East Germans hail westerner's Wall film

Steve Crawshaw watches the people of Dresden enthuse over an outsider's story of separation during the Cold War
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The most obvious reaction from the audience in the packed Schauburg cinema in Dresden was surprise. Surprise that an outsider had produced a recognisable version of their lives. And surprise that, although this was a west German film, there was little attempt to judge.

On the face of it, there is nothing very unusual about The Promise, a love story across the Wall. The film begins in 1961, as the Wall goes up; it ends in November 1989, as the Wall breaks open. A story of separation, sadness and what-might-have-beens. It begins when a group of East Berlin schoolfriends slip from a dance floor and escape through the sewers into West Berlin. One friend fails to get down the manhole in time and is stranded. What follows is the story of two lives: Sophie, who makes a new life in the West, and Konrad, who stays behind. They meet again, three times in 20 years; a child is born. Separately, a few miles and a world apart, they move into adulthood and disconsolate middle age. Their son, now 20, brings them together again, as the Wall falls.

In some respects this is a Mills & Boonish story, with moments of cloying sentimentality and throbbing musical crescendoes. "Lots of pathos, lots of violins, and no humour," was how one reviewer summed it up. But the Dresden audience - this was the first public showing of the film - reacted to one aspect of the film above all. Again and again they praised the fact that the director, Margarethe von Trotta, avoided portraying East German life in purely black-and-white terms. Konrad, the hero, fails to defect - partly because his luck runs out at crucial moments. But, as importantly, he backs away from the momentous decision. As a successful scientist, he is wary of throwing away all that he has gained. He is constantly forced, too, to make choices and compromises, because of the whispered devilry of the Stasi ("a signature for a son", as the Stasi man sums up one of their Faustian deals). Eventually, he frees himself from the life of half-lies but only at the cost of his job and by losing all the modest comforts he had previously enjoyed.

During the film, the audience's loudest reaction was a guffaw when the uplifting slogan "The GDR - a leading industrial state", appeared on a passing tram.

But it was the dilemmas that were most commented on in a discussion with Ms von Trotta afterwards. She admitted to being nervous about how the Dresdeners would react. When the response was positive, she was almost gushingly grateful. "You didn't have personal experience, you didn't know from your guts what East German life was like, as we did. So how did you manage?" asked one. A woman in her fifties said she identified with the phrase of Konrad's professor: "I love this Scheissland, this shit of a country." Few, probably, of the mostly younger audience shared that declared love. But they too identified with Konrad's emotions and with the sense of torn identity expressed by Sophie.

When a Czech describes her, seven years after moving to West Berlin, as being "from the West", she is quick to put him right: "I live in the West." Part of her remained an East Berliner, even when she became a West Berliner.

Despite the friendly response of the Dresden audience, not all have been so satisfied. There were some boos at the Berlin critics' premire. Corinna Harfouch, the leading east German actress who plays Sophie, has sharply criticised the film. "I cannot recognise my own country ... This hard tone to the conversations, these gloomy pictures. We didn't just have autumn and winter, we had spring and summer, too. There were days on which we didn't have problems with the Stasi."

Harfouch now argues that it is perhaps "still too early" to make a film like The Promise, let alone a unity film. "One would need to have a completely cold and emotionless view of the Wall years."