In 2018 I was on the road for our film SEESTÜCK’s Premiere tour. After the screening in Rostock, I was gifted a book containing accounts and narratives on the Baltic Sea over two millennia. One of the texts was an excerpt from Uwe Johnson’s novel cycle “Anniversaries: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl”; it describes the sinking on 3 May 1945 of the former luxury liner Cap Arcona in the Bay of Lübeck, resulting in the deaths of thousands of internees from the Neuengamme concentration camp, shortly before the war’s end.
Reencountering the writer Uwe Johnson was a remarkable thing for me: it seemed like here, a survivor of war was seeking to write in order to not forget. But then present-day 2018 was marked by historical amnesia, the hopes of the (apparently) post-Cold-War ‘90s for more peaceful world having long since vanished. There had been war in Chechnya and Georgia; Russia had recently annexed Crimea. In the novel, just a few pages prior to Uwe Johnson’s report on Cap Arcona, there appears a conversation from 5 May 1968 between Gesine Cressphal and her daughter Marie, with the two discussing whether Soviet tanks—as had happened in Budapest in 1956—would move into Prague or simply carry out training manoeuvres. I was stuck by how relevant the mode of questioning remained.
The north and east of Germany have always been affected with particular force by the devastation of war and partition [...] it has been thus since the Thirty Years’ War, “Knight, Death and the Devil”, right up until the aftereffects of the Second World War.
Thus began my rediscovery of Uwe Johnson. I noted that I had already seen many of the locations that appear in his work. I was, of course, also moved by a particular biographical similarity I share with the author. I was born close to the Baltic Sea. My mother—with me and my three sisters in tow—fled from Stettin (Polish: Szczecin) to Broda, close to Neubrandenburg; my regular visits to the village during the school holidays begin in 1950. Women refugees were still living there and would gather at the pump to yak about the end of the war. I later spent a few years of my childhood in Greifswald, close to the harbour. I remember the adults talking about the wartime bombing of Swinemünde (Polish: Świnoujście) and the escape from Stettin. Consequences of war. People would later travel to the Baltic Sea for summer holidays.
Thus began my increasing closeness to the substance of Johnson’s work. His relationships to the landscapes of his Pomerianian and Mecklenburg homeland, his examination and reprocessing of the post-war period, his “leaving and staying”. Filming in many of those landscapes, I often found that many of the people I met in the villages had only become natives after 1945. In my films, I have invariably highlighted how the north and east of Germany have always been affected with particular force by the devastation of war and partition, often laid entirely to waste; it has been thus since the Thirty Years’ War, “Knight, Death and the Devil”, up until the aftereffects of the Second World War last century. My affinity to Johnson’s world grew, became ever more multifaceted; which is why, struck by the poetic force of his texts, I wanted to make this film.
Filming was repeatedly interrupted by the pandemic. The events of 2020 to 2023 suddenly became closely bound up with the work of Johnson. The shattered hopes of women in Belarus and the announcement of Russian manoeuvres. Finally, on 24 February 2022, the rollout of Russia's invasion across the whole of Ukraine. Now, in early 2023, it seems as if there has never been a war’s end.
Translation: Matthew James Scown