25 January 2009 | pfv-1
An outstanding film with a highly authentic milieu
An die Grenze manages to escape much of the "Ostalgie" (longing back for East Germany) one finds in so many films about the former DDR. It traces the story of an idealistic young border guard who wants to escape the privileges which his academic father's position affords him. Much of the plot might be unlikely in practice; for example, the romantic interest. I am sure, in addition, that ex-NVA conscripts might find any number of mistakes or anachronisms. I spotted one; that the soles of the boots of a soldier with more than a year's service were absolutely brand new (though the boots were undoubtedly of authentic East German issue).
Apart from such quibbles, if you are looking for a film which recreates the life of a conscript in the NVA (Nationale Volksarmee), this film goes a long way towards fulfilling that need. The brutal regime of EK's (Entlassungskandidate), soldiers in their final 6 months of service, some of the authentic initiation "games" they used on the "Sprutze" (rookies), the political lectures, the general atmosphere and character of an East German barracks; all of this is well represented.
So, too, is the wearying character of the border itself; the endless wire fences, the inspection roads, the great arc lights, the border guards patrolling two-by-two, making escape so much more difficult, the posting of guards by truck, the communications and procedures. The border is, in fact, almost a character in itself.
The film thus really does recreate the harsh and ugly reality of the German-German border, the unbearably dull life of the DDR. It also exposes the hollow propaganda lie of the border as a defense against the hostile West. I served in the South African Defence Force 1973-1975, the exact time in which this film is set. It was in many ways quite different from the NVA, its discipline perhaps even harsher. But in terms of this background, as well as knowledge of the NVA acquired in recent years, all my instincts incline me to accept this film as representative of its milieu. It has a "ring of authenticity" about it which is unmistakable to someone who has actually experienced military conscription.
In fairness to former NVA conscripts, mention should be made of another significant deviation from absolute reality. It is this; that while daily life as presented is representative of an ordinary NVA barracks, it does not represent that of the border guards as such. They in fact had no EKs, and in their barracks strict silence was kept, since their life was divided into three "beats"; sleeping, readiness for guard duty, and guard duty itself. The story thus conflates two separate realities into a totality which did not happen exactly as it is presented - but given this, the film still does present actuality.
Of the plot itself I will say nothing - it is well-constructed, and moves steadily and inexorably forwards towards its excellent and satisfying climax. The cruelties of the barracks are balanced against the intense humanity of its main characters. Performances are universally of a high standard, and the film is understated in the way one has come to expect of the German film industry. Jacob Matschentz, who plays his big role with great skill, manages to convey the development in the character of Soldat Alexander Karow subtly but clearly. He is rarely absent from the scene, but never becomes dull. The other, long-serving officers may be slightly caricatured, but none offends the progress of the plot. The direction maintains the atmosphere of fear and unease from beginning to end.
A highly recommended film to anyone who wants an experience of this harsh but forgotten era.