Sunday, May 01, 2011



Anamaria Marinca (l) and Hannah Herzsprung (r)
At HIFF 2008
Hannah Herzsprung is the star of THE WEISSENSEE SAGA
Anamaria Marinca is another great actress
Honored at HIFF, that I'd like to see in US films!
Phoeo by Eric Roffman

As part of a mini-festival of new German films,
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), presented (the first season -- six 45 minute episodes -- of) The Weissensee Saga -- An East Berlin Love Story, a German TV mini-series.

I first became aware of this series when traffic to stories I had written about Hannah Herzsprung suddenly spiked way, way up. A few inquiries identified the reason for the spike as the appearance of this tremendously popular TV show on German television, in which Hannah plays a leading role.

I met Hannah Herzsprung at the
Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) where she was first honored as a HIFF Rising Star in 2007, and then again the following year as a European Shooting Star, in 2008.

What was most striking to me immediately about
The Weissensee Saga was the quality and style of the acting. The quality is superb, and the style is one of relaxed naturalism, very different from so much fine American acting, which often might be described as either stylized naturalism (for example Reese Witherspoon) or deeply centered profundity (for example, Morgan Freeman).

HIFF has been a home for a whole group of fine young European actors. Florian Lukas, who appears opposite Hannah in Weissensee, was honored at HIFF in 2005. It would be terrific to see many of these young European stars enrich American films. Some have already had small parts: Hannah had a role in The Reader; Samuli Varamo (Finland - HIFF 2009) had a small role in The American. In addition to Hannah and Florian, some other great young actors I'd like to see in big roles here are: Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Romania - HIFF 2008), Anais Demoustier (France - HIFF 2010), and Zrinka Cvitešić, an incredibly versatile actress (Croatia - HIFF 2010).

The Weissensee Saga tells the story of two families in East Berlin in 1980, whose stories closely interact. Hannah plays Julia Hausmann, a young woman whose mother, Dunja Hausmann, is a famous, and just slightly dissident, singer. Dunja is played by Katrin Sass, who has an evocative cabaret voice. Dunja and Julia are protected by Hans Kupfer, who was once Dunja's lover. Indeed, Hans arranges for a (1980 style) paternity test to make sure Julia is not his daughter when Hans' son Martin (played by Florian Lukas), falls in love with Julia.

Hannah Herzsprung (Julia) and Florian Lukas (Martin)

One of the nice things about MoMA's presentation of
Weissensee, part of a mini-festival of German films that ends Monday (5/2), is that some of the people involved in making the film attended. While the screening ran too long for a formal Q&A, I did get to talk briefly with Uwe Kockisch, who played Hans Kupfer, in the lobby after the film. He said that his conception and portrayal of Hans Kupfer was rooted in his own memories and experiences of that time when East Berlin was Communist. Indeed, the older members of the cast -- the older generation -- including Katrin Sass, did live through that period with first hand knowledge.

The Saga deals with a period which is highly political, emotional, and very recently past. The Kupfer family is deeply involved in the East German government. Martin Kupfer is a policeman who does not want to join the Communist party. Hans and his other son, Falk (Jörg Hartmann), are important members of Stasi, the East German Secret Security Police. Hans has strong feelings against the Nazis (who killed his family), and is "romantically" attached to the old Communist ideal. Dunja, once also an idealist, has become disillusioned with the regime. Julia, at the beginning of the series, flirts with trying to escape from East Berlin and, at the end of the series, flirts with contacting Western journalists about the mis-treatment of her mother. The series is named for the section of East Berlin where the story takes place, the Weissensee, which is known for hosting a very famous Jewish cemetery, the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe.

The series steps somewhat gingerly around the various issues
(suggested in the previous paragraph) that frame its story, being aware of their power and neither ignoring, nor beating terribly hard, on the possible incendiary story lines that could emerge. Punches are thrown; and punches are pulled. Terrible, potentially fatal encounters end in injury, not death.

The characters, as suggested above, all seem to represent specific "types" although they are written and played with great sophistication, making them fully dimensional and interesting. Hans is the sophisticated operator who understands the system and uses his knowledge to protect his family and those he loves
(ie the Hausmanns). His wife is the pragmatist, who is betrayed by her husband's old infidelity and continued interest in Dunja, and who is less hateful of the Nazis. Falk is the determined Stasi operative who is gaining power and using it against dissidents (like Dunja and Julia) with threats, blackmail, drugs, incarceration, surveillance, etc. Martin is the young man interested in freedom and love. The Hausmanns are quite naive, not-quite dissidents, Dunja the old celebrity, and Julia, the young, free spirit. One type that has not appeared in the series (at least so far) is the sophisticated dissident. (But whether that actually was a part of East Berlin life -- as it seemed to have been in Russian Communist life -- I don't know.)

Each episode seems to follow a formula in which the action and relationships are set-up carefully throughout the episode, and then only in the final minutes is there an explosion of plot developments, leading to a cliff-hanger ending. The music is quite beautiful, especially the songs of Dunja. The instrumental background music is also very fine, except that it is presented as overly-obvious mood-cueing too often.

The first season ended on cliff-hangers with Julia and Martin being photographed as they went to the Western journalist's apartment. Julia is pregnant. Hans is threatened with loss of his position. Dunja is under attack from Falk and threatened with imprisonment, or forced drugging (apparently the East German version of the Russian mental incarceration).

The series is expected to have another season. Given the quality of the acting and the production, and the relevance and importance of the issues in which it deals, I do hope we here in the US will get a shot at watching the next season.

Indeed, though the series quite specifically centers on East Berlin 1980, I constantly found myself thinking of today's Middle East regimes and regime changes. Colin Quinn
(Long Story, Short) is right. Human nature does not change very much.



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