American offers east Germans views of old life
It took 40 hours of videotape to transform Bill Meyers from a retired Delaware schoolteacher to a cult figure in eastern Berlin.
More than 10 years ago, Mr. Meyers taped dozens of interviews with East Germans before the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the simple intention of educating his German-language students back home.
But these days Meyers's videos have been playing to packed houses in his adopted German city. In cafes, art-house movie theaters, and university classrooms, eastern Berliners - and some of their western counterparts - laugh with and get angry at the people on the screen, in their nostalgia for a time in the not so distant past, when fitting in was rarely an issue.
For two years, Meyers spent his breaks filming East Germans - from shoemakers to prominent writers - asking them to describe their lives and their feelings about the Berlin Wall and living in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Some eastern Germans say that after reunification, their way of life - from the school system to grocery products and TV programs - was discarded and, in many cases, delegitimized. Sabine Jakob, a bookseller from eastern Berlin, gave western Berlin friends tickets to showings of the Bill Meyers tapes.
"When people say that everything is better now, that means that everything before [reunification] was terrible," Ms. Jakob says. "Then I get angry."
Guido Wilske, a state employee and a former East German, recently traveled more than an hour to watch the second advertised public showing of Meyers's videos. "The difference is that these videos - they are alive, and you can imagine how it really was," says Mr. Wilske.
Throughout the showing, Wilske often laughed out loud, nodding in agreement as one interviewee described how the rain would constantly drip through the roof of her East Berlin apartment.
"I had no idea the videos would be so popular with East Germans," says Meyers. In his black clothing, he fits in with the hip crowd of the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin where he lives. He says he prefers to be with his "dear Ossies" (easterners).
Meyers, like many Americans, had always heard East Germans characterized as simply members of the "Evil Empire." Then, while on a Fulbright teacher exchange in Germany in 1974-75 he visited East Berlin, where he found the East Germans more akin to Americans than their western German neighbors.
"They had a sort of modesty that you find in a lot of Americans, especially people in the Midwest," he says. Meyers says he wanted other Americans to see that side of East Germany.
In 1987, Meyers returned to East Germany armed with a press pass and the concept for his video project. With the pass came a companion named Johannes Haufe, a member of the East German Secret Police, or Stasi.
Meyers's activities were not only suspect in Communist East Germany, they also ostracized him from American colleagues who viewed him as a Communist sympathizer. The videos were eventually viewed by Meyers's students, as well as national conferences of foreign language teachers in the US.
After the FBI showed up at one conference in Philadelphia where his videos were shown, Meyers was no longer invited to present his work.
ONE complaint that some Germans make after viewing the films is that the videos - especially the post-unification videos in which aspects of the GDR are fondly remembered - aren't critical enough of the East German state. "I know more people who were against it," says Astrid Baerwolf, a student in Berlin who comes from the former GDR.
A 1988 interview with a government advisor lost Meyers his privilege to make videos in the country. In the interview, Jrgen Kuczynski, a top economist, criticized the East German press, the validity of official sources, and called the government's argument for the Berlin Wall "weak."
Viewers today not only learn what life was like in the GDR, but also about what people in East Germany knew about the outside world. At the end of an interview with several boys in a Berlin park, Mr. Haufe, the Stasi assistant, asks the boys what they know about America.
The answers are negative: America is dirty. No one can afford to pay rent. Finally, a pensive boy with brown hair counters the wisdom of his friends. "Everything has to be better in America," he says.