Children’s television in my youth was an electic collection of styles and genres, maybe more than it is today. I suppose it was a complete television service in miniature. The BBC used to show drama series under the umbrella title of ‘Tales from Europe’ and the one that stood out, possibly because it was so unusual, was ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ from East Germany.
I saw the series in the 60s; it was repeated several times over the years. It was actually made in 1957 by the East German DEFA studio as a film. The rather surreal story of a difficult and spoilt princess who rejects the proposal of a prince and all the gifts he offers has to be seen to be believed. She challenges him to present her with the mythical singing ringing tree of the title.
The series involves a bear, an evil dwarf and a giant fish. The singing, ringing tree will only sing if the prince and princess are in love so the ending is always in sight with no great surprises but a lot of fun on the way.
‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 2014 film from Germany explores an eye opening period of recent history. The story follows young state prosecuting lawyer, Johann Radmann. In the course of his work, he comes across a journalist who is trying to draw the attention of the authorities to the fact that former Auschwitz guards are walking around free, despite their cruel actions in the war. No member of the prosecuting team will take the case seriously. For many, the truth of the matter is too close to home.
Young Herr Radmann may be at the start of his career, but he takes up the case. He is encouraged by the Attorney General to dig deep. He takes this on and will not let it drop even when faced by hostility by his superiors in the law, politics and the police. Once camp survivors have been tracked down, and their stories relayed to a disbelieving Radmann and his secretary, the need to bring perpetrators to justice grows.
The eye-opening aspect for me was the very idea that the general public knew so little of the concentration camp called Auschwitz and what went on there. The film starts with a camp survivor seeing an ex- guard he recognised working as a teacher in a school. The shock of seeing these guards at large and accepted as valued members of society is the motivating factor in trying to get the matter to court. There are many who resent a young person making judgements on their actions and what they went through.
Radmann tries to track down Mengele, especially after he has been told that the sadistic doctor makes frequent visits back to family in Germany; an enterprise with which many levels of authority collude. Yet Mengele is protected while others are not and it is the others who end up in court. The American authorities open their files for the young prosecutor but only after advising him not to open the can of worms; Germany is a country trying to recover from a trauma. This is the central point of the film: should the country be allowed to forget when living in it are citizens who cannot move on and cannot forget.
The film ends with the start of the trial. Today, we know about the atrocities of a regime at camps such as Auschwitz but it is only because a country was forced to acknowledge its past. This film is a reminder that it is often individuals who make the difference. Radmann did not give up, even when the most difficult is posed. What did your father do in the war?
‘Labyrinth of Lies’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This television series from Germany is a fascinating insight into the world of East Germany. I watched a version with an English translation of the commentary as my German is not good enough to follow completely in the original language.
The series was made up of seven films each covering an aspect of daily life in the DDR. The sub-title, ‘A History of the Other Germany’, suggests that West Germany was better known to us in the west and life behind the Iron Curtain was, for me, something of a mystery.
The films were made in 1993 when the people most affected by the regime were able to talk. What struck me was the mixture of the historic and the mundane. Daily life is daily life wherever you live, regardless of political regime. Some complaints were about the restrictions of living in the country but others were about the loss of things since the unification of Germany. Of most importance, though, were the voices of people who felt the full force of the state. Some actively sought to be provocative but there were also the people who did not understand why they had fallen out of favour.
As the series progressed, I got the sense that any country which is so scared of its own people that it had to suppress any dissent does not deserve to survive. This point was most clear in the episode which explored artistic expression in the DDR. I also gained a clear idea that the country was not as independent as it pretended; the power from the Soviet Union acted as big brother on the playground. When fortunes changed there, the writing was on the wall for East Germany.
History is told by the victors but this series is worth seeing because it does not take a simplistic approach to the subject; many voices are heard and no easy answers are given. The final moments of the last episode prove these points. Figures, famous and not, provide a one sentence answer to the question of what the DDR meant to them. It was a powerful ending to a fascinating series.
I was in Birmingham this weekend with one aim in mind, to see and hear Jean Michel Jarre in concert. However, on one day I managed to visit a gallery, attend a Festival of Literature talk and go to the concert. In doing so I was aware that the Conservative Party had recently been in the city for their conference at which our Prime Minister talked of the referendum as if there had been a landslide for Brexit. There was no recognition that the country is seriously divided over the issue of leaving the EU. Neither was there recognition of the closeness of the result. It is as if Britain has spoken with one voice and that voice was overwhelmingly to leave.
So I am pleased that it was in Birmingham that my day included: a visit to the excellent Ikon Gallery, where they were exhibiting works by a Lithuanian artist called Žilvinas Kempinas and a Scottish artist called Sara Barker; a talk at the Birmingham Literature Festival with Italian Diego Marani and German Frank Witzel; and a brilliant concert with Frenchman Jean Michel Jarre.
This seemed to me to be the perfect antidote to listening the Conservative Party response to Brexit. The EU was always more than an economic entity, it was a way of bringing civilised values to the continent. This weekend in Birmingham proved it.
