Tuesday, 14 July 2015

West (4 Stars)


This film, originally released in Germany in 2014 but only now being shown in English cinemas, is based on a novel by Julia Franck. The novel is loosely based on Julia's childhood experiences when she emigrated from East to West Germany with her mother.

Nelly Senff, a citizen of the German Democratic Republic, has a PhD in Chemistry, and she carries out research on pyrolysis in a research lab in East Berlin. She lives with Dr. Vassily Batalow, a Russian scientist, and although they aren't married they have a son together. (This seems strange in a morally strict Communist country in the 1970's, but I'll accept it). While visiting Moscow for a conference in 1975 he dies in a car accident. Because they weren't married Nelly isn't allowed to go to his funeral. After his death Nelly is repeatedly questioned about her relationship with Vassily, and finally she decides to emigrate to West Germany. She has no political motivation in going to the West, she just wants to be left in peace.

In 1978 she arranges a fake marriage with a West German citizen, so that she and her 9-year-old son Alexei can go to the West. When they arrive in West Berlin things aren't as ideal as she expected. Nelly and Alexei are housed in a refugee camp, and she's shocked to find that other immigrants from East Germany have lived there for two years. Worse still, a German official and a member of the American secret service insist on questioning her about Vassily for days on end. When she tries to get a job she is only offered unskilled labour, because she's considered too much of a risk to be allowed to work on important research projects.

This is a gloomy film that shatters the myth that people from East Germany could expect a successful new life in West Germany. I suspect that the director intended to make the film a metaphor for later events in German history. When Germany was reunited in 1990 the East was dazzled with promises of wealth in a capitalist society, but even now, 25 years later, the Ostzone (Eastern Zone) is still a second class society with lower wages than in the Western Zone.

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