Film review: The Promise

Written by Peter Schneider and Margarethe von Trotta, directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Germany/France/Switzerland: Bioskop Film/Odessa Films/WDR/Les Productions J.M.H, 1994. 119 min.

By Ute Lischke-McNab (reviewer) | 1996-05-01 12:00:00

Margarethe von Trotta, one of the best known of German women film directors, was born in Berlin in l942, during World War II. After studying German and French in Munich and Paris, she attended the Munich School of Acting and then worked in theatre. She began her film career by acting in film and television productions, working with directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schloendorff. She also wrote film scripts with Schloendorff, her husband during that period, and began her career in directing by co-directing with him The Lost Honour of Katharine Blum (1975).

Von Trotta began to direct independently during the period of violent social upheaval in West Germany - l977, with the Student Revolts and Red Army Faction hijackings and bank robberies. She left Germany in the 1980s to live in Italy, where she continues to make films.

In l994 von Trotta directed The Promise, returning to the city of Berlin and the theme of the Wende (reunification) that is the setting for the tale of two lovers separated by the Berlin Wall. This is a romantic epic set against the rise and fall of the Wall, in which the lovers are separated in 1961 during an escape attempt gone awry. In The Promise, von Trotta sees history and politics through the eyes of the two people they affect. The film begins with some black and white footage of the construction of the Berlin Wall in the summer of 1961, the Cold War's most visible symbol - the Iron Curtain. The narrator reminds us that soon the Wall remained the only thing that kept up the illusion that all that divided Germany was a wall.

Sophie (Meret Becker/Corinna Harfouch), who managed to escape with several other friends through the sewers of Berlin, is immediately employed by her aunt in the West who runs a thriving fashion business. Nevertheless, despite her "freedom" and success in the capitalist West, she longs for her family and her lover, Konrad (Anian Zollner/August Zirner), with whom she can no longer communicate. It is never clear whether Konrad, left behind during the escape when the group was surprised by a truck of soldiers patrolling the streets, deliberately chose to stay behind.

In the East, he is interviewed by the Stasi about his friends' escape. He is conscripted into the army, but remains appalled by the Wall and the violence it causes. Left behind, he aims to please his Marxist father and continues his studies. However, he is reunited in Prague with Sophie when he is allowed to leave East Berlin to give a paper at a conference. This bittersweet reunion, which just happens to take place in the "Prague Spring" of 1968 at the exact moment when the Russian tanks roll in, produces a son, Alexander. The film then continues to track their divided lives until the Wall comes down 28 years later.

Von Trotta remains an observer who never falls into political or ideological rants. She observes and explores the dimensions of the social and emotional realms, the political and personal. There is no resolution at the end, simply following life as it is -complex, ambiguous. Konrad, an astronomer, enjoys a good life by pleasing his "masters." He is allowed to travel, lives in a large house with a wife and daughter and is successful. He remains a passive man, content with his work and life. It is Sophie who continues to attempt to reach Konrad, arranging an escape opportunity (missed), their meeting in Prague, and a later one in East Berlin. Each of the lovers is doomed, initially by state authorities and then by their want of personal resolve. The possibility of reunion is there, but Konrad never makes the decision. Von Trotta is aware that we are not merely dependent on our fate - but that we can and do make conscious choices and must take personal responsibility.

The film assumes a linear narrative stance but there are some subplots which could have been expanded. For example, Konrad's sister, a Lutheran pastor, preaches peace from an East Berlin church. Von Trotta never expands upon the role of the Lutheran Church in creating the thrust towards political action among the citizens of East Berlin. The sister and her husband make a conscious choice to oppose the regime and accept its consequences. The story is also told mainly from the point of view of the West.

Finally, on Nov.ember 9, 1989, when the Wall begins to crumble, we see Konrad, now separated from his wife and daughter, impoverished, and barely surviving. Celebrants yell, "The Wall is open!" and his reply, "Which wall?" reveals the extent to which he has been separated from the political reality. Sophie and her son leave their apartment to cross the "border" but the final "reunion" is anticlimactic. The Wall may be gone, but the reality reflects the division of the two solitudes represented by Konrad and Sophie - Germany may be reunited, but the two solitudes remain. The fall of the Wall and the ending of the Cold War symbolically bring peace; however, the social and psychological issues remain unresolved to this day. There are limits to peace.

Reviewed by Ute Lischke-McNab, who teaches German and Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto..

Peace Magazine May-June 1996

Peace Magazine May-June 1996, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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