Play-Doc International Film Festival has been taking place every spring for 18 years in the charming medieval town of Tui (Spain). The event shows only about 30 screenings divided into two venues over five days. Festival goers can take it slow and enjoy a nice conversation between the films with other attendees, often sitting around a table with copious tasty meals washed down with the refreshing local wine. The relaxed style that the team imprints on all aspects of the festival makes it easy to even meet directors in an informal context and have a chat with them. Play-Doc is best known for its retrospectives. Some of them have featured legendary filmmakers visiting the festival like Artavazd Pelechian or Albert Maysles. Many other times less popular but equally interesting auteurs come to Tui, the ranks of which have been nurtured by names like Bette Gordon, Charles Burnett, Marcel Łoziński, Kidlat Tahimik or this year’s main attraction, Helke Misselwitz.

Born in East Germany in 1947, Misselwitz was educated in Babelsberg school, where she would later become a teacher. Usually attached to DEFA, she nonetheless challenged the political banners of the state-owned film studio by giving voice to those who the Soviet Union would have preferred to keep hidden. This representation is troublesome for the regime, as are the personal stories of common folks that Misselwitz seeks out. Taking into consideration that before becoming a filmmaker she already had some experience as a moderator in television, one is even more blown away by the manner she conducts her conversations, as these cannot be labelled as interviews. She is able somehow to obtain very intimate confessions of the people she encounters in her filming process, very often women disclosing details about gender issues. This is truer than ever in Winter Adé (After Winter Comes Spring, 1988), allegedly her most celebrated film, in which she hops in a train that goes from Zwickau, her birth place, to the Baltic Sea. In her journey, she encounters many women that share their troubles with her.

This film and others of the same period, like Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann (Who’s Afraid of the Bogeyman, 1989) or Bulky Trash (Spermüll, 1990), are great portrayals of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The latter was being shot when the Berlin Wall fell. It follows a young man who composes and plays music in punk bands while attending the demonstrations against the authorities. Misselwitz could not have anticipated what was going to happen, nor could she have foreseen that Spermüll would be today such a historical monument to that struggle. Seeing her films – this one especially – one can feel the weight of History. Not just because the facts are there, but due to her capacity to show precisely the day-to-day life of those who are usually drawn away from the official discourse. One sees literally life happening before the camera’s eye.

A third important feature of Misselwitz’s work is the stunning technical mastery she delivers. Beautiful compositions seem to be essential to her, but not just for the sake of aesthetic proficiency. Bodies and geographies are closely entangled as if one could not exist without the other. The workers that she shows transporting heating coal in the Prenzlauer Berg district in the film Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann are great examples of this method. Life in the neighbourhood is as important in these scenes as their protagonists. The movement of cars and trains, the shops, the way people dress, their gestures… Accurate tracking shots follow these men, but the space they are in marks the composition, which aims at defining a geography.

Together with a montage that is reflexive of the possibilities of cinema as an art of visual manipulation through the associations that editing several images together allows, this precise mise en scène is already present in previous short films that were also shown at the festival, such as Aktfotografie, z.B. Gundula Schulze (Nude Photography Gundula Schulze, 1983), 35 Fotos (35 Photos, 1984-1985) or Marx-Familie (The Marx Family, 1983-1988). Misselwitz talks like she films. She listens carefully, does not rush, thinks twice before answering and speaks slowly, measuring each word in order to give accurate descriptions of her methods. She is also attentive and honest and warm. I begin to understand why she does not interview people, why she plunges beyond the surface of things, why she is a toucher of souls.
– VP

Helke Misselwitz

You studied in Babelsberg and began your career at DEFA. I was wondering how that system worked. Were you allowed to choose the topics?

I must indicate that I came from television and then I studied cinema in Babelsberg. I was supposed to come back to television after these studies, but it did not happen. Television and cinema were dependent on two different ministries. The first dealt with propaganda but cinema was in the hands of the Ministry of Culture and it allowed us more freedom. Obviously, censorship also existed for films, but not as much as in television, for a simple reason, it had many fewer spectators than TV. I must also say that I was a freelancer in a way, I was not on a payroll for the ministry and I was hired for certain jobs upon assignment.

There was this project called Kinobox in which the budget was supposed to be spent in documentaries for television. This money ended up financing shorts of about 3-5 minutes that were shown before features in theatres. Bernd Burkhart, who was responsible for this project within DEFA, was very invested in cinema. He gave jobs to a bunch of us that he wanted to support. Usually these were about culture or sports. In my case, I was allowed to make films about Karl Marx and tango in the way I wanted, there was freedom in the creative process.

