Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Same Sky (4 Stars)

In its promotion for American audiences "The Same Sky" is called a mini-series. In Germany the original version, "Der Gleiche Himmel", is called a three-part television film. That's not just a matter of translation, because the German language contains the word "Miniserie". It's a matter of definition. In America and most other countries films made for television have a smaller budget and usually feature less famous actors than films made for the cinema. In Germany it's different. Films made for television have big budgets and the same actors appear that we see in the big German cinema films. If you watch a German film on Blu-ray it's not possible to tell whether it was made for television or for the cinema.

By calling "Der Gleiche Himmel" a television film the makers want to emphasise that it's a big budget blockbuster, not a small budget television series. I understand that. When the film is released on Blu-ray it's possible to edit the three 90-minute instalments into a four and a half film. However, it takes more than that to make a film. A film has a plot with character arcs leading from A to B. There might be subplots, but the subplots are just there to add background information and depth to the main story. That's not the case with "Der Gleiche Himmel". There are four stories taking place in parallel in Berlin in 1974, one of them in the West and the other three in the East. The only connection is that the characters in the four stories are either related or know one another. These four stories hardly intersect, apart from being mentioned to one another by the characters in conversation.

This principle of independent stories with shared characters is typical for television soap operas. Three of the four stories are left open-ended at the end of the television film, which is also a characteristic of soap operas: story-lines never come to an end, they are just left to simmer in the background. It would be more accurate to call it a mini-soap opera.

The first story is about Lars Weber, a 25-year-old East German Stasi (secret service) agent. He's sent to West Berlin to seduce a middle-aged divorcee who works for an American military station that spies on international phone calls.

The second story is about Klara Weber, Lars' cousin and next-door neighbour, who is chosen to represent East Germany as a 200 meter swimmer in the 1976 Olympic Games. The vitamins that she's given during her training cause her to grow hair on her chest and back.

The third story is about Axel Lang, a homosexual school teacher who falls in love with an English salesman and wants to join him in the West. Axel is a teacher in the same school as Klara's father Conrad.

The fourth story is about a group of people who are building a tunnel under the Berlin Wall. Axel's ex-lover Tobias is a member of this group.

As you can see, the links between the characters are tenuous, as far as the stories are concerned. Some of the characters appear in two of the stories, but nobody appears in three of them.

All four stories are about the relationship between the East and the West, especially the two halves of Berlin. This even applies to the second story, because Klara has to win a gold medal to prove that East Germany is superior to West Germany. There's a huge wall through the middle of the city -- or rather a double wall, as the photo above shows -- but everyone sees the same sky above their heads. So why is there such enmity? It's true, some of the people in the film, such as the tunnel builders, want to be with those on the other side, but the majority see the population on the opposite side of the wall as their enemies.

This enmity came to a head on the third day of the World Cup football competition, 22nd June 1974, when the East and West teams met each other. The West German team felt confident of an easy victory against the inferior players from the East, but what happened? In the 77th minute East Germany scored the first and only goal.

The reaction in East Berlin.

The reaction in West Berlin.

Fortunately the West Germans didn't have to stay sad for too long. Despite losing this game and finishing second in the opening round they went on to win the championship.

I enjoyed watching "Der Gleiche Himmel", and I'll probably watch it again. I find films about the years of the divided Berlin fascinating. This film might not tell a consistent story, but it accurately captures the atmosphere of these years.

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