Almost three decades ago Rostock was not part of the Federal Republic of Germany, but of the German Deomocratic Republic. Germany was split into two nations. The inner-German border had been closed since 1952 and from 1961 the Berlin Wall had removed all means of every entry and exit for the citizen of the GDR. People who wanted to express their displeasure about the system or the politics of the GDR were systematically persecuted, arrested or deprived of their basic liberties. An escape from the nation seemed to be the only way out for many of them.
It is estimated that before 1989 53,576 attempts to escape succeeded, but also that more than 600 people died trying to escape.
The play ‘Jenseits der blauen Grenze’, directed by Angelika Zacek at the Volkstheater Rostock, deals with the topic of the inner-German border and especially with attempts to escape across the Baltic Sea. For citizens living near the Baltic Sea, the island Fehmarn in West Germany or Gedser in Denmark were popular routes for an escape. By 1989 around 200 people had died trying to flee via one of these routes.
The play tells the story of the trio Hanna, Jens and Andreas. Hanna and Andreas have been friends since they were little and Jens joined them when he moved from Dresden to Rostock. Hanna is a passionate swimmer with a difficult family situation. Her father is widely rumored to be crazy, which makes her a subject of mockery. She often turns to her grandfather, who is openly against socialism.
The three do many things in their leisure time after school and occasionally make fun of the system of the GDR, but when they are caught doing so it never stays unpunished. Hanna, who has to deal with enough problems, is victimized by the school principal several times. Andreas, meanwhile, has to endure beatings at the hands of his own father, making him temporarily unable to attend school and causing him to start punch-ups himself.
Over the entire course of their schooldays they are told how they have to live their lives and what will happen if they continue to disobey the system and the politics of the GDR. The feeling of dissatisfaction grows and Hanna and Andreas in particular express a wish to escape from the system. The straw that breaks the camel’s back, is their bestfriend Jens’s move to Hamburg and their suspension from school, because of a something Hanna’s grandfather did. From that point onwards both are forced to work in an engine work as a socialistic educational measure.
One night, equipped with wetsuits and connected by a rope so as to not loose each other, the two try to swim towards the ‘saving north’.
The production and the props are kept minimalistic. Only two actors, a man and a woman, play the different roles of Hanna, Andreas, Jens and the other characters, for example the principal or Hanna’s grandfather. Using only the mats most of us know from P.E., and ties, the two actors create the different scenes. The lightning is also kept in the background: the stage is more or less dark throughout the play. Only some ties shine garishly in the backlight in accordance with the scene.
The play shows the ups and downs Hanna and Andreas have on their escape across the Baltic Sea, from bad weather or the panic attacks Hanna suffers on the one hand to the achievement of making it to a buoy to have something to rest on the other. Multiple flashback scenes from their childhood and youth intersperse their journey. As the play unfolds, the audience is better and better able to understand how Hanna and Andreas suffer and have suffered. It becomes intelligible why they see the escape as the only way out of the injustice of the system of the GDR.
Although the play deals with serious topics, it still establishes comic situations.
On the one hand there is Hanna’s grandfather, who again and again tells jokes about the GDR, for example about the prevailing economy of scarcity. On the other hand there is Jens with his funny Saxon accent that is adorable to listen to.
This was a play that touched me and has stayed in my mind, not because of a spectacular huge set, complex costumes or expensive props, but through its symbolism and the importance of the topic. The tie that Hanna and Andreas latch onto so strongly is also the bond that connects them. Both have a similar fate and suffer from the same injustice.
The story makes us, as the audience, feel and understand what thousands of people felt in the GDR and still feel nowadays in the refugee crisis. How cruel do the circumstances have to be to make people decide to leave their home and all their belongings behind, to fight for better living conditions? The topic was and still is an important topic all of us have to be aware of. In addition I think it’s also good to know about our past and the lives of our previous generations, who lived in a nation we don’t know anymore.