Some films are so of their time that they almost make no sense otherwise. Whether
intentionally topical or coincidentally specific, they are locked to a particular era
that viewing after the fact is instant nostalgia. When I first started watching The
Architects I somehow missed the release date. The cinematography is sophisticated,
the wardrobe fairly modern, and the subtitled dialog largely personal. But something
seemed odd. There were references to The Party and other dated structures. I checked the box (something I try to avoid,
thanks to studios' love of adding spoilers to packaging materials) and discovered
something fascinating and key to understanding the film. The Architects, which
is very much about the clash of ideas and philosophies of the post-war East German
Communist structure and the upstart, progressive movement of creative young
professionals looking beyond the Berlin wall for inspiration, was filmed right on the
cusp of the liberation of East Germany. What started as a sly statement on the stale
nature of Communist thinking transformed into a bold vision of the future.
The story involves a young architect named Daniel (deep-eyed Kurt Naumann) whose life
stagnates, both creatively and personally, while he sits in the hinterlands designing
unexciting projects. Once a protege of the academy, he has yet to see a serious building
of his actually go into construction. When the Party decides to add a mixed-use space
to a bland housing project, they give Daniel a shot. He accepts under the condition
that he be allowed to hire whomever he wants, regardless of Party insider status. He
assembles what must be his band of cohorts from his school days (the film is a little
vague on this point) and gets to work. The team consists of idealistic architects who
want to smash the norm and design a space that will be a living work of art, that will link
the various activities of the occupants in a progressive way, including adding
environmentally correct details and politically charged sculpture.
While this A-Team of theoretical architects plans to sneak their ideas past the
approval board of the Party, Daniel's personal life falls apart. As long as he was
miserable his wife Wanda (Rita Feldmeier) had a partner in her own misery. Once Daniel
finds inspiration in his work, however, she becomes more lonely than ever. They drift
apart as Daniel becomes closer to his co-workers.
The 97 minute film doesn't develop much more plot than this. There are struggles with
the approval process (Daniel's efforts to win over one particularly influential bean
counter are pretty interesting) as well as in Daniel's private life, but the film
doesn't really reach much of a boil. Other than the flawed but sympathetic Daniel and
the bitter Wanda, we don't really get a chance to know many of the characters. And the
highbrow ideas about architecture espoused by many of the characters may get lost on
viewers who don't know a flying buttress from a hole in the ground. The most
interesting thing about the movie (which is never boring) is the unique glimpse it
offers into a society in the process of crumbling and becoming reborn as something
entirely new. The film doesn't put any sort of finality on the reunification process:
From its vantage point mid-change it can't. Rather, it catches one of the worlds
great nations going through serious growing pains.
The anamorphic widescreen video is grainy but very cinematic. As I mentioned earlier, I
didn't realize at first that this was a 15 year old film. The transfer is crisp and the
images are distinct, if somewhat desaturated, which may be the style the director was
The Dolby Digital Mono audio is fine, if unspectacular. The simple, repetitive score is quietly effective. Voices are clear, although
obviously I relied more on the English subtitles for the dialog than the voices
themselves. Subtitles are also available in German, French and Spanish.
The list of extras is fairly long, although some (like essays and interviews presented as text on the screen and a collection of audio interviews in German with no subtitles) may be of limited interest. There are two pieces that give background on the film: A short film called "A Regular DEFA Film?" (15 minutes) that intercuts clips from the film with an interview with director Peter Kahane and an additional interview with the director (30 minutes). These pieces help illuminate some of the social circumstances surrounding the film a little bit. Kahane is an eloquent speaker (the interviews are subtitled in English) and getting some insight into the frustrations of making films under the post-war East German regime is useful. Watching both pieces is probably a lot more Kahane than most viewers will want, but it's good to have a little extra backstory on this particular release.
There are also photo galleries, filmographies, and a gallery of set design sketches (which seems particularly appropriate for this spare production.)
Not gripping filmmaking by any means, The Architects shows how internal struggles can reflect greater social struggles of our times. The world has changed a lot since the film was made and it would be interesting to catch up with these characters living in today's Germany. Their malaise sprang very much from the sense of enclosure in their shut-down society and you can't help but wonder how today's freedom would affect their lives and their work.