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RAINER SIMON ON HIS LOVE OF ECUADOR AND MAKING MOVIES IN THE FORMER EAST GERMANY

Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on November 16, 2008

Nov 14, 2008

Renowned German film director Rainer Simon has been on a fall 2008 tour of North American Rainer Simon - © DEFA Film Libraryuniversities organized by the DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Simon began his career at the DEFA Studio for Feature Films and became one of the most important East German directors. He is also the only GDR (German Democratic Republic) director who was ever awarded with the Golden Bear at the International Berlin Film Festival.

Six of his most important films and his Latin American documentary trilogy are part of the presented film program: The Airship (1982), a fantastic, experimental film about the dream of flying; the German family saga Wengler & Sons. A Legend (1986); and The Ascent of Chimborazo (1989), which is about Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to Ecuador.

Simon’s comedy Till Eulenspiegel (1974), the banned film Jadup and Boel (1981), and The Woman and the Stranger (1984), which was awarded the Golden Bear in 1985, were newly subtitled into English by the DEFA Film Library and are celebrating their North American premiere on this tour.

Germany.info caught up with Simon during a stopover at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, DC, which also screened several of his films as part of his tour.

You are currently on a North American tour during which your films are being screened in various The Colors of Tigua - © DEFA Film Librarylocations and you are discussing them with viewers. What kinds of questions are you most frequently asked?

I spent three weeks in Canada and then moved on to the US, where I have been exclusively at universities.

For the youngest people memories of a time before the Fall of the Wall are minimal. So I always have to start from the beginning and explain what the GDR was and what the DEFA was. It’s different of course with the more mature graduate students, who tend to ask more detailed and interesting questions.

Mostly of course there are questions about what it was like to make movies in the GDR – how much of a role did censorship play?

In the socialist countries there was the censorship of the ideologues, but now there is the censorship of money. Based on my own experiences and the experiences of many of my colleagues that is really much more difficult than the censorship of the ideologues. It is not as if you can just do whatever you want today.

How would you describe you life’s work until now? Would you refer to two phases – in Germany and later in South America?

My films are devoted to very different topics. They run the gamut from a historical comedy like Till Eulenspiegel to a contemporary story like Jadup and Boel to other themes drawn from German history, and then there are my three documentary films from Ecuador, so luckily I do not always have to speak about the same topic (grins).

And it is in particular regarding these films made in Ecuador that people often ask me about what it was like to work with the indigenous people. And it seems to me they are always surprised when I say our collaboration was excellent and how important it was to me that they wanted to work so hard at being so actively involved in these projects. So we did not just go there and use them. And that is precisely what attracted me.

How would you describe the legacy of the DEFA film studios? Were there particular regulations that Till Eulenspiegel - © DEFA Film Library you and other filmmakers had to follow, or were you given a lot of artistic freedom? Why could you, for example, only screen your film Jadup and Boel years after it was made? Were legendary German figures like Till Eulenspiegel easier to portray?

Till Eulenspiegel is based on a story written at the time by (East German writers) Christa and Gerd Wolf. I was in particular interested in Till Eulenspiegel as an anarchic figure, who clashed with the powerful people of his time in a very blunt and direct manner. He tore the masks from their faces but at the same time exposed the stupidity of the little people, over and over again. Till Eulenspiegel was a contemporary figure in his time and still is today. Who would really take it up the way he did today with the people in power in our own time?

The film was a really big hit in the GDR at the time with over one million viewers in such a small country. So people understood that this was not really a historical film, but that the attacks of Eulenspiegel were also attacks against the regime of the GDR, that they applied just as well to the ruling classes in our country, or anywhere else for that matter. And when you watch that movie today it is relevant all over again – people apply it to their own era.

We only had one state-run film production company at the time, not 100,000 or more different producers like here, and that was the DEFA. And so the money for these films came exclusively from the state. And like always the sponsor wants to see his ideas realized (grins ironically).

It was more difficult to make the movies you wanted in the early days, in the 1950s, when I was luckily not involved yet. That was the toughest time, during and right after the Stalin era, when the mindset was the most propagandistic. Later it became much easier to make movies. Although it is true that during the entire history of the GDR the DEFA studios produced at least two anti-fascist films annually. That was just something which always happened every year – those kinds of films just had to be included on the annual agenda.

But the films which led to the toughest disputes with the authorities were those that portrayed real life in the GDR. And those weren’t made until a younger generation born during or right after the war that grew up in the GDR – my generation – started to make movies. We wanted to make realistic films about life in the GDR. And that led to conflicts with the authorities. But screenplays were generally heavily scrutinized during the entire production process. And so films were rarely forbidden after 1965 – a censored film was really more the exception than the norm.

So what happened in 1980 with my film Jadop and Boel was unusual. They didn’t pay enough Jadup and Boel  - © DEFA Film Libraryattention with that one. It’s about a mayor in a small town in the GDR who realizes in the middle of his life that his socialistic ideals no longer work. And the main critique against us at the time was: “Our lives are not so ugly, so grey, so triste as you portray them!”

