Director: Christian Schwochow
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially reunified, and Germans in both halves of the country looked forward to better times for the entire country. The hardships under which the East Germans lived for decades, however, did not vanish overnight, and integration of the two populations was fraught in many ways. Christian Schwochow, who was born and grew up in East Germany, has begun to examine this past. His 2012 miniseries The Tower dealt with the crumbling of communist rule in East Germany, observing life in the former Soviet bloc country near the final approach of reunification. West takes a step back to the 1970s for a look at life for East Germans who were granted permission to emigrate to the west.
The film opens with our main characters, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) bidding a loving farewell to the man of the house, Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek), who is leaving on a trip. The context of the trip is vague, and when he says that he will see them in a week, the furtiveness of the exchange made me wonder whether they were all going to try to escape to the west. Flash forward three years, and a worried-looking Nelly is indeed making for the border with Alexej to start a new life—but with the government’s blessings. Nelly, jittery that something will foul up the plan, tries to keep Alexej from the leaving the car to use the rest room. This action ironically arouses suspicions, and Nelly is asked to submit to questioning. Although her papers are in order, East Germany reserves one final indignity for her before she leaves—she is made to strip, jewelry and all, for a cavity search before she is released to West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center.
Mother and son are given room and board, and Alexej is enrolled in the local school. They are given a card that will need 12 stamps from various officials before they can leave the center and find a job and a place of their own. Slowly, Nelly begins to make friends, and Alexej latches onto a long-time resident of the center, Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer), who distracts him when the boy witnesses a hanging suicide. Nelly, initially furious that Hans seems to be playing father to Alexej, relaxes when he tells her why and begins to trust him. Sadly, an American official, John Bird, (Jacky Ido) who refuses to stamp her card because he believes Wassilij was a Soviet courier who is still alive, derails her plan to get on with her life and stokes her paranoia to the point that she begins to suspect Hans of being a Stasi spy.
West is a film that cuts a lot of narrative corners and provides so little backstory on any of its characters that it’s hard to register them as anything but types. This sketchiness may be deliberate, as it helps us to identify somewhat with Nelly’s dislocation and distrust. Nonetheless, because we are shown things Nelly is not—Hans taking Alexej away from the scene of the suicide, Alexej buying flowers for his mother that he leaves as a surprise for her in their room—her anger and paranoia seem quite unreasonable. Schwochow further plays with our sense of reality by giving us a few brief glimpses of Wassilij, sometimes as Nelly’s delusions and then perhaps as a real person. He offers an American paranoic, a fairly predictable, but perhaps accurate touch, but puts Nelly in the position of using sex to find out what he knows about Wassilij; adding this cloak-and-dagger element and setting up the stereotype of the German woman desiring an African-American cheapens an already unflattering portrait of an intelligent, professional woman (a chemist) defined by her lover and mother roles.
Nonetheless, looking past the narrative weaknesses, West is a riveting experience thanks to the mesmerizing performances of Triebel and Göbel. Triebel won best actress awards at the 2014 German Film Awards and 2013 Montreal World Film Festival and was a best actress nominee of the German Film Critics Association in 2015 and the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. Triebel is on camera almost constantly, and her intense, full-bodied performance makes up for the sometimes weak dialogue with which screenwriter Heide Schwochow, the director’s mother, saddled her. So focused is she that looking at screencaps for this film, I was extremely surprised how much her character smokes in the film—I just never noticed. At the same time that I felt her full-bore seductiveness toward Bird and deep love for Wassilij in their one brief scene together, there was a certain containedness that felt absolutely right for someone who lived under an oppressive, vigilant regime.
Göbel’s open face and innocence stand in contrast to his costar’s suspicions and fear. Alexej misses his father, a fact he and Nelly talk about openly. At the same time, his inability to deal honestly with his mother, standing bewildered, unable to say the flowers are his gift to her when she snatches them out of their vase and smashes them in a trashcan, rings painfully true. His relationship with Hans is wonderfully warm, untainted by the suspicions of others; we’re grateful he has Hans to turn to when the West German boys start to pick on him and break his glasses. Frankly, I could have looked at him the entire film and not have been bored at all.
Alexander Scheer has a tricky balancing act. Hans must be normally friendly but seem abnormally so to Nelly. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but I give him full marks for convincing me that he had been tortured by the Stasi and emotionally crippled as a result. It is important to realize that not everyone can be strong and put the past behind them.
Schwochow’s handheld work, getting right into the faces of his characters, creates an intimacy that draws us into the story, even as his muted, cool colors suggest the gray area between imprisonment and freedom. When Nelly’s world gradually starts to open up, it is a joyful relief, a reminder that despite its imperfections, unification made life better for a lot of people.
West is showing Saturday, March 21 at 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 25 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.