An American Who Defected to East Germany and Lived Happily Ever After

The interesting podcast Cold War Conversations interviews Victor Grossman. To call his life history exciting is a bit of an understatement. Born in 1928, he grew up in a hothouse of New York Jewish leftism in the 1930s and 1940s. Then attended Harvard, and after graduation went to work in a factory at the suggestion of the Communist Party. He was then drafted into the Army, and, faced with scrutiny over his leftist past, defected to East Germany in 1952.

And then he decided life was fine there, although he admits that he always wanted to return to the USA at some point, but didn’t want to face desertion charges, which were dropped only in 1994. Grossman got married and raised two children and became a journalist, writer and editor in East Germany. He is still very much alive, and blogs about German politics at Victor Grossman’s Berlin Bulletin.

I  recommend the interview, in which Grossman, a natural talker if there ever was one, talks about the Stasi, the Berlin Wall, East German movies, his 1,100-page FBI file, and many other things. And dances around some subjects quite elegantly.

‘Winter adé’: Soulful East Germans Talk About Life

Winter adé (g) is a 1988 East German documentary directed by Helke Misselwitz (Helke is a woman’s name) (g). It’s one of the most honest and fascinating and touching documentaries there is, and the beauty part is that it’s available online here (g) at the German Center for Political Education, of all places.* The title (Farewell, Winter) is also the title of a famous German children’s song.

What’s the film about, you ask? Well, it’s about random people who live in East Germany. Misselwitz starts at a railroad crossing in Planitz, where she was born in an ambulance in 1947. Even in 1987, the crossing bars were still operated by hand. Misselwitz, off-camera, asks the guy operating it to take his shirt off and show his tattoos, which he does.

That’s the basic approach: She travels through East Germany, meets people, begins chatting with them, forges a bond, and then turns on the camera. She asks them about their past, their relationships, their lives, their hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations. That’s all. There’s no real narrative arc. There’s no agenda. There are no political statements, although political subjects — especially the role of women — do come up. There’s only a few minutes of voice-over by Misselwitz: Most of what you hear are the subjects talking about themselves. There are a few meditative dialogue-free interludes exploring atmospheres: a dance in a village disco, induction into the East German Army, a row of televisions in a shop displaying state media coverage of an official reception by Erich Honecker.

What might sound like a self-indulgent, meandering exercise is actually gripping. Misselwitz mostly interviews women, and they come from all walks of life, from a marketing consultant (yes, East Germany had those) to a worker in a coal processing plant, to two young Goth/new wave girls who skip school and get sent to a juvenile reformatory, to the owner of a dance school and a doll hospital (two separate people), to a woman who runs a home for troubled children. Something about Misselwitz’s sympathetic, low-key approach gets these people to open up about intensely private matters. I was constantly surprised by how intimate the revelations were, since Germans tend to be very private people. The end credits thank the subjects for their “sincerity”.

Perhaps the most affecting portrait is of Christine, a 37-year-old woman who works in a coal plant. Her job is to walk through the plant and use a large hammer to bang on various chutes and ovens to dislodge coal dust and prevent blockages. Misselwitz follows her around, bangbangbang, through hallways and over catwalks and under rows of boxy metal chutes, all against a deafening wall of background noise.. It’s hypnotic. And after Christine does one tour of the factory, she only gets a few minutes before she has to do the same exact tour all over again. It might seem stultifying, but she seems to enjoy her work.

After her shift, Misselwitz follows Christine and her fellow women workers into the showers, where they wash the coal dust off their ordinary workers’ bodies. Later, at home, she talks about her life: finding herself in a troubled marriage in her late teens, the marriage didn’t last, now she’s a single mother. One child has a mental illness. She would like to find another partner, one who loves animals as much as she does. She seems a kind and thoughtful soul, you want her to find her way in life.

Another standout interview is with the two goth girls. Misselwitz meets them under a train overpass, and follows them to a house, presumably a squat, where they do up their hair in painfully 1980s frizzes and paint the walls with their hand-prints. This segment is on Youtube:

As if its discreet charm weren’t enough, Winter adé is also beautifully shot, in pristine, carefully-framed black and white. The sound mixing is also spot-on: we hear the train clattering or the factory booming or the music throbbing in the background, but the voices come through clearly.

This warm, funny, unpretentious slice-of-life from the latest stage of East Germany has hidden depths; it will stay with you long after you watch it. Continue reading “‘Winter adé’: Soulful East Germans Talk About Life”