No ‘Ostalgie’ here: ‘The Tower’ brings back the bad old days of East Germany

Tower_us.posterNow available on Video On Demand

A two-part miniseries made for German television, The Tower is based on Uwe Tellkamp’s 2008 novel, which won the German Book Prize. (Think the Booker Prize with Umlauts.) In the years since then, Tellkamp’s The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country has acquired a formidable rep as the definitive novel about life in East Germany. The book is a shelf-buckling tome in the tradition of Thomas Mann, punching in at 1,024 pages — a daunting challenge for any translator, which might explain why it took six years for an English-language edition to appear.

tower_derturm_bookThe English version finally came out last week, timed to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, just like the movie’s arrival in the U.S. (It was a U.K. publisher that stepped up to the challenge; readers in the U.S. can order the hardcover and the e-book from a certain monolithic online bookseller.)

The Tower draws heavily on Tellkamp′s experiences: he was born in Dresden in 1968, and his career as a medical student was derailed when the East German government deemed him “politically unreliable,” and his subsequent stint in the Nationalvolksarmee (or National People’s Army) ended with his own arrest, when he refused to fire on demonstrators in October 1989.

It’s a relief to know the book is finally out in English, because watching the three-hour movie adaptation — in two parts of 90 minutes each — can’t help but feel like settling for second best, given the novel’s reputation. Directed by Christian Schwochow, the film of The Tower plays like an engrossing old-school TV miniseries (i.e., like something from before the days of The Wire): the cast and production values are first rate, but I had the impression Schwochow and screenwriter Thomas Kirchner could’ve used four or even five hours to do justice to Tellkamp’s sprawling depiction of 1980s East Germany. The last third of the film suffers from erratic pacing, as if key transitions were lost in the sudden narrative lurch toward autumn 1989.

Throughout The Tower, the viewer is inevitably aware of the ticking historical clock. When will Mikhail Gorbachev make his first appearance on TV news footage in the background? The movie opens on Christmas 1982; by the time the story reaches 1986, it presents East Germany as suffocating in hypocrisy — just like the family at its center — and it becomes hard to foresee any way forward. How many years of internal rot can a society endure?

one big unhappy family

How many of these people are Stasi informants? © Copyright Music Box Films.

What sets this account of life in the German Democratic Republic apart from every other movie on the subject is Tellkamp’s choice of milieu: an enclave of Dresden (or really, above Dresden — the neighborhood has to be reached by funicular) that’s surprisingly, or relatively, posh for a supposedly classless society. Here live the Hoffmanns, an extended family of doctors and intellectuals; their urbane dinner-party conversations, characterized by ironic, cynical banter about the system they live under, are a highlight of The Tower.

Jan Josef Liefers as Richard Hoffmann. Copyright Music Box Films.

Jan Josef Liefers as Richard Hoffmann. © Copyright Music Box Films.

A star doctor at the local hospital, Richard Hoffmann (Jan Josef Liefers) in particular is a pro at parlaying the system to his advantage, both to advance his career and procure grey-market material goods for his family.

The relatively privileged Hoffmanns aren’t dissidents — until, late in the day, they have to be. Slick but weaselly Richard (actor Liefers specializes in playing smoothies who aren’t quite as clever as they think they are) has a child by his mistress (Nadja Uhl), and his secret life leaves him disastrously vulnerable to coercion from the Stasi, the literally ubiquitous secret police. As the Stasi gradually, expertly put the screws on him, Richard suffers a kind of torture of the spirit that leaves no physical marks behind. His clammy predicament comes to epitomize the moral squalor that Tellkamp depicts as having been endemic in the later years of the GDR.

Nadja Uhl. Copyright Music Box Films.

Nadja Uhl. © Copyright Music Box Films.

Meanwhile Richard’s son Christian (Sebastian Urzendowsky) is a medical student and would-be poet whose Romantic inclinations all but mark him for doom under the state system of education. When he gets caught reading some Nazi literature, the ultimate taboo here (Christian is no budding fascist, but merely unable to resist the lure of the forbidden), only a transfer to the military saves his hide — but it’s here that his problems really begin. As Tellkamp and the movie have it, the National People’s Army was where every stereotype about Germanic sado-militarism went to die, and never mind that the army here is fighting in the name of leftist ideology rather than Nazism.

As in the 2005 German hit NVA (a comedy about the same subject), the dramatic irony inherent in any posthumous treatment of East Germany is most pronounced in scenes of army cadets, as they sweat through basic-training exercises with gas masks on in preparation for the NATO invasion that they’re told is imminent. As demonstrations against the regime in East Berlin start to swell during summer and fall 1989, Christian finds to his horror that his unit will be deployed against the protestors.

Sebastian Urzendowsky as Christian. Copyright Music Box Films.

Sebastian Urzendowsky as Christian. © Copyright Music Box Films.

Schwochow weaves footage of the actual demonstrations and mass emigrations from the GDR into the climax of the fictional narrative. This could have played like a cheap device, but the real-life clips help The Tower regain focus and dramatic urgency in its last half hour. Schwochow stages some effectively tense moments that show how things could have turned out far more chaotic and ugly had there been a few more itchy trigger fingers trained on the demonstrators in Leipzig.

The Tower isn’t a movie for viewers hoping to chuckle at the sight of people in kitschy clothes and hair driving Trabants. There is no fist-pumping triumphalist ending either; the fall of the Wall brings euphoria for some, but also uncertainty and shattered lives.

tower_turm_adThe Tower was a lavish prestige project made for German TV in 2012; it won a stack of awards there. The U.S. distributor Music Box Films released a two-hour cut in New York City last week, presumably to help publicize the full, three-hour version that’s now available via Video On Demand. I haven’t seen the truncated theatrical cut, but I can only imagine it must play like an adaptation of an adaptation. No one interested in The Tower should bother with that when the full-length version is accessible on TV and computer screens.

Music Box Films has been teasing the release of The Tower in the U.S. for a year or more; I’m glad it’s finally here. And so much the better that I can read the book now, too.

Watch the trailer for The Tower here:

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