Review: Leaving and Staying
by Jan Lumholdt
- BERLINALE 2023: Volker Koepp has crafted a thoughtful and personal chronicle following in the footsteps of post-war German writer Uwe Johnson
The plural presence of post-war German author Uwe Johnson at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival is worth noting; in the competition section, he gets a hotel suite named in his honour in Christian Petzold’s Afire [+see also:
interview: Christian Petzold
film profile] (Petzold also named his film Jerichow [+see also:
interview: Christian Petzold
film profile] after Johnson’s favourite fictitious town); additionally, while not directly present in Margrethe von Trotta’s Ingeborg Bachman – Journey into the Desert [+see also:
interview: Margarethe von Trotta
film profile], he was part of the same writer’s group (Gruppe 47) as Bachmann. But the biggest Johnson in town undoubtedly dwells in the Forum section, where documentarian Volker Koepp’s extensive Leaving and Staying [+see also:
film profile] provides full exposure.
Which is not bad at all for a writer who has more or less slipped under the radar during the last few decades. In his day, Uwe Johnson made a name for himself with writings such as the four-volume Anniversaries novel, published between 1970 and 1983, as the editor of works by Berthold Brecht and Samuel Beckett, and as a translator of Herman Melville, to name just a few achievements. His background – being born in the Mecklenburg-Pomerania region of north-eastern Germany in 1934, growing up during World War II, honing his craft in the Cold War-era, 1950s GDR, leaving for West Berlin in 1959, and later making his home in New York and finally the little Isle of Sheppey in Southeast England – is a story in itself.
In Leaving and Staying, director and fellow Pomeranian Koepp takes his camera along in order to tell it, travelling to Johnson’s homelands, and seeking out various persons with either personal or regional connections to the author. In the town of Anklam, author Judith Zander, who grew up in the house opposite Johnson’s childhood home, reflects on her affectionate relationship with his literature. In Nossendorf, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg talks about the arrival of Russian soldiers in the area in 1945 and his subsequent westbound move (after which he became a big-name film director in his own right). In Goldberg, actor Peter Kurth speaks of roots and travelling, as do several others from the area, restricted by GDR confinement while still very attached to their places of origin. A farmer with no connection whatsoever to Johnson, but living his entire life in the region, shares his pragmatic stance on the war and its aftermath in a most colourful way.
Darlings like these are never killed by Koepp, who seems to go by gut feeling, often to worthwhile results. In the more urban surroundings, Leipzig-based theatre scholar Thomas Irmer and Berlin-based Brecht expert Erdmut Wizisla share their thoughts and knowledge on Johnson’s world. In the latter city, we also meet photographer Heinz Lehmbäcker and his wife, Hanna, who befriended and worked with Johnson. First and last, there’s director Koepp himself, a fellow Pomeranian and one-time GDR resident, whose personal presence is felt throughout. In his aim to tell of his own Germany and its times, he has found quite the perfect catalyst here.
Leaving and Staying was produced by Germany’s Vineta Film.
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