Comrade Couture

The history of the German Democratic Republic conjures up visions of conformism and oppression. Yet Marco Wilms’ documentary proves that avant-garde fashion was alive and kicking

Photographs by Sven Marquardt and Jürgen Hohmuth
In our fashion obsessed world in which extravagances à la Lady Gaga are not only championed but also sought after, it’s probably hard to believe that there was a time when individualism was considered as something dangerously subversive. Yet only a few decades ago in Eastern Europe, fashion was supposed to be functional, practical and collectively and uniformly standardised, reflecting in this way the main aims of the socialist state. Feeling repressed by the system and tired of conforming to the rules, a few East German citizens, inspired by the aesthetics of youth movements such as Punk and New Wave, started crafting their own clothes. Director Marco Wilms told their story through the interviews and archive material from the early 80s collected in his documentary “Ein Traum in Erdbeerfolie”  - Comrade Couture, released in Germany last year to coincide with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
 
A former model, Wilms pays homage in his film to a peculiar period of time in which creating an extravagantly outlandish outfit was a form of rebellion, a way to challenge the establishment. The title of the film literally translates as “A Dream in Strawberry Foil”, as designers and stylists used the most disparate materials to make their creations, from the plastic employed by farmers to cover strawberry fields to hospital bags used to hold organs, as costume and stage designer Sabine von Oettingen from the Chic, Charmant & Dauerhaft (Chic, Charming and Enduring – CCD) group explains in the documentary. There were no conventional catwalks, but fashion performances and rather peculiar shows held by CCD and later on by the Allerleirauh group, in rather unconventional places that included also churches. Monitored by East Germany’s secret police Stasi, non-conformists characters, such as stylist Frank Schäfer, expressed their individualism through their looks. The fall of the Berlin Wall brought the desired freedom, leaving behind the memories of those designers, stylists and models who had looked for a way out of repression through the flamboyant escapism of their own creations.

Dazed Digital: Comrade Couture has successfully been presented at various international film festivals, when you set to work on the documentary did you ever expect it would have been received so well?
Marco Wilms: You never know in advance how successful a film will be. First you need financing and, if you get it, that’s already success, since it allows you to start filming. Usually when I set on doing a film I think about how I can make it exciting, deeply meaningful and as clear and simple as possible. My main aim is to see the film out in the cinemas and that’s already enough for me, but I always start shooting with the hope that it will trigger a particular emotion. It was with this hope that I set to work on Comrade Couture.

DD: As a teenager you were labelled a “potential enemy of the state”, was it because of your individualism?
Marco Wilms: In the German Democratic Republic (GDR) the state wanted to control everything and create a new type of socialism. So if you had an individual style and stepped out of the line, you were a potential enemy. Each artist was per se a dangerous person and each individual action a danger for the system. It was more like a dictatorship of the mediocrity: they wanted to create the sort of peaceful atmosphere you’d find in a graveyard.

DD: What was the modelling community like then and what’s the best/worst memory you have of the time you were a model?
Marco Wilms: The fashion scene in East Berlin and the GDR was a place for creative people who wanted to escape from the daily routine of the system, for people who wanted to celebrate their lives with parties, art, literature, sex and so on. We wanted excess. The best memory I have was when we went out at the Leipziger Messe with the GDR designer suits, which was strictly forbidden, and then we went to restaurants and celebrated. It was like being in a movie and wearing costumes. The worst: my first fashion show, which you can see in the film. Nobody told me how to walk, so I just imitated the girls...

DD: In other interviews you often joked stating that the fall of East Germany ruined your modelling career: in which ways did it damage your future as a model?
Marco Wilms: It’s not a joke, in fact it did ruin my career. I was a model just because I wanted to be an artist and didn’t want the system to bother me. I was exactly the sort of model – an arty student type – the GDR designers wanted. But in the West, things were different: capitalism had settled down on SELLING clothes; socialism wanted to create a parallel universe, a kind of intellectual artistic dreamland.

DD: According to you which designers, stylists and artists interviewed in the documentary came up with the most vivid tale from those times and which ones managed through their own designs to summon up the thrill of freedom in those years?
Marco Wilms: You will have to watch the film and decide for yourself! I loved the way all of them bravely expressed their inner feelings and the fact they tried to free themselves. It was very universal. When you’re young you must find your very personal way to express yourself and often go against whatever surrounds you or against what society requires from you. As Frank Schäfer says in the film, “A tiger in a cage is much wilder than a tiger that is free to roam”.

DD: Specific political situations often influenced cultural products, from art and literature to architecture, interior design and fashion: do you feel that the story of the designers and stylists recounted in Comrade Couture can be compared to the story of other artists living in other situations who tried to turn fears into possibilities or do you feel their stories are somehow unique?
Marco Wilms: The circumstances in the GDR were unique. But the main story - the struggle between free individuals and society - is very universal and you can find this in all places all over the world and at all times, in fascism, for example. I guess that even nowadays the pressures ordinary consumers face are a big challenge, to find your way towards personal happiness and a meaningful life can be difficult even in today’s culture.

