The anxiety of a nation in a state of schizophrenia is the catalyst behind director Christian Schwochow’s West (2013), a devastating portrait of a mother and son’s attempt to flee the GDR. Based on the quasi-biographical novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck, Schwochow’s Berlin-set, Cold War drama is a slow-burner that examines the fallacy of western ‘freedom’ and the prejudices immigration so often incites. During the Cold War refugees from communist Eastern Europe were often sent to the Marienfelde transit camp in Berlin and it’s within this inauspicious compound that the majority of West’s narrative unfurls.
After obtaining a visa under the pretense she’s marrying a West German doctor, recently widowed Nelly (Jördis Triebel) and her son Alexei (Tristan Göbel) arrive at Marienfelde full of optimism. Their accommodation comprises of metal bunk beds in a dreary concrete cell, yet Alexei is happy collecting the branded soft-drink cans he was denied in the east whilst his mother works hard to amass the stamps required to gain citizenship. However, when Nelly finds herself under increasing scrutiny from the CIA their hope begins to fade. The American government believe her ex-husband, Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek) might still be alive and working as a spy for the East and refuse to grant her citizenship unless she corporates with their investigation. As the likelihood of their release diminishes, Nelly and Alexei find themselves embroiled within a tense game of cat-and-man, with each of their fellow detainees a potential spy and their every move scrutinized.
Schwochow weaves the lives of the Marienfelde inmates together to create a vivid tapestry of how persecution and deprivation can lead to deep psychological scarring. As Nelly begins to succumb to the fear and distrust that prevails throughout the camp the film mutates from a cold-war thriller into a deeply harrowing parable for the persecution immigrants often face. Pregnant with deception and exuding a malignancy both frightening and perversely fascinating, cinematographer Frank Lamm’s voyeuristic lensing beautifully conveys Nelly’s heightened sense of paranoia. Schwochow also uses color and costume design to symbolize the divide between east and west, whilst the notable performances of Triebel and Göbel breathe life into a sterile and fastidiously detail-driven script.
As someone who lived on both sides of the wall, Schwochow aims to challenge stereotypical assumptions of life in Germany before reunification. At one point Nelly is asked why she decided to leave the GDR, her response is simply “to avoid questions like these.” It’s moments like these, where the film challenges the hypocrisy of Western democracy that West comes into its own. Immigration is too often characterized by systematic exclusion and whilst the film provides a refreshing insight into the marginalization central to the migrant experience, it’s the knowledge that the same camp occupied by Frank, and here by Nelly and Alexei, is currently home to thousands of immigrants from Syria and Iraq that makes West‘s iconoclastic depiction of ‘freedom’ such a compelling and deeply distressing experience.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble