An estimated 138 people were shot at the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989. Many of these deaths were concealed by the regime in the former East Germany.
The cover-up didn’t necessarily stop when the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. Nor did it end with the reunification of Germany one year later.
If anything, the tendency to play down the horrors of the regime has increased. Gregor Gysi, a leading member of the Left Party, which formed in 2007 as a merger of former East German communists and western German socialists, recently said the German Democratic Republic was “not a lawless state.”
Even today, many of the victims’ families do not feel that those responsible for the killings committed by the Stasi, the former East German secret police – were punished for their crimes. Many people who had lost family members had to wait years to even find out what had happened.
A new documentary, by filmmaker Stefan Weinert, tells their stories. “The Family,” opened in German cinemas on Thursday ahead of this weekend's commemorations to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“At the time, I was just told he is dead,” said Heiko K., whose father was shot while maneuvering his truck near the Berlin Wall in 1970. Mr. K only learned about the real circumstances of his father’s death in 1997, eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film does not give the full names of many of the affected family members for privacy reasons.
The film tells of the Stasi’s obfuscation about the deaths, as well as the trauma of those affected by the indiscriminate Stasi killings at the Berlin Wall. Many of these cases remain unresolved today.
It is telling that many German cinemas, especially those in the former East Germany, have refused to show the film.
Marc Eric Wessel of the film’s distribution company, Basis Film Verleih, said only a few art house cinemas in Berlin agreed to show the film. Many eastern German cities such as Leipzig and Dresden did not show any interest in adding the film to their regular programs.
“I think that many people do not want to confront the issue. It is also very political and as a documentary, it doesn’t cater to mainstream tastes,” Mr. Wessel told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Family members of those who died continue to suffer due to the uncertainty surrounding exactly what happened.
“I never saw my son after his death. It was never officially talked about,” said Irmgard B., who lost her son, Michael, in 1986. She does not know where her son was cremated and still doesn’t know the exact circumstances under which he died. At the time, information about his death was either concealed or later destroyed, according to the film. Only later did she discover that her son had applied to leave the GDR several times.
Most Stasi guards who were tried and convicted after Germany’s reunification were given suspended sentences and often did not go to prison. One of the guards who appeared in the film was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Rainer Liebeke, who was shot in 1986, is survived by his wife, Elke. She still does not know exactly how her husband died. In the film, the director accompanies her to the place where her husband died, but she does not find any answers. His sister, Beate, says she has been unable to move beyond his death because the culprits have not yet been adequately punished.
Mr. Weinert, the director, said the film is not just about bringing to light this dark chapter in German history, which has yet to be fully processed.
“I want viewers to empathize with those who are still suffering from the traumas of the Berlin Wall,” Mr. Weinert told Handelsblatt Global Edition, following the film's premiere.
The film persuades the viewer with its purist style. The director relies solely on the feelings evoked by how the family members talk about the loss of their son, brother or husband.
“What the family members tell us is dramatic… It is their destiny. I don’t need to manipulate viewers with music or with additional narration,” said Mr. Weinert.
The film suggests most of the families are suffering not just because of the lack of justice, but because German society has also remained silent on the matter. A quarter of a century on, Mr. Weinert’s documentary will hopefully get the conversation going.
Sarah Mewes is a native of Berlin and covers politics and culture at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]