Set in East Germany during the last ten years of Communism, Christian Schwochow’s “The Tower,” is a German mini-series about the lead-up to a moment of collective flight. When the end came for the German Democratic Republic, it came quietly in the form of a radio broadcast with an official voice announcing to the populace that there would no longer be any restrictions on border crossings. What started as a trickle of refugees became a deluge. “The Tower has multiple story-lines and large cast of intersecting characters that shows what life felt like to those who lived at that singular time in an unchanging political system before the rules changed, seemingly overnight.
Richard Hoffman (Jan Josef Liefers) is a surgeon at a clinic in Dresden, with burn tissue all over his back that is a painful and eternal reminder of the 1945 firebombing of his hometown when he was a child. He is married to a nurse (Claudia Michelsen) and they have a teenage son named Christian (Sebastian Urzendowsky). Richard has been carrying on an affair with his secretary that has resulted in a child who is now 5 years old. Hoffman goes back and forth between the two homes, and his wife supposedly knows nothing about the second family, although you can see her give him a couple of sharp glances on occasion. The mistress wants Hoffman to get a divorce however he knows that is impossible due to professional and personal reasons. The Hoffman family is part of the bourgeoisie in “The Tower” ; they are an elite group of doctors and book publishers and musicians. Their private lives are as chaotic as their public lives are appropriate. In such a political system, lying is a necessary skill.
Meno (Götz Schubert) is a book publisher who works with authors to remove potentially problematic passages in their novels. He is a man who loves literature, and he has been forced to become a censor. He hates this and it takes a psychological toll on him especially when he is assigned to work with an author (Valery Tscheplanowa) who refuses to edit her novel about the Red Army’s rape of German women upon invading the country and she is thrown out of the Writer’s Union because of this and we see her as an exile in her own country, all publishing doors closed to her. Meno is haunted by her and Hoffman’s mistress (Nadja Uhl) is desperate for her lover’s protection and attention, and becomes a liability when he turns his back on her and their daughter. While these are private matters, they get the attention of the Stasi, who can use it to blackmail Hoffman.
Director Schwochow keeps these plot-lines moving smoothly and briskly, filming everything in a cold green-tint, suggesting that the world behind the Iron Curtain is devoid of color. The film is at its best strongest when it shows the direct connection between State control and private life. We see this clearly in Meno’s relationship with the censored author and in Christian’s increasing trouble with authority. Christian’s schoolwork is propaganda, and school papers are graded according to whether or not they express the proper “class attitudes.” Christian starts getting in trouble for reading non-approved books, and his parents become very uneasy. He was raised in an intellectual household, and yet in public he is meant to toe the party line. His parents encourage him to live the same kind of life that they do life that they do but he is unable to comply with their wishes. It is heartbreaking to see Christian change from a sweet teenager to tough-minded veteran of multiple authoritative organizations.
There is danger that Meno faces when he tries to smuggle the author’s banned manuscript out of the country to more welcoming publishers in the West. Meno moves from a laughing, confident man to a ruined shell of an individual and we see what politics have done to talented minds like his.
As the film moves into 1988, the scenes get shorter and the pace becomes more relentless, hopping from one person’s arc to the next and then back. In the final half-hour of the film, individuals face the crack-up of the State in their own individual ways and the demand for freedom and liberty destabilizes the entire atmosphere. Characters look at one another with an open sense of awe and fear in their faces as they wonder if this is really happening. “The Tower” is a powerful and engrossing look at the moment in history when the tide started turning and when the people are shaken out of their apathy.