"Are you all from Anklam?"
"Yes, for now."
"Where could you go?"
"Depends on what you're looking for."
This is roughly how a snippet of conversation held by director Volker Koepp goes with a group of young punks at the water's edge of the Peene in Anklam, relatively early on in the film GEHEN UND BLEIBEN (Leaving and Staying). Sitting there, very cool with their backs to the camera, it is hard to catch every word. But it is enough to set the framework for a film that later revolves in more detail around the themes of home, leaving, fleeing, and homesickness. This brief exchange by the river is also one of the few moments in the film that is entirely rooted in the present.
"Uwe Johnson German Author Lived Here 1974 – 1984."
So says a sober plaque at No. 26, a terraced house on the Sheerness seafront of the British Isle of Sheppey seen at both the beginning and end of the film in two long pans across the water. The film uses this writer as its subject and medium, to cast an interested gaze on the landscapes and people of Mecklenburg, their actions, and their emotions. Born in Cammin in Pomerania in 1934, Johnson also grew up here: Anklam, Recknitz and Güstrow mark the stations of his youth and are each visited in the film. On 10 July 1959, Johnson travelled by suburban train from East Berlin to West Berlin for good, and later on from there to New York's Riverside, before heading east again to the southern English coast. Outside his house there, in the grey-green waters of the Thames estuary, three masts of the US cargo ship SS Richard Montgomery, which sank in 1944 loaded with 1400 tonnes of TNT, rise obliquely out of the floodwaters.
"My brother's stayed on there where they're now fighting".
In Anklam this is Fritz Rost's answer to Koepp's question about the "war going on now". He has lived his whole life in a village twelve kilometres away and has lost two brothers in the war. For too long people thought it was far away and none of their business. He leans his crutch against the fountain in the town square while appearing in front of Uwe Mann's camera. The off-screen commentary spoken by Koepp and written by screenwriter Barbara Frankenstein at the beginning of GEHEN UND BLEIBEN uses a quote from Johnson's series of novels and main work "Anniversaries. From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl" to link the invasion of Soviet troops into Hungary in 1956 with the present day. And gives us an inkling how the Russian attack on Ukraine, half a lifetime after the end of the GDR, has once again marked the beginning of a new era for these filmmakers: "In the present, all the hopes of the 1990s for a more peaceful world have evaporated. In 2020, we began our journey with texts by Uwe Johnson on our paths into his landscapes, to places and people. The pandemic caused repeated interruptions in filming. Meaning it spilled over beyond 24 February 2022, the day Russia spilled over its war against Ukraine into the whole country."
"As we walked by the sea we ended up in the water. Clattering gravel around our ankles. We held one another's hands: a child; a man on his way to the place where the dead are, and she, the child that I was."
This is the oft-cited, oscillating last sentence of the fourth and final volume of "Anniversaries". It was published in 1983 after a long involuntary break from writing, and its narrative ends on 20 August 1968, parallel to the violent suppression of the Prague Spring. The lake and beach in the novel are located in the Danish town of Klampenborg near Copenhagen. In the film, this passage features twice as audio, also towards the end: Once it is read aloud by the young Johnson-savvy translator and author Judith Zander on a platform at Anklam station, where it segues into an announcement about the delay of the regional train to Stralsund. The second time, about ten minutes later, it is spoken by the voice of Uwe Johnson himself off-screen to the growing sound of waves, while the film makes a final slow pan from pines and dunes to the right to the waters on the sandy beach of (what is presumably) Mecklenburg.
"Memory the Cat"
This is a linguistic motif – also later used for the title of the work "Chronik von Bildern und Texten" (Chronicle of Images and Texts) published by Suhrkamp in 1994 – from Johnson's only poem that is inserted as text in the film. In the frame we also see cats repeatedly scurrying by the lens of Uwe Mann's camera. But how it was possible to get a beautiful grey-black-and-white tabby at Sheppey Island Cemetery to choose, from all the directions available, the path over Johnson's red gravestone embedded in the ground, is a question that will hopefully be answered by the cameraman or director in one of the upcoming film discussions.
Silvia Hallensleben lives in Bonn and Berlin and writes for various media, mainly on non-fiction film.
Translation: Claire Cahm