The young English filmmaker goes East with his East Berlin friend to meet a Goddess of the Steelworks, and very seductive socialist, in the DDR hinterland
(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)
Lothar waited beside the sealed up Metro station of Berlin Mitte on the northern side of Checkpoint Charlie – or Grenzuebergang Kochstrasse as his government called it. The sky hung low and cold, and he wore a woollen scarf and fur-lined Russian hat.
Jon the filmmaker, who Dieter had reintroduced to Lothar at the Berliner Ensemble, had, at last, got in touch and agreed to meet up today, Sunday the fifteenth of November. The Englishman, with a visa for travel outside East Berlin, would bring Dieter’s old Mercedes and drive with Lothar to the East German hinterland for an inspection of a steelworks under the guidance of Lothar’s secondary, proletarian lover, Brigade Leader Almuth Wietz.
A car hooted. Lothar glanced towards the checkpoint: a Trabant stalled at the crossroads, guards coming off duty, an American military Jeep asserting – like a child from the wrong side of town – its right to drive in the Russian zone. Not much traffic at three o’clock on a Sunday – too late for tourists wanting to view the Red Threat, too early for Turkish guest workers seeking prostitutes priced in East Marks. The horn sounded again, and this time Lothar saw a figure climb out of a mud-spattered vehicle across from the Metro entrance. The figure wore a scarf, blue jeans and an anorak longer at the back than front. A Westerner, thought Lothar. Lost or wants to sell me his jeans.
He turned back to the checkpoint, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dieter’s Mercedes. He was cold and impatient for the warmth of a comfortable car.
A hand tapped him on the shoulder. Lothar swung round and found himself face to face with the Westerner.
“Yes?” he snapped, preparing to lecture the young man on the importance of clean cars and respectable clothing in a socialist country. “How can I help?”
“It’s me. Jon.”
Lothar put out a hand and pulled down the scarf covering the stranger’s mouth.
“My God,” he said. “So it is. Where’s the car?”
“There,” replied Jon, pointing to the wreck across the road. “The mini-van. The one you found me in on the Berliner Ring.”
“Mini-van?” exclaimed Lothar. “What about the Mercedes?”
“Reinhardt had to go to Karlsruhe. His father’s ill. So…”
“We’re going to Schwedt-an-der-Oder, number one new town of the GDR and the country’s most model of model socialist communities, in that?”
“Afraid so,” laughed Jon. “Not the same as a Merc. But it drives all right.”
Lothar shook his head, straightened his hat and followed Jon. He should not be making a fuss, he knew, but he had looked forward to drawing up at the steelworks in a Mercedes. Looked forward to Almuth’s expression of amazement as he stepped out, held the rear door open and invited her to step inside and feel the luxury of leather seats. She was more of a socialist than him, but would still have been impressed – still have felt her fading sensibility for glamour and the world of the rich and famous touched.
“You all right?” Jon asked, as Lothar attempted to close the passenger door with a piece of string doubling as a handle. “That side’s a bugger to shut.”
Jon leant across and slammed the door, breaking the string in the process.
“Damn! You’ll have to use my side, now.”
“And in an emergency?”
“Not sure,” replied Jon with a grin. “Hope for the best, I guess.”
The car started. They swung left into Kochstrasse, took a right down Unter den Linden and after circling the television tower twice found the road to Schwedt.
“Hopefully, the Vopos won’t stop us”, Lothar remarked in a piqued tone, as they swept through the outer suburbs of North Eastern East Berlin. “I’m not sure they could deal with you, the car and the presence of a leading GDR citizen inside it!”
Jon slowed to let an old lady cross the road and, as he did so, leant over to Lothar.
“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super-Gran!”
Lothar’s demeanour of disgruntlement remained in place for a moment and then cracked, as a chuckle broke free from its straitjacket. The Englishman was irresistible and he had remembered his host’s interest in Western comics. A kindred spirit, an anarchist at heart, an oddball artist with a sense of humour. He was also young – Lothar’s junior by twenty years – and his youth infectious, an invigorating tonic for an ageing alcoholic. Why be grumpy? Why carp? Who cared what car they were in? Who bloody cared? Status was stultifying, keeping up appearances a game for mugs and party hacks. Together, Jon and he would have fun and if they frightened a few Vopos in the process, so what? Conformity be damned! Long Live the Marx Brothers!
Lothar leant forward and thumped the dashboard with his fist.