Diego Marani from Italy
Jean Michel Jarre from France
Frank Witzel from Germany
Part of the exhibition of Žilvinas Kempinas from Lithuania
Some people have amazing lives. Some people die far away from the place they were born and take life journeys they did not expect, in some cases crossing ideological borders. Bert Trautmann is someone like this and Catrine Clay has told his story in this excellent book.
Trautmann was most famous for continuing to play in the FA Cup final match despite having broken his neck. In considerable agony he joined his victorious team mates in collecting the cup for Manchester City. This was 1956 and England forgave Trautmann for being a German; he was a ‘good German’ and ‘our German’. What this book shows, though, is that it was quite a journey from his birth to a life in post- war Britain.
He was a true believer in the Hitler Youth and as a boy he welcomed a fight. He took part in the war as a loyal German and a loyal Nazi and he was a prisoner of war in Britain following defeat. He stayed here, refusing the offer of repatriation, and settled in Lancashire. He played for a non- league side as a goalkeeper before Manchester City showed an interest in him. At the time, City was a team in the First Division (the highest at the time) so he was in a prominent position.
Catrine Clay shows that the perception of modern times that Germans were duped by a corrupt regime is not correct. Many Germans were willing to fight because Hitler had saved their country. Trautmann’s war record is not easy reading. Re-education of POWs by the British may have been effective and he did have to cope with a certain amount of hostility when he first came to play for City in 1949 but it is best not to forget his early years when assessing his whole life. Catrine Clay has done an excellent job in this book which shows that sport and international relations are closely bound.
Hats off to Channel Four for realising that there is a world outside UK and that there are countries other than USA and Britain that make television programmes. This excellent series was broadcast under the umbrella ‘Walter Presents…’, the channel’s attempt to celebrate the best of world television.
I was hooked on this series about the young East German man sent into West Germany to complete a mission to ‘save his country’. There may have been some plausibility issues about an untrained and ordinary person sent to do a highly complex spying mission behind enemy lines but the programme had such heart that I ‘allowed’ these gaps and enjoyed the story.
Martin Rauch is a border guard when we first encounter him. He is compelled to go to West Germany as Moritz Stamm, a young soldier in the West German army and an aide to a top ranking General. Martin/Moritz is played by Jonas Nay the loyal East German whose commitment to his country owes more to family and the familiar than to any ideology. Unfortunately for him, his Aunt is a high ranking official in the Stasi and her need of an agent overrides her sister’s objections about losing her only son. Martin’s reservations about leaving his single mother are ignored when he is drugged and taken across the border against his will.
The Cold War was frozen in place in 1983 and the suspicion each side had for the other was clearly seen. Martin/Moritz sees up close the ease with which misunderstandings can have serious consequences and he becomes the ordinary person who tries to get his superiors (on both sides) to see that misunderstandings could lead to war. Even though the history is known, the series builds up the suspense and I was reminded that we did live through a period when we thought the other side wanted to kill us.
What the drama did best of all was to show that fear of the other side provided motivation enough to keep the Cold War going. As with many global conflicts winning is less important than making sure the other side didn’t win. Generals, diplomats, spies and politicians all play a part in perpetuating the mistrust.
The best scene of all: an overwhelmed Martin/Moritz in a West German supermarket for the first time facing the range of goods on offer.
‘Deutschland 83’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The true story of Hana’s suitcase is a remarkable one and one that is well told in this moving account by Karen Levine. It crosses three continents to trace the story of a young girl, her brother and the suitcase. The reason the suitcase was needed was the most poignant thing of all because Hana was a young Jewish girl in 30s Europe caught up in the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.
The reason we know about Hana’s story is down to a Japanese woman Fumiko Ishioka and her small museum in Tokyo. The Tokyo Holocaust Resource Centre was established to ensure generations of young people know about and learn the lessons of the destruction caused by he hatred of difference. She visited Auschwitz as part of her work and asked for the loan of items to exhibit back in Tokyo. She particularly wanted a child’s she and a suitcase because of their symbolic value.
Hana’s suitcase was loaned in 2000 and put on display. It had a name, date of birth and the German word for orphan ‘Wisenkind’ written on it in large writing. Several young volunteers at the museum became interested in the person behind the name and the quest to find Hana began.
The book relates the search for the young Czech girl, or at least information about her fate. They hoped to find her alive and well but the journey took Fumiko Ishioka back to Europe where she discovered that Hana was one of the millions killed by the Nazi German regime. She had been killed in the gas chambers hours after arriving at Auschwitz in 1944. The search also turned up the information that her brother, George, had survived the camp and had moved to Canada after the war. A third continent became part of the story.
This book was written by Karen Levine who was also a producer on a film made about a suitcase that acted as both a symbol of events that should never be forgotten and the powerful reminder of the determination of some people to keep the memories alive.
‘Hana’s Suitcase’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?