The Groundbreaking German Film That Premiered as the Berlin Wall Fell
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
How a groundbreaking East German film coincided with history.
By Sergio Matalucci
At 6:30 am, Nov. 9, 1989, Christine Weigand’s alarm rang in Köpenick, a peripheral neighborhood of East Berlin. She woke up with a cold on the dark and rainy morning, but there was no time to take it easy. Coming Out, the first film about the secrets of “deviant” homosexuals in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), had its premiere that night — and as director of East Germany’s most important cinema, Kino International, Weigand had a busy day ahead of her.
The alarm of Dirk Kummer, the film’s assistant director and one of its lead actors, went off at 8 am. He ran to a telephone booth at the Berlin Wall to call friends in the West. The 23-year-old’s life was changing rapidly: After a suicide attempt and three years in the army, Kummer finally had a chance to prove his artistic potential. “It was the first film I worked on,” he says today. “I was totally nervous.”
Kummer arrived at the cinema on Karl-Marx-Allee at 6:30 pm. The first rumors about the fall of the Berlin Wall arrived with co-star Dagmar Manzel, who, after a day at the theater, joined the rest of the crew for the second screening. Two screenings were a rarity, but Coming Out — unlike many GDR films — was already in demand. It was the first, and last as it turned out, East German feature film to deal openly with homosexuality, which at the time was not illegal, but remained taboo.
The production team thought that Manzel must have misheard the rumors, and didn’t pay much attention to her stories. They were drunk with joy: East German luminaries had liked their film, and it was time to party. The crew went to celebrate the long-awaited accomplishment — it had taken seven years to get the necessary government approvals to make the film — at Burgfrieden, a gay bar just a 20-minute walk from the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint.
“The car of the director, Heiner Carow, had broken down. He asked me to give him a lift to Burgfrieden,” says Weigand. “The traffic jam was insane. There were cars with people in their pajamas. It was surreal. Heiner left and walked to the party; I went home.”
Once home, Carow switched on the TV, where she saw the news about the border being opened. “My throat was pulsing. My cold was getting worse. I thought: Probably I don’t understand what’s going on. I will check tomorrow,” she recalls.
The cast heard that the border controls had been lifted while they were between rounds at the bar. They were excited, but incredulous — such an event seemed impossible. Actor Matthias Freihof arrived at the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint late at night. He stopped at the white line demarcating the two parts of the city, speechless and intimidated. Finally, he walked into West Berlin. In a moment, his world had gotten bigger.
That night, the world got bigger for many Eastern Germans, but the cast’s world got even bigger. A couple of months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Coming Out won two awards at the 40th Berlin International Film Festival in West Berlin. Carow and the actors toured the world.
“My first time out of the Socialist Bloc was in West Berlin two days later. I wanted to go to a gay club, but I got disappointed. There were pretty much the same people that I was normally meeting in East Berlin,” Kummer recalls.
The first international screening of Coming Out took place in Bologna, Italy. “We showed the film, and we received, once more, a standing ovation. All of a sudden our East German movie became an international hit,” Kummer says.
The movie, which was the last GDR film to premiere at Kino International, also had a significant impact on the gay community in East Germany.
“Finally I didn’t feel strange. Finally I received confirmation I was normal,” recalls Wolfgang Schultheiss, a teacher who watched Coming Out in Halle a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“The way we see it, it’s a country having two coming outs in just one night, and a moment of transformation for Kino International itself, maybe the moment it became the independent cinema with a very queer heart that it is today,” Daniel Sibbers, Kino International’s marketing director, remarked on the 30th anniversary of the movie, shown once more at Kino International, once more sold out, once more on Nov. 9.
- Sergio Matalucci, OZY AuthorContact Sergio Matalucci