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April 04, 2019 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
For many Americans, Berlin conjures up images of the days, in November 1989, when the wall separating the two halves of the city was taken down by residents as the Cold War thawed. But most of us only have notional, half-formed ideas of what life on the eastern side of that wall was really like. For “Sealed Lips” producer Alexander Martens, it was home.
“Like (director) Bernd Böhlich, I grew up in East Berlin,” Martens says. “We weren't privileged or members of the Socialist Party--but I remember sunny childhood days and happy years with friends and classmates, my family. I will never forget the trips in the camper van through East Germany to the Black Sea in Bulgaria. There was always enough of the necessities and sometimes also bananas or western chocolate. It may sound strangely unreflected to an American, but I had a fulfilled and happy childhood and youth.”
The Wall came down, just as he was becoming aware of the constraints that it might put on his life. “After my graduation there was for me an education and no Abitur (qualifying exams),” he explains, “since my parents both came from (academia) and not from the working class. There I noticed the limits for the first time. The Wall fell when I was just 19 years old. Certainly [if it hadn’t], I would have gotten more problems.”
As Germany reunified, though, Martens noticed that Western perceptions about communism dominated the narratives of East German life that circulated. “After the fall of the Wall,” he recalls, “there was a time when East Germans preferred to hide with their stories. Especially when they weren't always about resistance.”
These stories still percolated up, and there are certain touchstones that Westerners might miss, but which Martens and others who lived behind the Iron Curtain can instantly recognize. One of those touchstones sparked the idea for “Sealed Lips.”
“Swetlana Schönfeld, who plays Antonia's mother in our film, was herself born in a Soviet gulag as the daughter of a communist imprisoned by Stalin's accomplices,” he reveals. “Approximately 10 years ago, I had read in her travel documents for another project: born in Workuta. I asked and she told an incredible story. After that Bernd Böhlich and I never let go of that story.”
Martens and Böhlich have collaborated several times, and it felt natural to work together again on “Sealed Lips.”
“I have been working with Bernd for almost 20 years,” he says. “I like his narrative style as an author very much. . . . The staging is free of effects, the content determines the form and not vice versa. The actors love it.”
Together, they have woven a riveting tale of life behind the iron curtain, both at its worst and at its best. He hopes that it will encourage audiences to ask a fundamental question: “What is the value of an idea that promises us justice and prosperity—but with exactly the same despicable means of the opponents?”
It’s a question that applies as much today as back then. “I am not a communist myself,” Martens says. “But there is hope for a reasonable social order with reasonable people. This will not succeed without a fundamental change in our social and ecological behavior.”
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