One of my earliest childhood memories was watching the Berlin Wall fall on the news. While I didn’t know it at the time, the footage of the concrete crumbling reflected both the physical and political dismantling of a system as well as the reunification of a country. This history was locked in the images and in the moment. With its repercussions and implications, this event became referred to as die Wende in Germany. Literally meaning change, Amie Siegel’s film DDR/DDR explores all the possible meanings of die Wende and how it relates to the cinematic legacy left in repose in the former East Germany.
Siegel’s visual essay forms a composite portrait of the DDR (East Germany) through interviews, architecture, experience, and most prominently film. She incorporates clips from East German cowboy movies, Stasi surveillance videos, documentation of targeted harassment plans, and training footage, as well as explanation of the equipment used to enable this system of influence and monitoring. These instruments, analyzed in regards to their literal and symbolic importance, become the focus of much of DDR/DDR. Here, the camera is given psychological significance, which Siegel formally explores through its positioning within the framed image and its ability to expose film and the actions and events of those it records.
But her approach is not without precedent. The tradition of psychoanalytic film theory in Germany begins most notably with the literature of Siegfried Kracauer and Lotte Eisner, who regard German Expressionist film as a precursor to and possible explanation for the advent of Nazism. This desire to allot significance to film is understandable given Germany’s history of art and propaganda. With DDR/DDR, Siegel makes similar claims about film’s power, but primarily in regards to the camera itself, using film-language to implicate every object and instant as meaningful. In fact, her analysis of both film and the properties of camera-as-instrument is at times more penetrating than the larger, more abstract claims related to die Wende.
Thankfully, Siegel resists the impulse to write a grand, totalizing history and instead produces small intimate stories of experience. These personal portraits reflect some of the more contemporary efforts in historiography and let the audience feel that the suppositions and conclusions at which Siegel arrives are either plausible or at least flexible enough to accommodate further interpretation. Sure, Siegel’s voiceover narration and analysis can feel overdetermined, contrived, and awkward when not serving a formal or performative purpose, but the visual and aural remnants of a dissolved nation are filmed in such patient, stoic detail that it can also be quite compelling at times. These observations, both cinematic and intellectual, make DDR/DDR a continually self-reflexive exploration of East Germany’s storied legacy.