The Valley of the People Who Don’t Know refers to the area near Dresden in East Germany that’s furthest away from West Berlin and the West German border. It was given that name because it was the only area in the German Democratic Republic that radio signals from the West could not penetrate. As the story goes, the people lived in ignorance, blissfully unaware about the world outside them. In short, it was the most GDR-like place in the whole GDR.
Things have changed since the Cold War. Saxony is reckoning with a new challenge: the influx of thousands of Syrian refugees. It is a political flashpoint for the mostly white, formerly industrial region, leading to the disturbing reemergence (or re-acceptance) of Nazis and other far-right fascists, most notably in Chemnitz. How can these Arabs, who would much rather be somewhere multikulti (multicultural) like Hamburg or Berlin, integrate into a society filled with so much hate?
The generously titled Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know has an imaginative approach to integration, tying the current struggles of the Syrian people to the issues once faced by the East German people. The result is a fascinating experimental documentary that says more interesting things about Ostalgie (nostalgia for the old regime) than the perils of emigration.
It’s set in the town of Neustadt in Sachsen. Lying on the border with the Czech Republic, it is a beautiful place, with houses built in the typical, pastel-coloured style, surrounded by rolling hills and meadows. Once the centre of the GDR’s agricultural industry — Fortschritt (Progress) refers to the brand of tractors produced by the GDR — it now has an unemployment rate of 10.5%. Older men who look back on these days with fondness are tasked with helping a group of young Syrian refugees integrate into German society.
German lessons are given in abandoned factories, with the portrait of Erich Honecker (leader of the GDR from 1971-1989) still lingering on the wall, Soviet-style. Things then take a surreal, The Act of Killing-like (in style, not subject matter) turn, as the young men reenact elements of GDR time, including attending classrooms and doing military service. Meanwhile, the old East Germans use their time as integration managers to reflect on how drastically Germany has changed in the past thirty years, and whether or not the GDR was a force for good or evil. The implication is that both Syrians and East Germans have struggled as a result of top-down leadership, and this common suffering could be the force that finally binds them.
The topic of racism towards refugees is constantly in the background here, yet Progress complicates obvious black-and-white conclusions about the former GDR being more hostile towards foreigners as a result of its unique post-industrial situation. Old footage reveals Erich Honecker meeting Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) in the early 80s, with Germans lining the streets to celebrate the friendship between the two nations.
Fascinatingly enough, these old images are not simply inserted into the narrative, but shown through film itself projected on walls, as if to create a deliberately artificial distance between the past and the present. Director Florian Kunert seemingly enjoys creating this kind of unresolved tension, providing no easy answers to the question of integration into a town that never recovered from the loss of its factories. Avant-garde throughout and containing no voiceover whatsoever, it simply asks the viewer to observe and come to their own conclusions. While undoubtably more interesting for those with intimate knowledge of German culture, its reflections on society, integration and nostalgia contain universal resonance. A quiet triumph.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.