the 1980s, most East Germans realized if they hadn’t finished building
socialism by now, they never would. Dr. Richard Hoffmann sort of got the
picture, but there were blind spots in his understanding. For instance, he does
not recognize the pleasant—dare we say bourgeoisie—nature of his Dresden “Tower”
neighborhood necessarily makes him somewhat suspect. Unfortunately, his son
will become intimately acquainted with the GDR’s hypocrisy and vindictiveness
in Christian Schwochow’s The Tower, which opens this
Friday in New York.
on Uwe Tellkamp’s prize-winning novel, The
Tower was original produced as a three hour German television mini-series
that Music Box Films will release on VOD, along with the two hour (on the dot)
American theatrical version. We have only seen the latter, but there are no
gaping holes apparent, suggesting they used a scalpel worthy of Dr. Hoffmann at
the peak of his powers rather than Harvey Weinstein’s meat cleaver.
Hoffmann is indeed rather pleased with his situation in 1982. He will be the
recipient of a prestigious medical award and is widely seen as the likely
successor to the clinic’s fuddy-duddy director. Somehow, he is successfully
juggling his career, a family life with his wife Anne and his underachieving
son Christian, while secretly keeping house with his mistress Josta Fischer and
their illegitimate daughter. However, publically reprimanding an incompetent
doctor with close ties to the central committee is not a smart strategy for
promotion. In fact, it is the beginning of the end.
thereafter, Dr. Hoffmann is visited by the Stasi. Out of youthful ideological
zeal, he agreed to be an informer during his student days, but tried to forget
the old arrangement as he became disillusioned by reality. They now expect him
to renew his snitching duties. Of course, the Stasi knows all about his secret
life. They also have a damning report he submitted on his best friend and
longtime professional colleague. Dr. Hoffmann tries to stall and prevaricate,
but his position becomes increasingly sticky when Christian runs into the sort
of ideological trouble at school that could permanently ruin his future.
is something fundamentally appealing about a film that starts with Hoffmann and
his cronies stealing Christmas trees literally tagged for privileged Party
apparatchiks. While Schwochow largely skips over familiar issues of shortages
and privations because of the characters’ relatively well-to-do standing, he
vividly portrays the everyday duality of GDR life. Whenever the Hoffmanns need
to have a serious discussion, they invite each other for a walk. When they do
speak, ostensibly neutral code-words are peppered throughout their discourse.
the Job-like Dr. Hoffmann undone by a ruthless state and his own moral failings,
Dresden-born Jan Josef Liefers is riveting like car crash. It is a thoroughly
grounded performance, but it takes on classically tragic dimensions. Yet, it is
Claudia Michelsen who really anchors the film with her quiet authority.
Frankly, there is not a lot of room for Streep-ish histrionics in The Tower, because that was an
indulgence East Berliners could not afford.
Schwochow actually has two films opening this
weekend in New York. West more fully
explores the challenges of immigration frequently alluded to in Tower, but the Hoffman family saga has
considerably more heft and bite. Both are recommended, but if time only allows
for one, it should be The Tower (of
course, the fuller VOD cut is probably even better). It takes a hard, honest
look at what statism does to people, while pulling audiences into a sweeping
Cold War drama. Highly recommended, the theatrical version of The Tower opens this Friday (11/7) in
New York at the Cinema Village, whereas West
opens at Anthology Film Archives.
Labels: Christian Schwochow, Communism, East Germany, German Cinema