Director: Lars Kraume (Germany). Year of Release: 2018
The border between East and West Berlin, 1956, 5 years before the wall goes up. Two teenage lads, Theo and Kurt, are sitting in a train waiting for the guards to control their papers. While others look nervous, they’re confident, arrogant even. They’ve obviously done this sort of thing before. They’ve planned a trip to the West, first to visit the gravestone of Kurt’s grandfather, then to catch a new film, which they’ve heard has got topless women in it.
Before the film starts, there’s a newsreel with a report from the uprising in Hungary. This is nothing like they’ve seen on DDR state media. Rather than being the work of Fascist provocateurs, the film footage shows a popular rebellion of 100,000 people. Even the Hungarian government has taken the side of the protestors. As Russian troops are driven out of Budapest, there are rumours that Hungary’s star footballer Ferenc Puskás was one of the demonstrators and has been shot dead.
Theo and Kurt tell their classmates what they’ve seen. They decide to stage their own protest in solidarity with the Hungarian demonstrations. Whatever their teacher does, they will say nothing in class for two minutes. Many of their schoolmates are not convinced, and one – Erik, the son of a Communist resistance fighter who died in a Concentration Camp – is firmly against. But they take a vote on it, and a majority (12 of about 20) votes to carry on the protest.
I’ve read some reviews of the film which complain that it lacks dramatic tension. Now, while there are some weaknesses, which we’ll come to, I think that such reviews miss what is happening. I don’t think it’s a surprize that the same reviews reduce the film’s message to saying that capitalism is better. This is not borne out by what we see. All of the kids believe in some sort of socialism. They know that West Germany’s government and civil service are riddled with former Nazis.
Within the class, there is a variety of opinions, reflecting the social position of their male relatives. As well as Erik’s partisan father (whose history, we later learn, is a little more complicated), Kurt is the son of a party functionary and the grandson of an SS fighter. Theo’s father is a steelworker who took part in the 1953 workers’ uprising (only 3 years before) and Paul’s gay uncle Edgar lives, literally, on the edge of society, where the kids listen to RIAS radio, broadcast from West Berlin.
The DDR minister of education is brought in and the consequences look dire. He threatens to ban the kids from taking their coming Abitur (equivalent of “A” levels). This is not a trivial matter – no Abi means no University, and although the DDR calls itself a workers’ state, only workers with a degree get the best jobs. The class votes again, but now Conservatism and fear have the upper hand. Whereas the first vote took place openly, this time it’s a secret ballot.
Fear wins. The kids agree to say that their silence was a tribute to Puskás and had nothing to do with politics. Not everyone is convinced, but they all hold to the socialist maxim of collective responsibility. The education board and the school continue to try and get each class member to grass on the ringleader. Threats are made on both the school students and their families. The minister threatens to put an old and damaging scandal on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.
We are shown just how brutal the DDR authorities can be, but they are not portrayed as cartoon villains. Even the worst of them is shown to be doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. The education minister can point to scars on his neck where Nazis tried to strangle him with barbed wire. If the West is allowed to win (and “counter-revolutionary” acts like the Hungarian uprising are viewed as being the West winning) who’s to say that the Nazis won’t return?
I found it all to be remarkably well done, and Das schweigende Klassenzimmer certainly avoids the usual pitfalls of Western films about the DDR which just cannot understand why anyone would be loyal to the government and not seize the earliest opportunity to escape. One character here is offered the opportunity of defecting. Even though he’s been one of the ones most badly treated by the authorities, he refuses. This is where he’s from. This is what he knows.
There are some missteps. Although we do see how also women could attain positions in the DDR where they could administer brutality, the kids’ stories are told almost entirely by the boys. Girls are involved in the revolt, and some of them look just as strong as their male counterparts. But they are mainly there to provide an underdeveloped love triangle which ends up just getting in the way. For the rest of the time, the girls are largely voiceless.
Nonetheless this is a strong contribution to developing an artistic response to DDR in all its complicated history. It is being shown as part of a series of free open air films outside the Stasi museum. I’m a bit regretful that I’d put off trying any of them until now. If you’re in Berlin in the next few weeks, there are much worse places you can go.