Director: Annekatrin Hendel (Germany). Year of Release: 2018
We open in Manhattan, with Marion Brasch giving a reading at the “Deutsches Haus” from her autobiographical novel “Ab jetzt ist Ruhe: Roman meiner fabelhaften Familie” (From now there’s peace: novel of my fabulous family). This is not exactly the film of the book, but it covers similar territory.
This 3 year old film is probably showing again because of the recent release of Lieber Thomas, a drama about the actor and director Thomas Brasch. This is a documentary about Thomas’s family. Familie Brasch goes over a lot of territory also covered by Lieber Thomas, and somehow it is the documentary that seems to contain more humanity.
Horst Brasch’s father converted from Judaism to Catholicism when he was living in Bavaria at the beginning of the century. This was no protection for Horst who was forced to leave for England on the Kindertransport after the Nazis took power. He returned to what was now East Germany after the war, and eventually became deputy minister for Culture and member of the SED Central Committee.
Horst met his wife-to-be Greta in Britain. Greta – an Austrian Jew – was less excited about the DDR than Horst, but eventually moved there where they would have 4 children. As well as Thomas and Marion, there was Klaus, who became an actor and Peter, another author. As children of a state functionary, their life was comfortable but not overly privileged.
Thomas, the oldest sibling, was sent against his will to cadet camp. His relationship with his father was always tense, and this intensified with the Prague Spring of 1968. Thomas instinctively joined the young opposition joining and organising protests against Russian tanks mowing down protestors. His father, as a government minister, ended up dobbing him into the police.
Thomas was jailed, and in 1976 fled to the West, ostensibly because of his support for dissident singer Wolf Biermann. He was joined in exile by his then partner – the actress Katharina Thalbach, who also appeared in his films. One of the most entertaining parts of this film for me was seeing clips of Thalbach, looking pretty much the same as she does today, but much younger.
The modern Thalbach also appears several times, reminiscing about her time with the Brasches. She is, as you’d expect, an eloquent raconteur, but as she was speaking, one thing haunted me. I get that as she was interviewed at home, you could see her hallway behind her containing two bicycles, but why was there a big rifle to her left? And was it loaded?
The film tries to tell the stories of all four Brasch siblings, but it keeps coming back to Thomas. The interview partners are mainly his former friends and lovers, many of whom were apparently famous in the East German art world. It is mainly down to my ignorance that most of the names didn’t mean much to me, but whoever they are, they are almost uniformly articulate and compassionate.
We also get occasional appearance from Thomas’s son Benjamin Schlesinger. Wearing a “Jever’s Witness” t-shirt, he calls his grandfather an arse for betraying his son, Benjamin’s father. He’s more indulgent of his father, even though Thomas left Benjamin’s mother, the singer Bettina Wegner, when she was pregnant with him. Schlesinger brings a little low culture levity to the otherwise highbrow parade of cultured talking heads.
We also see Wegner speaking of how she first met Thomas. She had been told about this charismatic writer, but when she first met him at a party, she took one look and decided that he wasn’t for her. Then he started speaking to her and she was captivated. Wegner was a singer, and we hear her voice over the end credits, singing a German version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance me to the End of Love.
It wouldn’t be too hyperbolic to say that in the film we witness the history of East Germany – and what came next. Although the younger Brasches were critical of the DDR, this didn’t mean that they supported reunification with the West. We hear them talking of excitement about the uprising in 1989, but despair that it couldn’t have been channelled in a more progressive direction. It is probably as well that Horst died in 1989 and did not experience die Wende.
Familie Brasch documents a history that is both recent and over. But it is from histories like this that we better learn to understand the present and future.