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Provincial politics

Jochen Kürten / srsSeptember 9, 2012

German politics isn't all eurozone rescues and foreign interventions. Things are a lot more humble out in the provinces. A new film takes a look at the day-to-day work of one regional parliamentarian.

HANDOUT - Der CDU-Politiker Henryk Wichmann in der Dokumentation «Herr Wichmann aus der dritten Reihe» (undatierte Filmszene). Der Film kommt am Donnerstag (06.09.2012) in die deutschen Kinos. Foto: Andreas Dresen/Piffl Medien GmbH (zu dpa-Kinostarts vom 30.08.2012 - ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur für redaktionelle Zwecke im Zusammenhang mit dem Film und bei Urheber-Nennung) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Szene aus dem Film Herr Wichmann aus der dritten ReiheImage: Andreas Dresen/Piffl Medien GmbHH

It all began ten years ago. A German TV station asked known filmmakers to contribute hour-long documentaries to a series called "When I think of Germany." Andreas Dresen ("The policewoman," "Half Steps"), a widely-acclaimed, socially-engaged feature film director, had an idea that seemed rather unimpressive at first. He was interested in politicians' day-to-day work. How do campaigns work in the provinces? And what really keeps a politician from hitting the big time, from reaching the peak of his or her profession? These were the questions that interested Dresen.

In search of a loser

The director deliberately chose a politician from a party that wasn't close to him in order to maintain the necessary distance. And so, Henryk Wichmann entered the picture. The 24-year-old had just made a bid for the Bundestag, was a member of the Christian Democrats (CDU), and had no chance of winning. The Social Democrats (SPD) were dominant in the German state of Brandenburg and especially in Wichmann's sparsely populated county of Uckermarck. That's exactly why Dresen chose to profile Wichmann, the director told DW.

"I was always more interested in losers' stories," he said. "At the CDU, the CDU didn't get its leg off the ground."

"Herr Wichmann in the Third Row" explores the politician's day-to-day work in his small town
"Herr Wichmann in the Third Row" explores the politician's day-to-day work in his small townImage: Peter Hartwig/Piffl Medien GmbH

Dresen and Wichmann met up and formed a team. And the rest is German film history. Dresen's television production surprisingly made it to Berlin's biggest film festival, gained plaudits and made it into theaters. The unpretentious portrait of a provincial politician won over audiences. The young politician didn't just win over the director with his humor, charisma and openness. The public also loved the unique, modest Wichmann.

'More Wichmanns than you think!'

"I think you could really make this movie anywhere in Germany," Dresen reflected. "There are loads more Wichmanns than you think!"

But the director added that Wichmann was special in that he came across very unpretentiously in front of the camera.

"Very rarely do you find people who don't feign," Dresen said, "who are open and don't get ashamed when things that are funny - and maybe also embarrassing - happen, and who don't try to artificially create a sort of glamorous facade."

Ten years later, Wichmann, who was defeated by his SPD competitor as expected, is a state parliamentarian, married and the father of three children. He is a career politician, even if not at the national level. Wichmann sits in Brandenburg's state assembly, working for Uckermarck. Dresen has made arrangements with Wichmann to make a sort of sequel.

On the trail of everyday politics

Andreas Dresen portrait
Andreas Dresen found an unusual muse for two of his films

Now the director is interested in one thing only: "In the first film I worked on the campaign. The campaign is always a very pointed situation, where the parties and campaigners seek to separate themselves from the competition. It is often no-holds-barred during the struggle for votes."

Dresen said as a result of all this, real arguments often get short shrift and campaigns can seem rather ridiculous to outside observers, he said.

"In the second movie, it was of course quite different;" Dresen continued. "Now we turned toward everyday politics. I asked myself, what really does an elected parliamentarian do? How does he fulfill his job? How does the everyday life of democracy look in the provinces?"

The politician Wichmann in a scene from Dresen's film
Wichmann often plays the role of mediator in his work with localsImage: Peter Hartwig/Piffl Medien GmbH

Wichmann is currently accompanying Dresen on a tour of Germany to premier the new film "Herr Wichmann in the Third Row" ("Herr Wichmann aus der dritten Reihe").

"Beyond the [German TV news show] Tagesschau and top politicians who give their 30-second sound bites to the cameras shortly before the start of cabinet meetings in Berlin, things are somewhat different," Wichmann said. "A representative's basic tasks are something else!"

Wichmann is persuaded that parliamentarians' basic work receives too little coverage in the media.

"Thus people get a distorted image of politics," he said. "They think it's the same for all of us as it is with Angela Merkel."

As a result, Wichmann is pleased with the new movie. "We are much closer to the people - you see that very clearly in the movie."

A clear view of mundane politics

In fact, "Herr Wichmann in the Third Row" gives a completely unvarnished view of German politics in the province. Wichmann takes care of small construction disputes, gets angry at the bureaucratic juggernaut, despairs of sometimes unclear environmental regulations and gets flustered with government workers' naïve mentality.

With this second movie about politics from below, Dresen has made something rare. The hugely entertaining film has opened up perspectives on the basic work of backbenchers - the politicians in the second (and third) tiers. Viewers have never seen this realm with such intensity - not in the daily television news coverage, nor in political magazines of any sort.