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The many names of loneliness

Andreas Dresen's new film "Summer in Berlin" tells of life on a knife's edge. By Christoph Dieckmann

Good morning sunshine! A summer movie in the winter. About love, life and hard times in Berlin, the bad boy among cities. With a soundtrack of popular songs like "Raspberry ice-cream for breakfast", "Each and every Sunday", or "He belongs to me like my name on the doorbell". His name is Ronald and he has yet to make his appearance in the lives of Katrin and Nike. For the moment, they are still two lonely girls sitting together on a balcony in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. The sun goes down, the night is cool, the two beauties drink a little cola with a lot of hard liquor, and dream of the man to come.

Nike is a geriatric nurse. Katrin is unemployed. She moved to Berlin from Freiburg for love. The man is long gone and Katrin lives alone with twelve-year-old Max. Any future partner would have to get on with her son. The camera peers down from the balcony at the chemist's across the road. The owner peers back up. So far, Katrin has ignored this worthy citizen. At midnight, she calls Max's father and dumps a load of birthday abuse on his answering machine. Nike, also far from sober, muses on the transient nature of love: "There's no such thing as forever. The feeling comes from sexual transmitters in the brain. After a while they disappear. Like that!"

Enter Ronald, like that, via a road accident. Wants Nike, gets Nike. But the viewer begins to suffer badly. Ronald is a carpet delivery driver from the nearby town of Eberswalde, and a bonehead of the first order. Katrin suffers too. Nike, occupied with Ronald, neglects their friendship. Katrin divides her time between looking for work and poorly paid temporary jobs. She goes out dancing alone, comes home with company. Won't let the man into her apartment, he attacks her in the staircase. Katrin screams. Max, half asleep, opens the door, sees his mother half naked. The man does a runner. Katrin drags herself into the apartment, hits the alcohol, sets sail for oblivion.

Director Andreas Dresen has called "Sommer vorm Balkon" (Summer In Berlin) a "cheerful film about loneliness" and voiced the hope that audiences will laugh more than in any of his other films. A strange wish for such a sad story? Dresen's humour is based on ambivalence, often deliberately lingering on the verge of despair. His breakthrough came in 2002 with "Halbe Treppe" (Grill Point), a drama of two marriages set in the Eastern German town of Frankfurt an der Oder, but which was also understood in Frankfurt am Main as a universal mid-life portrait of people on a knife's edge. Not least thanks to a West German actor, who from then on counted as the quintessential East German: Axel Prahl.

"Halbe Treppe" was largely improvised. The characters spoke and acted like life itself. Dresen then switched to reality proper for "Herr Wichmann von der CDU" (Mr. Wichmann of the Christian Democrats, 2003), a documentary on the hysterically funny election campaign of a young East German candidate for Germany's Bundestag. Under his slogan "Time For Action", Wichmann offered unforgettable impressions of grassroots politics in the Uckermark region of East Germany.

In "Summer In Berlin", too, social precision is Dresen's key to real life. Real life speaks in authentic Berlin slang (Nadja Uhl as Nike, Andreas Schmidt as Ronald); it speaks Swabian dialect (Inka Friedrich as Katrin, during her homesick phone call to her parents); it speaks out of the mercantile babble of shoe salespeople and job consultants – non-actors recruited by Dresen at their places of work.

Above all, real lives with the lonely old people who Nike visits, feeds and washes every day – Grandma Helene with her accordion; the bedridden Herr Neumann who believes he must go to school; Oskar who forgets to drink his coffee or flush the toilet but never how his lieutenant shot the poor deserter with the words: In the fifth year of the war, the German sword is still sharp! "But it wasn't me who aimed at him," says Oskar. "No no," says Nike, "not you Oskar".

A beautiful power runs through the films of Andreas Dresen, a higher kind of realism. His characterizations are sometimes drastic, but never vindictive. He pardons, he gives love. He understands old people and children. Even the macho nobody Ronald is understandable in his need for protection, and the dreadful products of German popular song culture suddenly sound like heartfelt chansons.

The script was penned by screenwriting doyen Wolfgang Kohlhaase. He captured life in Prenzlauer Berg once before, a quarter of a century ago, for Konrad Wolf's "Solo Sunny". The times change faster than the milieus. At the end, Katrin and Nike are back on their balcony. By now, Ronald is sleeping elsewhere. Nike explains: he got used up. Nana Mouskouri sings: "The world will keep turning, even if we're apart." Katrin says: that's the way life is.

This could be the title for all of Dresen's films. The director says that his friend and fellow filmmaker Günter Reisch called "Summer In Berlin" a description of a transition: from social ideals to individualism, from the welfare state to a state where everyone is expected to fend for themselves. The attendant sense of apprehension is created in the film with charm and without preaching. The ideological neurotransmitters kick in on the ride home to Berlin's Pankow district through real-life Prenzlauer Berg, in the dirt of the tram, in the cold and weary faces, in the bawling of the children. What we have right now is winter in Berlin.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on December 29, 2005.

Christoph Dieckmann studied theology and worked as a vicar before becoming an editor at Die Zeit in 1991. He is the prize-winning author of many books, including
"Volk bleibt Volk" (The people remain the people, 2001) and "Rückwärts Immer" (Ever backwards, 2005).

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

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