“Or this!” he yelled. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Super-van!’
The two men roared with laughter, waved at the old lady, now safely across the road and – on Lothar’s prompting – burst into a dual language version of the Internationale.
By the time they reached Schwedt, it was dark. But Lothar’s spirits were light as a feather, his soul full of a joie de vivre normally associated with drunkenness or that moment where orgasm is in sight and assured, but not yet paid for in prostate pain. As they approached Almuth’s workplace, sparks from the smelter lit up the night sky.
“The heartland of our socialist republic,” exclaimed Lothar, as they drew up at the gates of the People’s Own Steelworks.
Jon climbed out and gazed up at the smelting tower.
“Amazing!’ he cried. “In the West, steelworks are monsters – blots on the landscape. But this…this is beautiful…a Cathedral!”
“Perhaps, because here it is the workers we worship,” Lothar said, putting an arm round his friend’s shoulder.
Jon nodded and the two men stood in silence watching the miracle of molecular fusion forge steel from the stone of iron ore.
“Lothar!” cried a female voice behind them. “Is that you?”
Lothar and Jon turned. A tall, well-built woman in hard-hat, heavy-duty boots and green overalls with a small red star above the left breast was approaching from the gates.
“Almuth!” shouted Lothar, moving to meet the Wagnerian apparition. “Jon, meet the High Priestess of our Workers Cathedral, Brunhilde of the Bronze Smelting Process, Mother Superior of Steel Ingots and Iron bars, the Goddess of…” – Lothar reached Almuth, planted a passionate kiss on her burnished lips and turned back to Jon – “Meet Brigade Leader Comrade Almuth Wietz.” Jon moved forward and shook the outstretched hand. “Almuth, meet Mr Jon Cruft, our artist from the far off land of Anglo-Saxons.”
“Hello, Jon,” said Almuth, pointing back at the works. “A fine moment to arrive.”
Jon nodded, overcome with admiration for a woman he had only just met and about whom he knew next to nothing – the overalls, the grime, her man’s job.
“Shall we go round the works, now?” she asked. “What do you think, Lothar?”
“Whatever Jon wishes,” replied Lothar. “I’m merely the facilitator of this field trip.”
“Fine, let’s go,” she said, heading back to the gates. “You coming with us, Paul?”
“I’d love to, but as a lowly intellectual, I must at all times and in all places remind myself of how real workers, live, think and drink! I’ll be in the works bar when you return.”
Almuth laughed, took Jon by the arm and led him off through the pearly gates.
Jon enjoyed the tour – not so much for what he saw, but for what he heard. Almuth was no propagandist paid to persuade dignitaries from the third world of the East’s superiority, but a woman who believed in the system. A system, she said, that may not have bought people the wealth of the West, but had ensured there were no fat cats, few criminals and a ruling party which – though not a paragon of virtue in its sometimes paranoid perception of duty – outlawed self-aggrandisement along with the speculators and Mafioso who, in the West, had turned the making of money into a religion of death and destruction. Yes, there were disappointments and frustrations and, as a brigade leader, she knew all about them. Socialism, in her book, should not claim to be able to cleanse the human condition of suffering. Existence, physically and psychologically – getting from birth to death in one piece, as she put it – was tough, regardless of where a government stood on the political spectrum. But helping people live together in moderation and with a common purpose – rather than playing them off against each other for bigger cars and better houses – was feasible and eminently practical. Not everyone had a car, but those who did shared. Not everyone had a television, but those who did allowed others to watch.
Like in the war, suggested Jon, as they watched molten steel flow across the floor into massive moulds and acknowledged the waves of workers overseeing the procedure. Yes, agreed Almuth, in a way. The solidarity that scarcity brings; coming together in a struggle where defeat of the enemy is more important than individual comfort; the sharing of resources and personal good luck for the good of all. Yes, that was socialism.
“But surely,” Jon persisted as they headed to the canteen. “Surely the disaster is past, the war over, the struggle won. You have your republic and now you can reap the rewards.”
“Yes,” said Almuth. “And life is better. But we still have a common enemy – the enemy you in the West, despite the sacrifices of your soldiers, have given into.”
“And that is?” inquired Jon.
“Greed. The wish to have more than your neighbour, the right to have more than your neighbour, the duty to have more than your neighbour. The motor of capitalism.”
Jon stopped and stared back at the glow of the smelter.
Was it that simple?