The home-video clips that Laurence McFalls and Alberto Herskovits have stitched together seem, at first glance, like a patchwork of ordinary mid-20th-century moments. There are snippets of sleeping babies; moments stolen away for a sip of coffee; beachwear fashion shows; beer-fuelled singalongs.
Taken as a whole, though, the more-than-400-hours of film their team has digitized and meticulously categorized is intended to tell a story largely forgotten following the collapse of the Berlin Wall – until Mr. McFalls, Mr. Herskovits and their team persuaded residents of the former communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, to part with their homemade films.
The assembled videos, says Mr. McFalls, a University of Montreal political-science professor, come together as a first-of-its-kind opportunity to humanize generations of East Germans whose society is often reduced to totalitarian clichés that are increasingly being questioned 30 years after the fall.
“We can’t just dismiss people’s pasts on the grounds that they lived in a failed, or a repressive, states,” he said in an interview last week. "We’re not denying the elements of the surveillance or police state. But reducing it to that alone is what we’re combatting.”
The result is the largest-ever digital, accessible collection of home movies from the secretive former state. The online project, called Open Memory Box, will be made public on Monday at the Canadian embassy in Berlin, just weeks before the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall that led to German reunification. A team of more than 30 contributors has digitized 2,283 rolls of film, sent in from 149 families that lived in the former GDR from 1947 to 1990.
Clips are searchable by themed keywords – such as “beer,” “Alexanderplatz” and “winter holidays” – but the website also has clips of East German life in randomized two-second fragments. In this way, the researchers say, more people can connect with the story they’re watching without having the context and history.
“We think that these fragments give people an incredible opportunity to grasp the zeitgeist of the East in a way that a traditional archive could never achieve,” said Mr. Herskovits, an Argentine-born filmmaker who lives in Sweden.
Mr. Herskovits and Mr. McFalls met by coincidence watching their daughters play soccer on an East Berlin field in 2011, after lives spent undertaking similar pursuits. Around the time the Wall fell, the former was working on a documentary about daily East German life; the latter had spent part of his youth visiting relatives in the GDR and was doing field research 50 kilometres away.
After discussing their mutual frustration that clichés of GDR repression and surveillance can minimize the experiences of its citizens, the researchers sought a way to portray those lives plainly. Eventually, they realized, home movies – slices of private life never meant for consumption by the state – were the key.
In 2014, they held a press conference inviting former GDR residents to send in their private movies. The response was enormous – not least because Mr. McFalls went on German radio and offered to digitize the first 100 submissions and return them on DVD.
Germany still tends to struggle with how to portray the former communist east, said Mary Fulbrook, dean of University College London’s history faculty and an author of several books on East Germany, including The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker.
Ms. Fulbrook said she’s received blowback for her research “because there are certain historians and politicians and people who have particular political interests who want to keep banging on about the dreadful totalitarian regime.” There is a tendency among some German historians, she said, to avoid shining any positive light on the GDR.
While Ms. Fulbrook doesn’t describe life in the GDR as normal – “peoples’ ideas of ‘normal’ are extremely culturally varying” – she said it was important to show what its residents felt was ordinary, even in the shadow of the Stasi, the secretive domestic surveillance agency.
Of the Open Memory Box, she continued, “it’s actually fabulous that we’ve got an archive like this – that we’ve now got this kind of data to look at.”