Director: Lutz Pennert (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
Bettina Wegner was born in 1947 and grew up in East Berlin. Her family wanted to move to West Berlin, as did many Communists who wanted to agitate in the West, but her father was paid in Ostmarks which wasn’t enough to pay for Western rent. Bettina’s parents were members of the SED (East German Communist Party), but were a little disappointed that their young daughter was a great fan of Josef Stalin.
Bettina knew that she wanted to be an actress since she was 6. Both her parents, and the theatre where she studied, were insistent that she learn Hochdeutsch – the German equivalent of RP. Her parents took a Pfennig away from her pocket money each time they found her speaking in Berlin dialect. By the end of the week, she was always penniless. This is our gain, as she retained an accent which is much more engaging and better suited to storytelling than bland poshoism.
Every so often one of Bettina’s stories starts with someone introducing her to a young man, which usually ends in a brief and unsuccessful marriage. She also had affairs with the writer Thomas Brasch, who left her when she was pregnant (not a good look, Thomas), and with the left-wing politician Oskar Lafontaine. Her first husband, the writer Klaus Schlesinger, believes that the Stasi broke up their marriage. She laughs that they were perfectly capable of doing that on their own.
In 1968, in the wake of the Prague Spring, Bettina got into trouble with the DDR authorities. Wanting to go into the middle of town and scream against the injustice, she decided against this strategy as she’d be arrested before she really got started. Instead she wrote up some leaflets and put them in neighbours’ letter boxes. Scenes in the film are interspersed with recordings of her trial for treason which followed her capture and arrest.
After being pronounced guilty, she was sentenced to 2 years “parole in the production”, aka factory work. Looking back on those times, she tells a lovely anecdote. The State stopped paying Christmas bonuses. The women she was working with were livid, but didn’t want to go on strike. Instead they went on a “permanent breakfast break”. Each day, they went for breakfast and then never returned to work. It wasn’t very long before Christmas bonuses were restored.
As Bettina was an increasingly popular singer, her relationship with the authorities was, let us say, somewhat strained. She considered herself a socialist and supported the “Communist” system. As many of her self-written songs were about peace, she was often a useful ambassador for the DDR. But she was less keen on the state’s authoritarianism, and felt torn between her commitment to the left wing ideal and the continuous attacks on her liberties.
In 1976, when left-wing DDR singer Wolf Biermann had his citizenship revoked, Bettina was one of the Eastern artists who signed a petition in Biermann’s defence. That brought her into deeper conflict with the state authorities. She was already unbookable for concerts in the East, and survived on the money that she raised from singing in West Berlin. When her visa ran out, the DDR authorities refused to renew it, economically forcing her to leave the country.
Now 75, Bettina is still aware and respectful of modern musical trends. When she got wind of a punk cover of her best known song “Sind so kleine Händle”, which replaced the sentimental lyrics with a celebration of drinking beer, she gave it her full blessing. Then she heard of another version, which called for defence of “our people” with blood. She took out a court injunction and prevented its broadcast. I like to think that she thought it wasn’t in the spirit of punk.
Bettina Wegner is like a number of people who I’ve only met since I moved to Berlin – Ossies, who are very critical of the Eastern Bloc, but believe that what replaced it was even worse. In the film, Bettina says that she was one of the few who hoped that die Wende – the fall of the Wall and all that came with it – could result in a better DDR. Even though she moved to West Berlin, she notes that whenever she refers to “over there” she means the West. “Over here” has no meaning for her.
This film captures the spirit of a strong willed woman, who is most definitely on our side. I don’t think it always work. There are some scenes of modern Berlin streets or the Mauerpark near the border which just feel anomalous. I guess they’re there to show either that Berlin has moved on since Bettina’s story, or that it hasn’t really. Either way, I don’t think they really add anything to the film.
On the other hand, the music is great. Wegner is in the glorious tradition of German musical theatre, which owes a lot to Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler, but also to Bob Dylan and 1960s Greenwich folkies (a dissident Canadian banjo player has a walk on role in the film). And though I hadn’t really heard any of her music before watching the film, I’m seriously considering chasing up some of her old records.
Above all, the film tells the story of a time of hope, of simultaneously believing in a system and agitating against it. I found it a shame that I was almost certainly the youngest person in today’s (relatively large) audience. This is a film which deserves to be seen by many more people than may end up actually watching it.