Lieber Thomas / Dear Thomas

Thomas Brasch was the son of a Jewish SED functionary in East Germany. In 1968, when he was in his early twenties, he was part of the student movement that was radicalised by the Prague Spring, anonymous posting pro-Dubcek leaflets in people’s letter boxes. For this, he was dobbed in by his own father – by now deputy culture minister, sent to jail and then forced to work in a factory-

With his partner, the great actress Katharina Thalbach, he was allowed/encouraged to move to the West in 1976. From West Germany, he moved to the USA, where siren voices of capitalism offered him a good life if only he would write a novel based on his life. (This contrasted with a DDR regime which believed that the East German people were not yet ready for his writings). He became a successful author, playwright and film maker, and was introduced to a lot of drugs.

Lieber Thomas follows Brasch through his unhappy childhood in the cadet school of the National People’s Army, through his complicated and ambivalent relationship with the DDR which he describes as an old lover who he still loves but could not live with, to his degeneration into a coke-addled self-important arsehole, who was banned from rehearsals of his own plays because of his aggressive behaviour towards directors and actors.

It is a fascinating story, and I just wish that this film of Brasch’s life were half as compelling as what happened in real life. And yet somehow it just tries too hard. For example, there seems to be a recent trend for films to be shot in black and white, and while sometimes this makes artistic sense (most notably in The Lighthouse) more often than not you feel it’s the director unnecessarily drawing attention to himself. There is a lot of that attention seeking here.

The film is divided into 7 chapters, each based on a line from Brash’s poem “What I have, I don’t want to lose” (also the first line of the poem). Subsequent chapters are titled “Where I am, I don’t want to stay, but”, “Who I love I don’t want to leave, but”, “Who I know I don’t want to see any more, but”, “Where I love, I don’t want to die there, but”, “Where I die, I don’t want to go there” and “I want to stay where I have never been”.

The poem, and the chapter titles suggest a level of abstraction which pervades the film. Put in other words, it is too Arty for its own good (at one point, Brasch and a girlfriend go to watch Godard’s “Breathless”. As they would). Too often, we disappear into dream sequences (did I ever mention how much I hate dream sequences, which also account for my least favourite episodes of the Sopranos).

As the film proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that Brasch’s rebellion is against anything that makes his life inconvenient. This is not as such problematic – it worked for Marlon Brando in The Wild One – but as Brasch’s life becomes more comfortable, his rebellion seems increasingly petty. It becomes difficult to identify with a man having a drug-induced strop because of a feeling of entitlement because he is an Important Artist.

Lieber Thomas also suffers from more general problems – how do you make an interesting film about someone whose main job is to sit at a typewriter? To an extent, this problem is countered by filling Brasch’s flat with walls covered with his handwriting, but we never really get to learn much about how and why he thinks. It is easier, dramatically, to concentrate on his various relationships.

It is also – let’s be clear – way too long. Two and a half hours should only be used for exceptional films, and while this one has interesting parts, there is absolutely no need to keep us in the cinema for so long. Although one must say that much of the acting – particularly from Albrecht Schuch as Brasch and Jella Haase as Thalbach – is exemplary.

I left the film with 2 contradictory feelings. I wanted to know more about Brasch, who embodied a sense of resistance in an important period of German history. And yet I felt that this film, despite its length, didn’t really provide this information. We never really got the sense of the history that these characters were living through.

It’s an interesting film, if we want to treat it as an object to by analysed. But it isn’t really a film which excites or engages. And that’s a big shame.

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