This is the moment when the main protagonist in the East German film The Architects says goodbye to his wife and daughter who received permission to escape to the West. In the background you see a sign that says ‘Ausreise’, or ‘Emigration’, a word so rarely applicable to the citizens of the closed-off German Democratic Republic. As the director Peter Kahane has explained in an interview, filming the scene was fraught with difficulties because as The Architects was produced in 1989, the borders between East and West Germany were in themselves evaporating. The bizarre encounter between fictional and real events in The Architects is best encapsulated in the moment the daughter leaves her father behind, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands East Germans escape to the West in actuality. The painful breakup of the family becomes the reminder of the traumatic breakup of the Germanies more than four decades earlier.
Director Peter Kahane in interview.
The central plot of the film focuses on the planning of a large housing estate on the outskirts of East Berlin by a young team of idealistic architects. The architects’ disillusionment with the construction of the housing estate can be read as a critique against the repressive state apparatus. The state’s constant meddling with the architects’ plans for the estate therefore becomes a metaphor for the lack of civil liberties in the German Democratic Republic. Considering that The Architects was granted full financial support from the East German funding body for propaganda films (DEFA) as early as 1988, the film is not only surprisingly critical towards the communist regime, but the support of the film itself signifies the collapse of an ideology even in institutions considered loyal to the regime.
The filming for The Architects began in earnest in September 1989, just as the border between East and West Germany began to erode. The constant flow of people to West Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989 even threatened the very production of The Architects itself, as the director Peter Kahane feared for losing his production team. Far from merely depicting the dissolution of ideological and geographic borders, The Architects is in itself an active constituent of this collapse in its own right. While it might not be the End of History as postulated by Francis Fukuyama, The Architects does nevertheless cinematically mark the end of a particularly autocratic and stifling version of communism in East Germany. It would become one of the last films ever funded by DEFA, also marking the end of nearly 40 years of propaganda films and visual culture produced for the indoctrination of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic. One of the ironies of The Architects is that as the political events of 1989 unfolded so rapidly, by the time the film came out in spring 1990, the history it depicted was already buried in the past. The Architects, caught up in the collapse of the regime it sought to critique, would eventually flop in the deserted cinemas of a united Germany.
This blog post is an abbreviated version of an extended book chapter titled ‘The Collapse of Ideology in Peter Kahane’s The Architects‘ to be published in the forthcoming collection Frontiers of Screen History: Imagining European Borders in Cinema, 1945-2010 edited by Raita Merivirta, Heta Mulari, Kimmo Ahonen and Rami Mahka.