"Why shouldn't the completion of German reunification be a story about buying a microwave?" asks Andreas Dresen, who shows just that in his competition entry, "Als wir träumten" (As We Were Dreaming). Two young men stand marveling at a microwave in the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"It's the radiation," says one, "That's what does it!"
The two seem indifferent when an egg they put in the brand new device explodes. "Ha - that was the radiation." It's pretty cool, this microwave from the West, which didn't exist in communist East Germany.
Downplaying the political
Dresen says of his new film, which is being shown at the Berlinale, that he finds it charming to delve into reunification. "So far we've primarily talked about the questions of guilt and complicity - and shown the big Stasi dramas," the director says in reference to the many German films that have addressed the GDR as a surveillance state.
In "Als wir träumten," Dresen takes a completely different approach. It's not about the charged days before and during the fall of the wall. That's been done thoroughly in film - whether in the form of addressing Berlin, "Ostalgie" (the German word for nostalgia for the former East) or in working through the past and its ramifications.
Instead, Dresen offers a drama about five youths in Leipzig in the early 90s. He says he likes the "freedom from ideology" in the novel by Clemens Meyer that serves as the basis for the film - and that shares its title. Ideology and the big political questions stay out of focus in Dresen's latest.
Underdogs and the everyday
"It's peppered with subheadings. There are tons of genre elements, boxing matches, wild car rides, fights," says Dresen, who was born in Gera in East Germany in 1963.
The filmmaker shot his first film in the year when the wall came down and has since earned a reputation for social engagement. He favors stories about the underdogs and the world of their thoughts - everyday dramas and the triviality of life.
Author Clemens Meyer was born one generation after Dresen, also in the GDR. His debut success with "Als wir träumten" (2006) made him a star in the young German literary scene. Dresen filming Meyer sounds promising, particularly considering that Dresen brought Wolfgang Kohlhaase on board for the project. Kohlhaase, born in 1931, is considered one of the great screenwriters of East German film.
"I found it really exciting to have someone from a very different generation look at this book. Wolfgang Kohlhaase was at the start of his youth after the Second World War," Dresen says, noting that it was also an era marked by two systems and two worlds - significantly moreso than after the GDR. "And there's actually a fourth generation involved," Dresen adds, "Because the guys who play the roles that emerged from the novel bring in their current and entirely individual youth and attitudes."
The boys in the storyline fall into a kind of hole after the fall of the GDR. The state's foundation suddenly falls away, and few people are keeping their behavior in check afterward because a kind of anarchy takes hold for a couple of years. They open up a techno club that has short-lived success before the Nazis and skinheads come and destroy everything.
Resistance from outside isn't the only thing that disrupts the circle of friends. Heavy use of alcohol and drugs as well as an affinity for self-destruction ultimately do the group in.
Missing the mark
Clemens Meyer experienced just that and described it in "Als wir träumten" over 500 pages in great detail. That's reflected in the film's protagonist, the young Dani played by Merlin Rose, who is more sensitive than his friends and dreams of becoming a reporter. Ultimately, he pulls it off and shakes the demon of drug abuse.
In contrast to Meyer, Dresen had other things on his mind at the time: "It wasn't a period of big dreams. I felt like I had no grounding, uprooted, just wanted to establish myself somewhere."
Perhaps it's these differing sensibilities that didn't help the film. Despite an impressive tempo and many convincing and fresh faces on screen - and despite a high degree of authenticity and a realistically bleak set design, "Als wir träumten" doesn't quite find its way to a unified whole.
The novel develops its story over a few hundred pages, while the film wants to do the same in about two hours. The characters seem undeveloped, and the story behind the five is presented with little psychological depth. That's a shame because the team of Dresen and Meyer should have worked so well. Both are skilled in their fields, and their unified by their origins and socialization in East Germany. Furthermore, the two are serious and authentic artists.
Dresen admitted ahead of the Berlinale premiere that the novel has an element he couldn't capture: "It has that fundamentally wicked and anarchic quality. I'm just a middle-class square in comparison with these guys."
Perhaps that's the reason the film adaptation comes off as appealing and true to life, but doesn't quite put viewers under its spell.