Screened as part of CPH:DOX 2014

This year, the CPH:DOX festival staged a grander gala opening than ever before. Celebrating 25 years since the Berlin wall fell, and having chosen the new film 1989, from Erzsébet Rácz and former Oscar-nominee Anders Østergaard, which deals with exactly this event, as the opening film, the festival went all out on the idea of documentary film facilitating important discussions, with an opening talk by American EU Advisor Jeremy Rifkin, a filmed hello by the President of the European Council Martin Schulz, followed by post-film discussions with former Hungarian prime minister Miklós Németh and a panel discussion with former Danish prime minister and former president of the European SocialDemocrats Poul Nyrup Rasmussen and former Danish climate minister Lykke Friis. And as if that wasn’t grand enough, the whole thing was live-streamed to 57 cities all over Europe. It was an almost insanely grand experience, an unforgettable moment was Mr Németh walking to his seat as the films credits rolled, but then staying standing up in the darkness since the credits music was the Hungarian national anthem. After the film, the whole room gave the former prime minister, who in 1989 played a small but pivotal role in ending the cold war, a standing ovation; what happened in the 56 other cities was of course impossible to know, but it felt like a pretty big moment in Copenhagen at least for the opening to a film festival.

The film feels very grand as well. A great documentary film needs a great narrative or some great visuals, or perhaps even both. Anders Østergaard has been known to invent both if he needs to. For his 2003 film Tintin and I, he had a set of revealing interviews with Hergé, the inventor of Tintin, and made it come to live through animations of Hergé fitting with the audio, and recreations of panels from the comic books as 3-dimensional panoramas. In his Oscar-nominated Burma Vjs from 2008, he had amazing clandestine footage from the Burma uprising in 2007, and fit it all into a story about one Visual Jockey having to follow the uprising from exile in Thailand. Well, 1989 is his most daring creation yet. The story of what happened in 1989 has been told many times, but Østergaard and Rácz find a new way of telling it through the interrelated stories of Miklós Németh, the Hungarian prime minister who opened the border between Hungary and Austria, tearing the first hole in the Iron Curtain, and Kurt-Werner Schultz, the last man killed on the border between east and west. Even more daring, Østergaard and Rácz patch the film together mainly from archival footage of the famous politicians, with actors speaking dialogue to fit the mouth movements, and sometimes intercut with actors playing secretaries, advisors, etc. At times, it feels like the animated segments from Tintin and I, or an animated documentary like Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10. At other times, the film almost turns into montage essays on the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 or spring military parades in Eastern Germany, complete with Carmina Burana blearing on the soundtrack. For a viewer not attuned to what the film is doing, I can imagine it will seem laughable. For anybody able to go with the flow, it’s an experience unlike most other. Then you’ll see a stunned Gorbatjov having to find his glasses after Helmuth Kohl calls to tell him the borders between east and west will be opened, and a befuddled Ceausescu being cut down to size by Gorbatjov at the Bucharest meeting in July 1989. You have never seen this before, for the simple reason that such footage does not exist. But seeing it anyway, through the skilled manipulations of the documentary crew, makes history come to live in a way rarely seen. And once the now well known end arrives, and the people of Berlin are dancing on top of the wall that insane night in November 1989, it all is very powerful. You probably won’t get to see Miklós Németh standing in the dark while the credits roll, but it’ll probably be a satisfactory ending nonetheless.

CategoriesIssue 7
Frederik Bove

Frederik has studied History and Cultural Studies at University of Copenhagen and University of California San Diego. He is currently working for Copenhagen Architecture Festival x FILM.