Alienated in Germany

details place/state: Lower Saxony INSTITUTION: Project Group Bad Iburg AUTHOR: Helmut Spiering age group: 16 years and older subject: Crosscurricular study group learning activities Composing music Creating a shooting script Encountering eyewitnesses Linking past and present Producing a film topics Antisemitism Attitudes toward foreigners Berlin Wall Combatting violence and racism today Discrimination Hitler Youth Xenophobia

Students from Bad Iburg produced "Being Foreign," a film about the experience of foreigners in Germany since 1900. Over a three-year period, the students conducted historical research, interviewed eyewitnesses, wrote a screenplay and musical score, and learned about acting. Finally, they made the film with the help of professional pro-ducers. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1995 and has been shown nationwide.


The film "Alienated in Germany" portrays "being foreign" throughout a course of German history, starting in the 1920s and continuing to the present. The film is the re-sult of three years of work by a group of young people from Bad Iburg and their proj-ect adviser, Helmut Spiering. Comprehensive research on the historical background and interviews with people who lived through the relevant period of time formed part of the necessary preparatory work. In workshops, the students learned about acting and film-related skills. They themselves wrote the script and the music for the film. Finally, the film was completed in cooperation with professional film producers and had its first showing at the International Film Festival in Berlin in 1995. In the same year, it was awarded the "Otto-Sprengler-Prize" at the Hamburg Film Festival. The Ministry for Education in Lower Saxony awarded this project the "Student Peace Award for outstanding initiatives and projects extending the school's achievements in the fields of peaceful coexistence, international understanding, and dismantling of prejudices and preventing violence".

A complementary book on the youth film project is available. It contains detailed in-formation on the project's evolution, as well as suggestions and further material for experienced teachers and teachers in training who might be interested in enlarging upon the topic in their classes [see Reference: Bibliography].


What do young people really want? Why are they so eager to interview eyewitnesses and to find out "in play" (in this case, by means of a film) what the situation is like within our society and what comprises society's attitude towards foreigners? Several features characterize this remarkable enthusiasm. First, there is an exceptionally curi-ous look at our country, which has at present no choice but to rethink and redefine ist relation to foreigners in view of inhuman and intolerant actions. In this respect, the film is the young people's search and struggle for political understanding. Furthermore, it is remarkable that the students do not exclusively focus on the present. Their research is directed to the past and reveals distressing analogies between the present and the past.

Moreover, the encounter with the concept of "the foreign," which has been translated into film language, opens up another point of view that should receive explicit recog-nition: "To be foreign in Germany" does not only refer to people from abroad living in Germany. The overall perspective of the film illustrates that even Germans have expe-rienced amongst themselves what it means to feel alien.

The site of the drama and action is Berlin, a city that the young people have gotten to know during many visits as the pivotal point between Germany's past and present and which, after unification, has had to determine anew its role as the new old capital. Berlin stands for the past, history and fateful facts interlinked by a trail of blood, with remembrances of events in November 1918, January 1933, May 1945, August 1961, November 1989. Berlin, as the political linchpin of the future, has captured the stu-dents' fascination. To them, the site is like a looking glass to the past and, likewise, gives them a sensation of the future's new quality.

The film attempts to approach this issue at three levels: documentary material serves as an introduction to the historical events of past or present; this is followed by interviews with eyewitnesses; and, finally, in film scenes written by the young people themselves, they act out their interpretation of different aspects of "being foreign."

1. Documentary Material

Included in the documentary material is information on the "Golden Twenties" in Ber-.lin, soup kitchens, women removing ruins and rubble, "wall-builders," the joyful dances on top of the wall when it was opened, marching parades by the new right-wing extremists, and the protest in the German Democratic Republic that started out from the Gethsemane Church. The material has been carefully selected and becomes even more vivid with the help of eyewitness reports.

2. Eyewitnesses

The young people obtain their knowledge by questioning interviewees who have lived through the relevant period of time.

"Were the 1920s really all that golden?"
The answer comes from Wolfgang Stresemann, the son of Gustav Stresemann, Chancellor of the Reich.

"How did you deal with unemployment?"
The sculptor Rudolf Heltzel draws on his recollections.

" Being a Jew, who helped you in your hiding place?"
Gad Beck replies.

"Why did the border guards not simply miss their targets deliberately?"
Rainer Hildebrandt, whose life's work was the Berlin Wall Museum (House at Checkpoint Charlie), gives his interpretation of the occurrences at the border be-tween East and West Germany.

"Was there hostility against foreigners in the GDR?"
The response comes from Günter Schabowski, a former leading Socialist Unity Party member, who in 1989 read the announcement of the opening of the Berlin Wall.

"Where did the GDR-opposition meet?"
Ulrike Poppe, former GDR member of the opposition group "Peace and Human Rights Initiative," shows where bugging devices would be hidden on the ceiling.

"To many people, hostility against foreigners is a threat in Germany. What do you think about that?"
Artur ("Atze") Brauner, who experienced the German occupation of Poland and the murderous persecution of the Jews, calls upon young people with positive attitudes and democratic ideas to stand up against it.

"Can Germany's common history with the Soviet Union, laden with sorrow and varied experiences, be overcome now?"
Lew Kopelew, who in the 60s and 70s belonged to the most important representa-tives of the opposition in the early Soviet Union, gives his answer. In a warning and exhorting tone that is at the same time soothing and wise, he replies, "It is about time not only to live next to each other in peace and non-violence, but to live to-gether and with one another in a diligent and fruitful way!"

3. The Film Scenes

A news show of trivial content is the point of departure for a scene in which news dealers of different political hues alter "information" to serve their respective political aims. Somebody expresses doubts about the existence of distinguishing features of the "Jewish ear" and is beaten up by his classmates who are strict followers of Adolf Hitler. Someone else walks over dead bodies to flee from Dresden to Berlin and finds shelter. A young university student has dreams of traveling to the West and runs up against walls. A group of young people wants to take some clothes to the asylum-seekers' dormitory and is prevented from doing so by some brutal neo-Nazis. Two up-rooted young people, one from the East and the other from the West, illustrate the gap that exists between the Germans as a whole.

At the end of the film, the young filmmakers do not tie themselves down in their future outlook; they develop two alternatives. The negative option consists of radicals in uniform wanting to set up another wall in order to protect the "cleansed" state against the "foreign mob." The positive version promotes the idea of solidarity, succor and rapprochement.

Overall, the film depicts the most outstanding aspects of recent German history since the 1920s, showing "us" versus "the other" and thus conveying what could be called "defining one's identity."


The result is a film that does not claim to be a complete record of recent German history. The film does not offer a once-and-for-all solution. However, from a humane point of view, it provides alternatives for peaceful coexistence in a spirit of tolerance. Throughout this project, the students did not want to provide ready-made solutions; rather, they wanted to raise questions and cause their audience to sit back and think. In any case, they wanted to make clear that "not all people in Germany applaud when the homes of asylum seekers are set on fire" [see Audio/Video].


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