DD: Do you feel those artists and designers were trying to imagine a utopian future while expressing through their art the dystopian world in which they lived?
Marco Wilms: Yes, you can see it like that. It is very powerful to free yourself in that way. It’s a very personal criticism against society. It is nice to create and live in a fantasy world - if you don’t crash one day into the real world. This was possible in a small niche, because of the circumstances in the GDR. Today it’s impossible and that’s the big difference. Capitalism is much more perfectly spread and developed nowadays, it doesn’t leave that kind of space to people.

DD: Is there a director who inspired you or you looked at while shooting Comrade Couture?
Marco Wilms: I always get a lot of ideas sitting in the cinema and watching other good films. It puts me into a positive mood and allows me to go on my own trip for a couple of hours. For Comrade Couture, I watched Avi Mograbi’s films, Michel Gondry’s Dave Chapelle’s Block Party and DEFA films about the GDR.

DD: The shows chronicled in Comrade Couture were amazingly theatrical and took place in the most unusual places, chapels and living rooms included, which was the most bizarre place in your opinion?
Marco Wilms: The church! To make a Christmas play with S&M scenes would be impossible in the same church today. But at the time of the GDR churches where ideal places for the underground culture to develop, places where criticism against the system could be expressed.

DD: Apart from the plastic used to cover strawberry fields, designers employed different materials such as shower curtains and hospital bags: did you ever wear any particularly outlandish designs in those years and do you remember which materials were used to make them?
Marco Wilms: We were using a lot of “outlandish” materials for a simple reason: that was the only available material we had. We made bracelets from cake shovels, shoes out of reed baskets and breakdance suits out of bed sheets…

DD: Did you ever face imprisonment for something you wore?
Marco Wilms: I didn’t, but Frank and his friends were often arrested. Frank was not afraid of being arrested, he was thinking that it was a sort of cool resistance and made him sexy. The GDR law didn’t allow the police to put him in jail for a long time anyway, so they always had to release him after a few hours.

DD: Was it difficult to dig out the archive materials, footage and photos for the film and is the German Historical Museum in Berlin the only place where examples of the clothes made at the time can still be seen?
Marco Wilms: It was a long research process and it took over 2 years. First I had to find the really rare treasure-quality material and the people who may have had something to say. Then I spent a lot of time scanning 9,000 photos and watching tons of footage from different archives. I had to convince the photographers to let me use their pictures in my movie for a very reasonable price. We put more than 360 photos in the film in the end and used them like animated film scenes. With a normal documentary budget it is very difficult to get the world rights for so many photos. So the artists who originally took the images were very generous with us and I’m very thankful for that since they proved they shared my dream and vision. The photos we chose are very important since they portray in an amazing way a specific historical period of time and a moment in our lives. There are other museums that preserve clothes, but most of the pieces are hidden away in the archives.

DD: Some critics said that the film is based on the “früher war alles besser” (everything was better back then) motto: what do you miss of that time and do you think Comrade Couture has helped waking up a renovated interest in that specific time?
Marco Wilms: There is an interest in that time because we have a big global crisis now, so people are looking for alternative models of life and are wondering which are the really important values of our lives. I guess this is also a great movie subject. Now we live in a completely different world. The normal GDR world looks today like a surreal, creepy and funny fiction retro film set to people who weren’t there. For the people born in the GDR like myself, it is simply the world of our youth, full of emotions and memories. We lost the world of our childhood with the German unification completely, so maybe that’s why we are longing 20 years later for it, even if it’s for just for the duration of a film. I guess that’s a sort of universal feeling since most human beings would like to live again their childhood or teenage years.

DD: Was there anything you would have liked to add in your film but couldn’t for money, time or space reasons?
Marco Wilms: I would have liked to tell the history of the German unification in a better way, but for this documentary such ideas were a bit too expensive. In other cases it wasn’t just a money problem: I would have liked to have a bigger, funny and provocative finale with my GDR heroes and show a new beginning. But, since this was a documentary, I had to follow what really happened to my protagonists. Some people were not happy with the jokes about the “revival event” in the finale and about destroying the nostalgia. I appreciate their strong emotions and understand they want to go home keeping that lost-and-found feeling about the past, but I personally didn’t want to get stuck in those times and wanted to let go. I never expected to bring back the past, but I just wanted to play with it in the present and maybe find a similar feeling in today’s world.

DD: What are you working on at the moment?
Marco Wilms: My next film – a trip through the night in Bangkok with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who worked on Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, and Nonzee Nimibutr, director of Nang Nak – was recently broadcasted on the Arte channel and I’m at present shooting a film about Peter Weibel and preparing my first feature film.


Comrade Couture will be screened on 9th and 11th April at the International Istanbul Film Festival and on 13th April at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema Bafici. To order the Comrade Couture DVD, please contact Helden Film at the email address office@heldenfilm.de
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