The lives of two people are destroyed by the Berlin Wall and by their own weakness in the face of it. [ The Promise credits: Dir: Margarethe Von Trotta/ Meret Becker, Corinna Harfouch, Anian Zollner, August Zirner/ 115 min/ Drama, Foreign Language/ Germany/ In German with English subtitles/ Escape from Socialism]
This German-made story about the Berlin Wall reflects the sad truth. The Wall divided loved ones, few escaped, and the people trapped behind it made devastating compromises with themselves and their hopes in order to survive. In short, as long as the Wall was standing, it won with few exceptions.
The Promise begins with an attempted escape to the West by a young couple. The man slips, hesitates, and before he knows it the moment is lost. His girlfriend goes on and makes it to the West, but he is left behind. It isn’t clear why he hesitated. Was it fear of being caught? We and he don’t know. But his failure fills him with guilt, compounded by his subsequent draft into the border guard service. Each further opportunity for him to escape is lost by bad luck and his own lack of daring. And as time goes by, he makes one compromise after another to survive until finally he is doing whatever the state wants him to do just to have the slight crumbs of happiness they allow him.
When the Wall finally comes down, it’s too late for him. He has been broken and in any case too much time has gone by, too much happiness lost. Among the jubilant crowds cheering the final demise of the Wall is a solemn old woman. She is asked by the media why she isn’t cheering along with the rest, and she sums up the mood at that point: “When the cage opens after thirty years, you can’t fly anymore.”
This is a sad and moving story of the life-destroying effects of controls on the free movement of people, and a tremendous historical indictment of socialism. However, it’s a little tough on Germans themselves, seeming to imply that those who suffered were somehow to blame for their own lack of courage. That’s a hard criticism, and unfair given that people generally are far more inclined to suffer than to take action.
The Promise is a well-paced and acted film with effective use of music. The script is at its best in showing the subtle ways in which fear of the state pervades people’s lives, until they are more true to it than to themselves or each other. It’s a downbeat story to be sure, but an important one, because it gives voice to the otherwise soon-to-be-forgotten pain, fear, and guilt a generation of Germans experienced under socialism. Also listed as Das Versprechen.