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In einem Land, das es nicht mehr gibt

Director: Aelrun Goette (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

East Berlin, Summer 1989. A 12 year old girl in pigtails is dancing to Suzi Quatro. Kerstin is 12, her older sister Suzie is just about to do her Abitur (German equivalent of “A” levels). Everyone calls Suzie Suzanna now, but her late mother named her after the leather clad singing bass player (blame the misspelling of Suzie on the Germans). Kerstin and Suzie visit a family friend who has a shed full of books that she loans out. Suzie swaps the one she’s just read for a new one.

Kerstin and Suzie return home to their grumpy dad. On the wall, there is a poster of Che Guevara below the graffiti “be unrealistic – demand the impossible”. On the neighbouring wall, there is a life size photo of Suzi Quatro covered in hearts. Kerstin worries that Suzie will leave her, just like her mother did. Their protective father hopes that Suzie won’t grow up, which is exactly what she wants to do. A later scene has Suzie shouting at dad that she wants to be everything that he is not.

The next day, Suzie is on the way to school. She’s stopped by the police, but at first she doesn’t notice as she’s got music playing full blast through her headphones. This leads to the cops searching her bag and discovering her latest book – George Orwell’s 1984. This leads to Suzie being denied her dream of studying literature and being sent to work in a factory where she can learn how to be a functioning member of community and make her contribution to the socialist society.

Factory work is hard, and Suzie is just not cut out for boring holes in sheets of metal, however much one of the women workers takes her under her wing. But one morning, a photographer takes her picture on the way into work, and the photo soon appears in Sibylle magazine. Urged on by her sister, Suzie marches into the fashion magazine’s offices, which is where she meets chief editor Elsa, Coyote, who took the picture, and fashion designer Rudi.

Coyote’s look of leather jacket and black tache seems to be based on Paul Rutherford at his campest, but he’s the straight one. He’s been banned from working, and Rudi, as a gay man, doesn’t officially exist in the DDR. But they find survive by working semi-legally for Sibylle while hanging around the artistic scene. It’s not long before they take Suzie to join like-minded friends on a beach to indulge in some Freikörperkultur, before being chased away by police with dogs.

The rest of the film reports Suzie’s rise through the East German fashion industry. First, people from the magazine go to the factory to photograph her in a chic dress next to her drill. The results are unconvincing until Coyote convinces her workmates to be join the photo in their overalls. A little negotiation with the state authorities later, Suzie is working full time for Sibylle, and there’s even talk of an exhibition in Paris.

There are few subjects that I find less interesting than fashion, except maybe the industry that sells fashion. I never felt remotely inclined to see The Devil Wears Prada. And yet there are parts of this film which engaged me around issues about which I neither know nor care. This is partly down to good characterisation of people about whom you care what is happening to them, coupled with a setting that is historically interesting.

Having said this, there are also several wasted opportunities. Apparently the DDR fashion industry was a real Thing, and director Aelrun Goette does share a similar backstory to Suzie – she was photographed on the street which led to modelling work. So, the film is true to life, or at least to one woman’s reminiscences. And yet for all this historical accuracy, there is little attempt to examin the contradiction between the DDR’s stated materialism with the fripperies of fashion.

Where this does come up, it is played for quiet laughs. Sybille organises a fashion show in Leipzig, where the only attendees are middle aged men in grey suits. This shows the limitations of the DDR’s attempt to muscle in on the world market. And yet more important subjects are brushed under the carpet – like the fact that Suzie finds a successful career in the fashion industry that Kerstin envies but won’t experience because Suzie is pretty and slim and Kerstin is not.

So, we end up with a story about personal freedom, with Stasi villains straight out of casting, which rarely gets beyond the superficial. Most of the non-Nomenclatur characters are suspicious of the DDR, which of course they should be, but there’s no serious examination of why a system which was nominally based on personal liberation depended on so much repression. The fact that it all takes place a few months before the wall fell makes it strange that no-one even talks about this.

Maybe I wanted a different film, something grittier, more based in reality. Two quotes from the film are important here. Suzie’s mother left behind a note saying “only when we dream are we free”. Later Elsa, the chief editor of Sibylle, says “beauty calms the nerves”. This is not a film about confronting harsh realities but about surviving difficult conditions. And it is relative successful in conveying this. So, it does what it does, even if this means it avoids more interesting realities.

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