But we did not exaggerate at all. It was a realistic study of this time, without us having to expand upon anything in particular. And all the people knew that things were really like this – only the authorities did not know it was really like this.

After Jadop and Boel I decided that I would not do anything else about the GDR, because “you will forbid me from doing it again.” And so I only made movies featuring historic topics that did not address contemporary problems, and luckily I was allowed to continue doing that. And that was when I made some of my most important films, like The Woman and the Stranger, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, like Wengler and Sons and The Ascent of the Chimborazo. Those were all very important films for me.

The Ascent of the Chimborazo was also the first, the only and the last co-production between the The Ascent of the Chimborazo  - © DEFA Film LibraryGDR and the Federal Republic of Germany. In the 1980s both sides wanted to make a co-production, as there had a already been a lot of collaboration before. And we were looking for a topic that would be politically palatable to both sides and so we hit upon Alexander von Humboldt (the film chronicles the famous 19th-century German naturalist and explorer’s ascent of this South American mountain). And so we got really lucky with that and were happy that the film was not just funded by GDR money.

Was there any other kind of creative exchange in this regard between East and West Germany? How easy was it for you and your crew to travel?

There was cooperation before, as in for my films Wengler and Sons and The Airship, where certain scenes had to be shot in the West – and the GDR of course had no western money. So deals were struck in advance between DEFA and (West German) public broadcaster ZDF, for instance, with rights sold in advance so that we could go shoot in the West, including some scenes in Italy and Spain. We always traveled with a small crew. These were generally short scenes and did not involve huge sums of money. Every now and then there was a problems for someone not being allowed to travel, but mostly it worked somehow.

What do you think of German film today, and of the next generation of German directors, like The Airship  - © DEFA Film LibraryAndreas Dresen, who is also originally from the East? And what did you think of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s megahit The Lives of Others? Some East Germans seemed to think the film did not accurately portray life the way it really was in the GDR. Do you agree?

I know all about this criticism against Donnersmarck. This film was condemned by many in the East, including many of my colleagues, who claimed “but life was not really like that then.” I am not that much of a fundamentalist about it. I think it’s a really good film as a thriller – not necessarily as a realistic film about daily life in the GDR, although it does of course tell you something about the GDR.

And I think that 20 years after the fact we have to tolerate this kind of creative freedom. If I had made a movie about World War II and the fascist time in Germany 20 years after the end of the war, then it would probably look different than a movie made by someone who was actually really there.

Otherwise I do no think that German cinema is in a great place. In the United States it is only possible to see German films in art house theatres in a few locations. There are a lot of very good small German films, but nobody gets to see them!

Andreas Dresen is pretty much the only young East German director who has really made a name for himself since the Fall of the Wall, and he makes very good films.

How do you view the future of German film? Are you pleased that big, international productions The Woman and the Stranger  - © DEFA Film Libraryare being made in Berlin-Babelsberg again? Will Berlin once again become a more important center for the global film industry?

All of that with Babelsberg is a joke. Before the Fall of the Wall films were being shot there around the clock and all the studios were perpetually occupied. Afterwards a French water company came and bought it up and then closed it. And then, with the eager support of Volker Schlöndorf, they made it what it is now: Every few years a Hollywood director shows up and makes a movie there. That is a joke.

You spend a lot of time in Ecuador, where you have made several documentaries and conducted filmmaking classes. Are you working on any new projects right now?

The Ascent of the Chimborazo was released two months before the Fall of the Wall. I fell in love with this country and its people. I made three low-budget films there with Indians in the mountains and in the jungle. I organized workshops, I was at their film festivals and I presented this films all over South America. For me my work in Ecuador was much more satisfying than my work in Germany …

And now I’ve started writing. In 2005 I published my autobiography Die DDR, die DEFA und der Ruf des Chimborazo (The GDR, the DEFA and the Call of the Chimborazo).

And that same year I published my first novel, Regenbogenboa (Rainbow Boa), which is about a German man who has spent the last 30 years in Ecuador and in which I refer back to my own experiences there.

I have also taken up photography and have an exhibition on in New York called “Living with Mother Earth.”

How do you perceive Germany’s role globally? Do you think Germany is a role model when it comes Talking With Fish and Birds  - © DEFA Film Libraryto modern environmental technologies? What about the United States? Do you think we are about to enter a new era of change here?

Germany is definitely among the countries that try the hardest in this regard. And Germany really does have a lot to contribute here.

In the former GDR we had a lot of pollution and environmental problems that thankfully have been mostly cleaned up now. When I was driving in a car between Iowa and Illinois I suddenly saw and industrial site that looked just like these things did back then in the GDR and suddenly it stank extremely just like it did in the GDR, and I was quite surprised and really wondered about that.

Regarding change in America we can only hope that Obama will have the strength to push through the necessary measures (to help protect the environment).

The indigenous people in Ecuador understand that human beings are part of nature. This means that they do not see human beings as the pinnacle of conception, as we do in the Christian tradition, but really one part of the whole that makes up the natural world. In their world, human beings are worth just as much as a plant or an animal.

We could learn a lot from them.

DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Goethe-Institut USA

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