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BERLIN 2019 Panorama

Review: Beauty and Decay

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- BERLIN 2019: Annekatrin Hendel’s portrait of three loveable GDR rebels leaves us wanting quite a bit more

Review: Beauty and Decay

In 1983, Madonna took Manhattan, Grandmaster Flash shook the Bronx, Frankie Goes to Hollywood conquered London and Les Rita Mitsouko rocked Paris. Meanwhile, in East Berlin… Let’s just say things were different. “Obviously, we couldn’t travel,” observes Sven, one of the three main characters in Annekatrin Hendel’s Beauty and Decay [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, entered into this year’s Panorama Dokumente at the Berlinale. “But we looked hard to see what was out there. And we did the best with what we had. To get hold of a copy of Vogue… That was huge.”

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Sven is Sven Marquardt, legendary bouncer at the Berghain, the East German power plant turned pumping techno club and “the toughest door in Europe”. Marquardt has also been an accomplished fashion photographer for decades, with several art books under his belt. He almost looks like a work of art himself, decorated with tattoos and piercings from head to toe. Sven’s friends from the 1980s GDR underground scene are “Dome”, Dominique Hollenstein, who was Sven’s favourite model and muse, and Robert Paris, who sometimes modelled for Sven and also took pictures himself. As colour film was both scarce and substandard, the preferred stock was black and white, as is seen to great effect in Hendel’s documentary about these rebellious bohemians from the Prenzlauer Berg area, where many East Berlin intellectuals gathered back in the day, creating a “bubble” all of their own. 

Hendel, an acclaimed documentarian (VaterlandsverräterFassbinder [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Annekatrin Hendel
film profile
]
) who emerged in the GDR culture scene in the 1980s (and very likely knew, or knew of, her subjects already back then), films and chats about the old days – what’s up, what’s changed. Sven and Dome do a photo shoot, Robert looks at photos he’s taken in the past of areas that have changed greatly through the years. They’re all still “free birds”, Sven with his camera and his club gig, Dome in her beautiful family house, creating leather flowers (“my only income”), and Robert, who divides his time between Berlin and India where he has a partner and a daughter. They’re loveable people and were probably exactly what East Berlin needed back then.

Still, we don’t get to know the trio very well, or at least not well enough. How did they grow up, who were their parents, did they or any of their friends get into trouble for their “subversive” views (or, when applicable, for their sexual preferences), what were they doing when the wall came down? Dome talks of “silly Stasi agents” and Robert mentions “dysfunctional families”, but we get very little information on these things. As the 79 minutes of Beauty and Decay come to an end, we can’t help feeling that we expected more. Or perhaps this is just Part One?

The film was produced by German outfit It Works! Medien and was co-produced by Der Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB).

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