Questing for a lost homeland

In the "Valley of the Clueless" in Saxony, where Arab contract workers were once employed alongside GDR factory workers, East Germans and refugees meet for a peculiar trip down memory lane. Rene Wildangel reports from this year's Berlinale

By René Wildangel

At the centre of Kunert's film is the former GDR combine "Fortschritt" (Progress) in Neustadt in Saxony. In the days of the GDR this region was known as the "Valley of the Clueless" because reception was so poor in the border zone with Czechoslovakia that not even the news broadcast by West German television, widely listened to elsewhere, could be picked up.

A company manufacturing agricultural machinery was once located here but, like so many other GDR factories, it was closed when the Wall came down, becoming a huge industrial ruin. The former workers' hostel next door has been a shelter for Syrian refugees since 2015.

Almost 30 years after the fall of the GDR, the young Syrians – the film features men only – face bleak prospects, because the community life that once flourished here, financed by the combine and made up of its workforce, has all but disappeared.

Rife with absurdities

The symbolic opening scene shows three of the Syrian refugees struggling with a relic from the GDR; only after several attempts do they succeed in starting the engine of a Trabant car. They proceed to drive through a picturesque but deserted landscape to Neustadt near Dresden, embarking on a trip down memory lane that is rife with absurdities.

In the ruins of the factory, they meet former employees, who share their memories for the purpose of the film as part of a kind of "GDR integration course". In role-playing games, they are asked to share with the refugees their own version of everyday life in the GDR and are thus confronted with their own past. Dressed like children in the youth organisation Thaelmann Pioneers, the young Syrians salute two former teachers; wearing National People's Army uniforms they complete drill exercises and a flag ceremony.

Still from Florian Kunertʹs "Fortschritt im Tal der Ahnungslosen" (source:
Haunted by the past: taking PEGIDA and the hateful reactions to the arrival of refugees in East Germany as his starting point, director Florian Kunert sets out on a cinematic expedition in "Fortschritt im Tal der Ahnungslosen" (Progress in the Valley of the Clueless) to uncover buried memories of the GDR era and contradictory perspectives

For the Syrians, who were born after the reunification of the two Germanys, these activities are excursions into an alien, bygone world. Their own traumas are only hinted at here: on camera, the abandoned ruins of the combine resemble destroyed houses in East Aleppo after the evacuation. In one scene, the young men re-enact urban warfare, thick branches serving as rifles.

The GDR and the "socialist brother state" of Syria

The film also hints at the once-close relations between the GDR and Syria. The first Syrian students came to East Germany in 1956. In the decades that followed thousands of people from Arab states were employed as contract labourers in the GDR.The two regions became even closer after the Six-Day War, in which the GDR sided with the Arabs. For the East German government, this was an important step towards breaking out of its international isolation.

Original photos show a state visit by Hafiz al-Assad, whose drive through the East German countryside in 1978 beside Erich Honecker was accompanied by cheering crowds.

One of the former employees of the combine can still speak a little Arabic from those days. In the seventies and eighties he travelled to Syria; in a slide show he shows the young Syrians pictures he took on his business trips. The places and sights whose beauty he praises have long since become symbols of the worst battles of a devastating war: Aleppo, Deir al-Zour. "Everything has been destroyed," the Syrians comment laconically. The loss of homeland is a central motif here, one that shapes each individual in very different ways.

The spirits of past and present

But the spirits of the present can also be felt: cries of "Wir sind das Volk!" (ʹWe are the peopleʹ) echo through the auditorium. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is not a call for freedom dating back to 1989, but rather the hate-filled yells of PEGIDA demonstrators.

The young Syrians have experienced their share of racism. On the phone, one of the refugees tells a friend that someone has thrown pork into his mailbox and that he has been the target of racist insults. For Kunert, who comes from Saxony, this was one of the motivations for his film: "Where do these extreme emotions come from – and why here especially?"

The director deliberately focusses on searching for projections of what happened in the past and what is going on in the present, with film footage of the combine from GDR days flickering through an old projector, large-scale portraits of young Syrians projected onto the run-down building by a beamer, the often grotesque GDR re-enactments and the partly nostalgic memories of the employees.

Kunert has the former choir of the combine perform in several scenes. In one scene they sing the GDR anthem "Risen from Ruins" – standing in the midst of a ruin that symbolises the decay and downfall of the East German system.

A past that is still all too present

How are refugees supposed to assimilate in an East German society that is itself still grappling with the spirits of the past and the aftermath of reunification? All the more here in the "Valley of the Clueless"?

"Back then, people drove to the border, picked up the 100 euros in welcome money and then returned to the Valley of the Clueless. They never understood what the East German revolution meant," says Kunert. "And there was no integration course to help them come to terms with a reunited Germany."

Today's reality in the region of former East Germany is well known, but trying to get to the bottom of it is a complicated undertaking. Even Kunert, who grew up here after the fall of Communism, does not deliver a neat sociological analysis or any conclusive answers.

The often contradictory and complex feelings and memories of the former GDR citizens and their encounters with Syrian refugees are, however, exciting starting points for reflections on a past that is still all too present in this part of Germany.

Rene Wildangel

© 2019

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor