Berlin diary entry 4

Sunday 22nd May 2005 – S-Bahn

It was a strange day yesterday. We allowed ourselves a late start. We had originally scheduled an English speaking guided tour of the Stasi museum to compliment Steffen Leide’s interview. But with the tour he gave us the day before (after the interview) we had scope to use the morning to catch up on some sleep. It was also good to take some time and a chance for think about the previous day.

I realised that we had got a great interview but had forgotten most of the cutaway principles we had discussed and agreed. It is so hard to remember everything, but if I’m not careful, I will leave Berlin with good interviews but none of the fabric needed to stitch a film together.

Eventually, we got going and ready for the second day of filming. By the end of the previous day the bags were beginning to weigh heavily on our shoulders. This time we lightened the load and dumped all unnecessary weight. It looked like a lovely day too.

We agreed to make an extra effort with cutaways, set-ups and incidental stuff. Next thing was to get to Schillingstrasse to meet John Tarver. Phil did a great job in suggesting some shots. It was really encouraging. We decided he should carry the camcorder on his shoulder so that he was always ready to shoot. This also seemed to work well.

Emerging from the U-Bahn station on Karl Marx Allee was terrific. A bright sun was in the sky, Café Moskau on one side and Kino International on the other. We walked down Schillingstrasse past all the platenbau. We found block no. XX. I looked on the board of bells and buzzers and a found the misspelt ‘Traver’ at no. XXXX. I rang the buzzer and after a moment or two, a distinctly English voice replied, “Hello, that must be Ian!”

Rather than let us in, he offered to come down so that we could go for a quick drink. He immediately cut an odd figure, or maybe it was the surroundings? He came across as a typically eccentric English Gent – all slightly incongruous considering we were a stone’s throw from Karl Marx Allee.

Right across the street, there was an Iraqi owned fast food shack/bar with some tables outside. It seemed like another little oddity. The owner Tariq served up the goods while the local middle-aged drinkers stood outside – eyes slightly bloodshot.

They all seemed to know John Tarver, or Johnny as he asked us to call him.

“Heeeey, Johnny!” they said, as they shook his hand and nodded to Phil and me.

We sat inside, I bought some beers and we sat and talked about the Labour movement in the UK. Things were really looking up. He was certainly a character and I was eager to talk on camera. He knew his stuff and was potentially a great source of material.

Eventually, we made our way up to his apartment on the 14th floor. The apartment was tiny, maybe 20×10 feet for the whole thing – front to back. As I expected, it was full of books, but I didn’t expect the bizarre paraphernalia. Crucifixes, seemingly random photos cut out of magazines and blu-tacked about the place, a photo of the Beatles on the bathroom wall and an H&M bikini poster on the inside of the bathroom door.

The interview went well but he was, in some ways, hard to talk to. He was a friendly and open man, but I struggled slightly. He had been a communist party activist in the UK before moving to the DDR in the seventies. In his time in the DDR, he’d primarily been a university lecturer but also Stasi agent for almost exactly ten years. I wasn’t there to make him accountable for his work for the Stasi, or the work of the Stasi full stop. Even so, I had to ask and wanted to know what his thoughts were. However, I want the film to be a series of personal accounts and recollections, i.e. without judgment. Even so, I’m not sure how well I balanced some of these intentions.

After about an hour and a half he happily posed for some photos and offered to introduce us to his ex-wife. Both Phil and I got the impression that she was only round the corner but it took us about half an hour to get there (not including the stop for a quick beer in another dodgy looking bar just opposite the Chinese embassy. We finally arrived at the right apartment block (after Johnny pointed out the Croatian embassy and a seedy looking strip joint en route) and were greeted by his ex-wife, her current boyfriend, her mother and a plate of Russian food.

At the time of the collapse of the DDR, Johnny’s ex-wife was a loyal citizen studying Marxism and Leninism. She was preparing for a life in East German academia but quickly discovered that there was no place for her in a reunified German university. Since the early nineties she had put her considerable language skills to use as a community/social worker offering advice to various immigrant communities.

We attempted an interview with her but there were so many interruptions and disturbances I don’t think we got anything usable. Most of our time there was spent wondering what we’d let ourselves in for. It may sound unkind given their hospitality but it was a relief when we eventually got away.

We then went for a stroll to compose ourselves and re-gather our purpose. Strictly speaking, we’d spent too much time on just one interview. I was essentially happy with it but it was a big chunk of the day with just one interview to show for it.

We went for a drink near Wollendorf Platz bahnhof. It was easily recognisable as a gay area. We stopped at a bar, did some cutaways, a few bits to camera and set off back to Kreuzberg.

We grabbed something at the Vietnamese shack, did some bits to camera and phoned Stefan Eix. Phil suggested a set up of the phone call on camera. He had a pretend call in mind followed by a piece to camera to explain the plans for the following day. Between us we made a terrible hash of these scenes. On the bright side, we did manage to get some of the funniest out-takes of the trip so far.

We then went back to Henning’s. He was in a great mood. We showed him our out-takes and drank some red wine. At about 1am we called it a day and went to bed. Knackered.

The day had been testing and tiring. I felt like we’d been blown off course slightly. The project was still shipshape and watertight, but I wanted to make sure that Sunday would be a chance to make up for lost time.

I couldn’t put my finger on what Stefan Eix could add to the repertoire of interviews. But from the moment I’d spoken to him on Skype, I set aside some time to see him. He was the first Berliner I’d spoken to about the whole project and he was so supportive and encouraging. We ended up talking until about 1am. I felt sure he would add a great ingredient to the mix. Things had been getting quite specifically political and that wasn’t what I wanted or originally planned. I hope my confidence in Stefan will be justified. As time progresses I’m becoming a little more anxious about whether I’m getting what I need to make an end result.

We’ll have to wait and see but essentially I’m making things up as I go along. It isn’t very professional but it’s all valid stuff. One of the points of the project is for me to travel along the filmmaking learning curve. However, the main thing was to make something worth all this effort. Something I can actually show as an end product.