state officials. Then Sibylle tracks down the head of State Security. He now lives in a house in a rural setting. The local people are uncomplimentary about him. This Party secretary, after a few platitudes, is unwilling to talk. It is clear that he has survived relatively well from the collapse of the DDR.
In disquieting encounters , her subjects accept no responsibility for the injustices they imposed, and the director is faced with the painful processing of the past.
A person who is more forthcoming is Wolfgang Vogel, a lawyer involved in the process of ‘amnesty’. However, in a sign of the new Germany he declines some questions because he is planning a book on the subject.
The film is shot in black and white and the construction ,marrying location film with interviews is very effective, down to the director and the editor Gudrun Steinbrück. Both the cinematography by Thomas Plenert and sound by Ronald Gohike is good. And there is judicious use of music by Tamás Kahane. We were fortunate to watch the film in an original 35mm print in good condition. Alongside the films actually produced in the DDR before 1990 this was a revealing but also questioning documentary.