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Das Mädchen mit den goldenen Händen / The Girl with the golden hands

Director: Katharina M Schubert (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

1999, one of those East German states like Brandenburg or Sachsen-Anhalt. Lara is on the train from Berlin listening to smug Wessis laughing at place names like Nennhausen and Stendal. Does anyone live in these villages any more? Well, Lara’s mother Gudrun does, and Lara is on a visit for mum’s 60th birthday. She looks contemptuously at her fellow travellers.

Gudrun isn’t exactly sure when her sixtieth birthday is – she grew up in a children’s home during and after the war, and they weren’t too fussy about recording things like birthdays. But this was the day that was allocated to her, so this is the day on which she’ll celebrate. She’s got a friend’s son to sort out the electrics at her old home so that they can have the party there.

Lara has not got a great relationship with her parents, which may explain why she is now living in the capital. In the supermarket with her stepfather Werner, she tries out her speech for Gudrun’s party, but he’s more interested in seeking out cheap dishwasher tablets. Ir doesn’t really matter anyway – Gudrun has already written the speech that she wants her daughter to make.

At the party it lets slip that the mayor is selling the children’s home to a property developer from the West who wants to build a luxury hotel. The mayor is at the party – it’s one of those villages where everyone knows everyone else – where he argues that no-one can afford to keep the home going, and that selling it brings some money back into the community. Gudrun has words with him and storms out. She rides off angrily on her bicycle until she is hit by a passing car and hospitalised.

Gudrun discharges herself from hospital and stages a one person sit-down strike inside her former home. Most of the other townsfolk accept, with greater or lesser enthusiasm, that change is inevitable and the house is lost. Gudrun persists until she collapses and is hospitalised for a second time. Ultimately, she is saved this time by an act of individual terrorism, but you get the depressing feeling that an old, proud, way of living is lost and will never return.

The film starts and ends with a story from Grimm’s fairy tales, “The girl without hands”;

“A miller fell slowly but surely into poverty, until finally he had nothing more than his mill and a large apple tree which stood behind it. One day he had gone into the forest to gather wood, where he was approached by an old man, whom he had never seen before, and who said, ‘Why do you torment yourself with chopping wood? I will make you rich if you will promise me that which is standing behind your mill.’

‘What can that be but my apple tree?’ thought the miller, said yes, and signed it over to the strange man.”

In both cases – at the beginning and the end of the film, the story ends here, leaving out the ending where the old man is exposed as the devil, and “that which is standing behind your mill” was the miller’s daughter. The devil returns and orders the miller to chop off his daughter’s hands. In the version I found, a king makes her new hands made out of silver, but there may well be a version where they’re golden to justify this film’s title.

Whatever, we are obviously dealing with serious metaphors here. Although the radio is full of stories about the Millennium bug, the story takes place just one decade after the DDR imploded, causing many resentments that still linger today. I’d be interested to know how it goes down with a non-German audience, as it challenges many assumptions that people have about Eastern Germany following reunification.

While few people were mourning the old régime wholesale, neither were they excited about the new state of things. Having been promised a life in paradise, they found their old certainties wrecked by real estate companies, and by snidey people on the train making fun of the names of their villages. As young people followed the clarion call to Go West, most of what remained was people aged 60 and more who had too many ties to their home villages to leave.

The resulting disruption is shown in the film – a feeling of regret, of promises broken. This is the root of much current day Ostalgie – the feeling that ok, in the old days you had the Stasi, but there was also a sense of security and even of purpose that seem to have disappeared. This is not a film that celebrates the old East Germany, but it makes us aware of some people would think that things really were better back then.

There’s a lot to think about here, which is only partly drawn out by a dramatically pedestrian film. I wanted to like it more than I did. It’s a film that I definitely admire, but I won’t be rushing to see it again.

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