During the dark days of the Berlin Wall, the Baltic Sea was a lot like the Florida Straits. Thousands of liberty-seekers were fished out of the water and arrested, while over two hundred drowned or were lost at sea. Christine and Volker Schmidt were fortunate to survive their escape attempt, but they did not feel very lucky at the time. The harrowing 1974 incident is faithfully dramatized in Annika Pampel’s short film Crossing Fences, which screens during this year’s Dances with Films.
Volker Schmidt aspired to lead a free life in the West, whereas Christine was determined to spend her life with him. Although she did not chafe under the Party’s restrictions of free expression and thought as much as he did, she still risked everything to join his desperate flight across the Baltic in a makeshift row boat. Sadly, they will not get very far. Arguably, the guards in the watchtower are the very model of socialist efficiency, but they are still sufficiently alert to notice the not so stealthy couple.
Yet, they may have a comparative stroke of good fortune when it is Captain Harold who intercepts them. The urbane officer seems to be curious about the thwarted refugees. In fact, he will even ignore a direct order to summarily execute them in the water, just so he can take their measure.
For obvious reasons, most movies about the former GDR have used the Wall as a focal point. It was indeed a forbidding obstacle and an ominous symbol of oppression. Films like Night Crossing and The Tunnel recreated real life efforts to go over or under, but the watery northern border has been largely overlooked by cinema and television. That alone would make Crossing Fences a valuable short film, but it also happens to be a potent human drama and remarkably well-crafted period production.
Nina Rausch and Christian Wolf make a convincingly loving but desperate couple. Yet, it is Philippe Brenninkmeyer who will really come to personify the film for many viewers. He is terrific as the commanding Captain Harold, but it is important to remember such humanistic officers were the exception rather than the rule under the Communist regime (frankly, it would not be surprising if his real-life counterpart had been purged shortly after his encounter with the Schmidts).