Berlinale 2019: "Fortschritt im Tal der Ahnungslosen"

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

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: fortschritt-film.com)
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.

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