The filmmakers that worked on a payroll were indeed allowed to choose their topics, but it was not my case at the time. After Winter Adé, I was also hired permanently, so this situation changed. I got to work with director of photography Thomas Plenert. He had been suggesting several colleagues to shoot the procedures of the heating coal workers in Berlin, but nobody had taken the bait yet. I automatically said yes as since I arrived in Berlin at the age of 20, I had been fascinated by these men carrying the coal to our apartments or cellars. I already knew the subject from my childhood. In the place I was born, Zwickau, the coal miners left the bags at our doorstep. Together with my sister I had the duty of carrying these to the storehouse. In Berlin it worked differently, it is a big city with a lot of traffic, so the coal could not be sitting on the pavement, hence this necessity of the coal carriers. There was something else that caught my eye. In many new areas of the city the heating system did not work on coal anymore so children did not have a clue of how the heat existed in their buildings. I thought it would be nice to show them how this works and value the labour of those men. The film [Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann] is also an account of a profession that was about to disappear. So I immediately said yes, but under one condition, I insisted that the boss in the business we were going to film in needed to be a woman. And we actually found it and were very happy.

I am glad that you are telling me this story, as it allows me to throw a couple of questions. The first is quite general about your cinema. You seem to be interested in depicting those groups of people that lack representation within the Soviet Union regime, or any other Western regime for that matter. More precisely, in this case, the work of labourers is depicted in a very realistic way, without glorifying it. This is a very political standpoint.

You are right. Bear in mind that 90% of women in the GDR actually worked. This was both a necessity and an advantage. It is important for women’s self-confidence, but it can also be contradictory. I will use an example. This woman, Christine, who appears in my film Winter Adé. Her work consists of repeatedly hitting some tubes with her tool and that is not good for her health, but she is very proud of herself as her work is valuable for the plant. So, she is well-considered among her colleagues and that gives her confidence. On the other hand, this job also influences her free time. It has an impact on her both physically and mentally. As it is physically tiring, she might not have time to take care of the kids when she comes home, or she will choose to watch television instead of doing something that requires more concentration, as she is too exhausted to do anything else. Your needs and possibilities are always conditioned by your work. So yes, I was interested in portraying these contradictions.

Winter Adé

Coming back to my second question, which is more accurate. It is about the way you present the boss in Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann. I should best say that it is she who introduces all her workers. In the first scene they are all sitting around a table and she gives a brief description of every one of them. But you use this method other times. Let me explain. In Winter Adé you use a voice over of yourself in which you tell the audience what the film is going to be about. In Spermüll we see the members of the punk band sitting over a table in the same fashion as we did in Schwarzen Mann, but just after that there is a tracking shot of a corridor in which you follow a TV set showing one of their videos and, again, your voice over says the story is going to be focused on one of them and his mother. Why are you so interested in opening films like this?

It is difficult to answer. I had never thought about this. For example, in Winter Adé I get on a journey and I do not know where it is going to take me. I am in this position, feeling certain things, so I disclose it and take it from there. I hit the railroads and I just ask people to share this experience with me and get them on board. So you can call it an invitation, but it is a general one. It is true that in Spermüll I also wanted to talk about that period and how we felt at the time, but I do it more precisely through this kid and her mother’s journey, so I felt I needed to explain this by the beginning. In Wer fürchtet sich vorm schwarzen Mann it is very different. I ask the boss to introduce her workers but later I am going to be focusing on the lives of several of them, so I get deeper into the stories, I depict that space through them.


It is true that in Schwarzen Mann, although the main protagonist is the boss, you end up telling the stories of the workers too. In Spermüll other members of the band appear besides the singer. In Winter Adé you do not have a clue at the beginning who you will meet. How do you allow reality to lead your process? For instance, how did the falling of the Berlin Wall, which occurred while you were filming, impact Spermüll?

You cannot plan something like that. Anyway, I do not tell the news but the personal stories of the individuals that are in the films. You cannot see certain things coming. For instance, in Spermüll, young man Rizzo is standing before a church that was an important place in the story of the demonstrations against the government that were taking place at the time. We are just talking and we see agents in street clothes coming. They ask what is going on, some students are also passing by not far from us. This cannot be planned. Reality gets in the way.

I will tell you a story that will hopefully answer your question. I had this filmed in 35mm but there was obviously also the soundtrack. I delivered the prints to DEFA but a writer friend of mine kept the soundtrack. We thought everything was getting intense and dangerous and that we might be in trouble. By 12th October, I was going to be touring with Winter Adé in the USA for four weeks. I was especially worried for Rizzo. Would something happen to him while we were away? While we were in the USA, and it was our first time in the country and we were thrilled to be there, everything happened. It was a strange situation. We were worried about our kids and we did not know what was truly happening in the streets, what the development of the demonstrations was. We wanted to be a part of that, but we were very far away presenting our film. It was interesting to see this happening in the USA. All the radios, TV news and papers did not mention the GDR events in depth, but in a few days they were putting it on front pages and opening the news with that.

On 9th November, as we were having our last screening of Winter Adé at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we began receiving all this news from Germany. At the beginning we thought this was fiction, as we could not believe what was happening. We rushed to buy a radio to hear the shortwave broadcasts from West Germany. It was a strange day. The theatre at Amherst was fully packed with students and teachers, I think there were about 700 people watching the film. The curious thing is that in Winter Adé there is this moment in which one of the women tells the story of how she received the Medal of Merit of the GDR and that Günter Schabowski, a very well-known member of the SED Politbüro, attended the ceremony. Right at the time of the screening in Amherst, Günter Schabowski was announcing on television that the border between West and East Germany would be open in the near future. Asked by the journalists about when exactly it would happen, he gave a slightly mistaken answer that made many people believe that they were already allowed to cross the border. Thousands of people gathered around the wall and the soldiers decided not to shoot. The wall fell that very night. This news had just arrived when we were projecting the film, so when his name popped up, everyone in the auditorium knew who he was. At the end of the screening, we got this standing ovation, both for the film and for what was happening. We were all thrilled to see the wall falling. Students shared this happiness and invited us to champagne and wine. It was a wonderful unforgettable experience.

One of the aspects that I like the most about your cinema is that you manage to capture the essence of the time, but on the other hand your stories are quite universal. For instance, anybody today could relate to the parent-child relationships which appear often in your films. But these are told within a very specific time and place. Were you aware of the important historical document you would leave behind while you were making these films?

I think I am interested in individuals, but I ask very specific questions. When you are trying to deepen into certain subjects and understand them, what you draw from those answers, if you have managed to reach your goals, feels timeless. What I intend to do through the montage is to put together several experiences told by the people I encounter in order to bring to light the contradictions of our society. I just listen to their stories, I do not direct them. It is in the editing process that I establish relations and seek to tell something about that moment.

Now that you mention these contradictions, please allow me to point out something that I find awkward. The women you talk to seem to have a mind of their own, but at the same time they are often very determined by their relationships with their ex-couples. Isn’t it contradictory?

They are for sure determined by that, but not only that. We are all determined by our lineage, for instance. If you take these women in this very moment of their lives, within the society of that time, which was trying to homogenise everything, what they do leaving their men is truly an act of courage. They are different and brave and surely determined by that, as society reminds them all the time they are not doing the right thing.

Interesting… You actually give voice to these women, which were indeed not listened to. Is this a feminist act? A political act? 

I don’t like labels. As soon as you disclose a private discourse, you are being political. I in fact portray a society in which both men and women are oppressed, equally oppressed. But women have been historically oppressed too and this makes it twice as hard.

I am not so interested in labels either, but in defining your artistic choices. For instance, I reckon that in Winter Adé you expose patriarchy, if we can agree on this one. I have only counted three men speaking in this film and every time sexism is shown, not always by what they tell, but by the way you establish certain relations through the editing, as you explained earlier.

I have to say that men are never put away in the film, women talk about them and they are around. But it is obvious, and I say this at the beginning, that I wanted to address how women lived under the GDR at that time. This was the whole concept of the film. Also, I am interested in the journey itself, not the goal. I do not mind where we are headed, but what happens in the way. When men appear, it is just a coincidence, not intended. I mean, when we shoot the scene of the Diamond Wedding, I cannot take the man out of the picture. He is there, I must film him. And there are other men in the film, not just the three you mention. We have the scene of the discotheque and others.

Helke Misselwitz

I just try to capture to the best of my possibilities what we come across in the journey. I am there to film those things, but I do not meddle with reality or provoke anything. If we have these men joining the army and leaving their women behind, or if we speak to that man who talks about how he and his wife raise their kids… Well, these men just happened to be there and we filmed them.

Whether you are speaking with men or women, I am amazed by how you manage to make people almost confess their most personal opinions and feelings. Have you got a method?

I do not follow a recipe of my own. I just try to be genuinely interested in the people I talk to. When we are about to shoot and trying to establish the right frame with the cameraman, I am already sharing my thoughts with those that are going to be filmed. I also open myself to people and I expect the same from them. It all is about genuine trust. I give this, people feel it. I want them to participate in my project and they know that what they are disclosing is going to be useful for the film, for what I want to tell. At the same time, they have this opportunity to be heard. They are aware of this, I am very sincere about this.

Movement is very present in this film, that of the train. But in Spermüll a two-sided crossing of the border is frequently depicted. In Schwarzen Mann you follow the coal workers going from one building up to the next. Do you see cinema as the art of movement and, in this sense, does it imitate life?

I would not call it an imitation, but film is always movement. It is also made of 24 frames per second. Each of these pictures is taken in present time. I should say that the act of filming is an inner and physical journey in itself. When I film, this changes who I am, so everything is about the journey, I am not on an expedition or a search for anything, but yes, I am on the move. I like to think of myself as a curious and open-minded person, so I like unfolding what is inside other people’s minds. When I begin shooting a film, I don’t even know what shape that will take. The act of filming is a constant process of discovery.