Q&A: Peter Timm
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Born and raised in East Berlin, director Peter Timm experienced firsthand the cold reality of the German Democratic Republic. But in his new film, "Beloved Berlin Wall," which Bavaria Film International is selling at AFM, Timm takes a lighter look at the serious subject of a divided Germany. The romantic comedy is a tale of star-crossed lovers, with a twist. She's a feisty West German. He's an East German border guard. It's 1989 and the winds of change have begun to blow ... The Hollywood Reporter's Germany bureau chief Scott Roxborough spoke with Peter Timm on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall about remembering the past, life under communism and why he likes to laugh at the Stasi.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why make a romantic comedy about the GDR?
Peter Timm: Why not? There have already been so many serious movies about East Germany and the fall of the Wall, many of them excellent like "The Lives of Others." But most of the stories are sad -- stories of persecution, stories of escape. I wanted to do a romantic comedy on the subject because I think there is something subversive about laughter, about laughing at the ridiculous nature of the Stasi, the Communist dictatorship. When I thought about doing this movie I thought: 'how would Ernst Lubitsch have done it?' He would have done a comedy -- a comedy that shows very precisely what the situation was like but uses laughter to show how ridiculous it all is. I think "Beloved Berlin Wall" shows the reality quite clearly. We see how the Stasi first try to block the love between these two young people and then try to use it to their advantage. But I'm laughing at the Stasi. It's the best revenge.
THR: It's interesting that films about the GDR made by western Germans, like "The Lives of Others" have tended to be serious dramas while most of the GDR comedies -- with the notable exception of "Goodbye, Lenin!" have come from eastern German filmmakers like yourself and Leander Haussmann ("Sun Alley," "Berlin Blues").
Timm: You can only do a comedy if you know the society inside out. If you understand the situations because you've lived them. It's like Woody Allen telling Nazi jokes. He can do it. Many of his relatives died in the Holocaust. He knows the reality.
THR: Many in Germany today, especially young people, don't know the real history of the GDR. Do you think your film can help change that?
Timm: Yes. I made this film for young people. I think young people, both east and west, have a hard time imagining how life was back then and there are too few movies that deal with their stories. I wanted to do a mainstream movie about young people because I wanted to reach the kids in Germany who don't know the history. According to polls, the majority of east Germans under 20 think the GDR was a democracy!"
THR: Your film "Go Trabi Go" which was made very soon after the Wall came down, was one of the first to look at the relationship between east and west Germans. What was the mood like back then?
Timm: It was euphoria. We made "Go Trabi Go" very fast. In 1989, after the fall of the Wall, the Trabi was voted car of the year -- proving Germans do have a sense of humor. These ugly, pokey little cars were all over west Germany as easterners were traveling around for the first time. And westerners were interested -- they wanted to know who these people were. The producer Gunter Rohrbach told me, "You have to make a movie on this and now." So we made a road movie -- a typical east German family traveling in their Trabi across the west. It showed how easterners saw the west and it was a huge hit at the boxoffice, it really caught the Zeitgeist.
THR: How would you respond to critics who say making a comedy about the GDR trivializes the reality of life under a dictatorship?
Timm: I don't think it trivializes it at all. We see how the situation tears families apart, tears friendship apart. I know what the reality was. I spent a year in a Stasi prison. I don't think the GDR was harmless. It's funny that that kind of criticism tends to come from westerners. It's like when west German friends used to cross the boarder to East Germany to visit and they tell us how terrified they were at the border -- "All those police with their guns! The oppression you felt everywhere!" -- and how relived they felt when they went back home. I'd always laugh. You think that was bad? We lived through that fear every day. Not knowing if your friends or the person next to you at work might be a Stasi agent. And you think five minutes at the border is scary? I'd always say: "But you could leave!"