Ken Loach’s 1986 tale of an East German dissident singer-songwriter.
It was surely only a matter of time before Ken Loach and Trevor Griffiths collaborated. Both had seen their talents nurtured by producer Tony Garnett and The Wednesday Play during the mid-sixties. In Loach’s case he had moved from directorial assignments on the likes of Z Cars to a platform better suited to his social realist concerns. In 1965 alone he was responsible for six Wednesday Plays, among them the seminal Up the Junction. Cathy Come Home, which also screened as part of the strand, arrived the following year. Garnett served as story editor on the former and producer on the latter, thus beginning a partnership that would stretch to the late seventies. Together they formed Kestrel Films, which would later purchase Griffiths’ first teleplay, The Love Maniac, with the aim of putting it into production.
Griffiths was a part of New Left movement who had briefly joined the Labour Party and served as the editor on their Northern Voice newspaper. Whilst working for the BBC as a further education officer he came into contact Garnett who encouraged him to shift from journalist to dramatist. The Love Maniac, about a comprehensive school teacher with radical ideals, was initially considered for The Wednesday Play but never made the cut. Nor did Kestrel Films’ optioning of the script bear fruit, though it would eventually air (with some tweaks) on Radio 4 under the name of Jake’s Brigade in 1971. Nevertheless, Griffiths continued with the writing, first with Occupations, his play about the communist seizures of Fiat plants in 1920s Turin that would be staged by the RSC (also in 1971), and slowly with an ever-growing body of work for both the stage and television. Politics provided the near-constant theme, whether it was his 11-part television series Bill Brand, about a newly elected Labour MP, or his contribution to the BBC’s Fall of Eagles, which recounted the formation of the Russian Communist Party. In 1981 he was Oscar-nominated for his first screenplay for the cinema, for Warren Beatty’s Reds, about the journalist John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World.
While Griffiths’ subject matter was often international, Loach’s films and television pieces remained firmly planted on British soil. He documented trade unionists, the working classes, the Labour movement and so forth – all just as political, only restricted to a single country. Indeed, it was only when he came to work with Griffiths that this situation would change. In the years since he has taken on Irish republicanism, the Spanish Civil War, the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, the union movement in the US and more besides, but it all began with Fatherland, his and Griffiths’ 1986 film about an East German dissident singer-songwriter who moves to the West.
The singer-songwriter was played by a real-life equivalent, Gerulf Pannach. Fatherland would be his sole film credit, though he certainly had the credentials to take on such a role. Pannach abandoned an intended career law to pursue music and quickly met with attention from the authorities thanks to his outspoken views. He would find himself banned from venues or have permits withdrawn and, eventually, arrested by the Stasi in 1976. After months of interrogation he had his citizenship revoked and was deported to West Berlin where he continued to perform and record. He died of cancer in 1998 at the age of 49 prompting some to cite suggest play. Months earlier Rudolph Bahro, another dissident, had also died as a result of cancer, while Jürgen Fuchs suffered a near-similar fate in 1999. Radioactive poisoning whilst under Stasi detention has been implied, if never proven.
Placed alongside such realities, Fatherland’s own tale of deportation to the West cannot help but feel a tad muted. The film is split into three sections, each of which takes place in a different locale. ‘Actually Existing Socialism’ sees Klaus Dittemann (Pannach) learn of his imminent removal from East Germany for “offences” and “activities” against the GDR, which will also see his family left behind. ‘Great Freedom Street’ follows his arrival in West Berlin and the manner in which his record label take advantage of his plight – from the moment he sets foot across the border he is positioned as a marketable commodity. ‘Stalinism is Not Socialism – Capitalism is Not Freedom’ switches to Cambridge as Klaus tracks down his father, himself an exile from his home country some thirty years earlier.
During a press conference given to mark his arrival in the West, Dittemann responds to a question about his mood: “I’m not happy and I’m not unhappy – I’m only here.” Such ambivalence is arguably matched by Loach and Griffiths too. The bleakness of their portrait affects all corners with neither East nor West subject to a favourable light or, for that matter, much genuine venom even if it does come with a sting in its tail. Both writer and director prefer the events to speak for themselves, to unfurl is as low-key a manner as possible and, consequently, Fatherland must rank as among the least angry and emotive works in either of their CVs. Whether this also translates into ‘minor’ is perhaps down to personal taste.
Fatherland has been issued onto UK DVD by Park Circus. This new release represents its second British disc following an offering on the Cinema Club label in 2005 and also an improvement. The old DVD was presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio whereas here we find the correct theatrical framing. The image is also excellent condition being mostly free of damage and pleasingly crisp. Do be aware, however, that the English subtitles which accompany the German dialogue (which lessens as the film progresses) are of the burnt-in variety and cannot be removed. The soundtrack is presented in DD2.0 form and comes without any issues – both dialogue and Pannach’s score (composed with his regular collaborator, Christian Kunnert) are as clear as intended. Unfortunately, extras are a touch light: just a gallery of 20 colour production stills to accompany the main feature.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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