First Run Features has scored big with another absorbing East German import. This eye-opening 1990 critique of conditions under the socialist regime was made just as the Berlin Wall fell. The film is a credible look at East German conditions made without regard to party policy. It was daring to criticize a political system that buried youthful innovation under bureaucratic obstinancy. The worker's paradise seems dedicated to stifling progress and thwarting the dreams of its young professionals. Few DDR movies acknowledged the existence of emigration as a strong theme in East Germany; in The Architects it's happening all over the place.
The design process forms a new professional family for Brenner while his own wife Wanda (Rita Feldmeier) is stifled by the lack of excitement in her life; she soon announces plans to leave Daniel for an old beau in Switzerland, taking their young daughter Johanna. Crestfallen, Daniel doesn't have job satisfaction to comfort him - opposition from party politicians, factories and economists first cripple the team's innovative design, and then threaten to abolish it altogether. The powers that be talk about progress and new ideas but seem to crush any individual plan that shakes the status quo.
The Architects shows one of America's former so-called enemies as ordinary people with the same ambitions (selfish and altruistic) that we have. Filmmakers Peter Kahane and Thomas Knauf started their film when its very personal theme was completely against government policy. As it turned out, their document of the soul-crushing constraints of a centralized society was deemed irrelevant when Germany suddenly re-unified right in the middle of filming. Only by understanding this context can one appreciate the film's spiritual courage. The few glimpes of East Germany Americans have seen have been politically loaded shows concentrating on desperate 'flights to freedom,' and cynically flippant comedies like Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three. 1
The film presents a drama that anyone can appreciate. A trained architect ready to concede that he'll never be allowed to practice his profession is given a great opportunity, for which he eventually sacrifices his family and a large part of his self-respect. He assembles a group of talented associates and has to watch as their dreams are torn apart. The film's intelligently provocative attitude can be judged in an early scene where one of Daniel's bosses expresses misgivings about employing female architects -- He doubts that they can keep their professional priorities ahead of their biological lives. "It's easy" retorts one rebellious woman, reaching in her pocket and presenting him with a condom. She gets the same cold reaction that Daniel gets when he declines an invitation to join the Communist Party.
Daniel Brenner is the golden boy until his team's plans run into opposition. Their modest innovations are treated like social heresy. Bean-counting auditors condemn any attempt to abandon standard prefab components, and things like glass ceilings are jettisoned because factories have no incentive to re-tool. Handsome designs that citizens could be proud of are tossed out in favor of dull multi-use anonymity. In essence, bureaucratic priorities nullify the efforts of young professionals to express themselves or create anything of value. Bureaucrats and party wags lecture the group on their lack of social sensitivity, and then call emigrants who want out of the dead-end country disloyal defectors.
The Architects is a great alternative to the gross oversimplification of (the movie version) of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and its idea that superior minds should never compromise. Daniel's mentor looks out over a section of East Berlin rebuilt in the 1950s, when reconstruction fervor was strong and says that every building represents compromise and is an expression of the political power that built it. Daniel's proper path is not to quit but to stay in the game and keep fighting for whatever innovations he can force through the system. The idea of blowing up a building out of principle (as Gary Cooper does in The Fountainhead) is not only irresponsible, it's infantile.
The film works because Daniel's personal story is so well dramatized. The breakup of his marriage is a realistic account of what really happens when a frustrated wife gives up and announces she's leaving. She's not content to be a hausfrau, and there are just no opportunities for her in Berlin. The acting is excellent all around, with Kurt Naumann making a likeable leading player that we sympathize with from the first scene onward.
Thomas Knauf's script goes from one unpredictable event to another. A heartless supervisor suddenly becomes a political ally. Unseen maneuvers cause Brenner's project to be acclaimed, rejected and then accepted again with little rhyme or reason. Brenner can't get decent construction materials for his civic housing projects, while a friend restoring old buildings for upscale clients can get anything, even exotic things like alabaster plaster.
The Architects remains complex right through its conclusion. Daniel's decision to compromise results in a 'successful' project in which he has no pride. It looks as though he has a ready partner eager to give him a new family, but he'd much rather have his old one back again. His associates have quit or are emigrating. Daniel wins a promotion to department head, but is now part of the system he despises. He's lost his family for this? The movie ends with Daniel straining to see a glimpse of his daughter across the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate.
First Run Features' DVD release of The Architects will be a consciousness-expanding experience: Conservatives will be able to see that our Cold War foes were not brainwashed pod people, while liberals might take heed to note that political oppression in the Eastern Block was a rot that permeated every facet of living and routine of daily life. State-run mediocrity did little to stem ingrained prejudice and inequities.
The attractive enhanced transfer is from a spotless element, and the clear track flatters Tamás Kahane's versatile score. As with other DEFA-prepared discs there are different menu choices for each of four language paths: German, French, English and Spanish. The extras are text essays and live-action coverage on the filmmakers and the historical significance of the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Architects rates:
1. The Architects
invites comparison to the USA film The Hunt for Red October, a Cold War thriller which was
also in production just as the Berlin Wall came down. Paramount's investment was never at
risk; a simple title was used to place the film's action a few years earlier. The gesture was hardly
necessary. After forty-five years of constant propaganda, American audiences still considered the
Eastern Bloc to be enemies, even if they were no longer Communists.