It Smelled of the Wide World
This Ain't California
Kai Hillebrandt, David Nathan, Tina Bartel, Anneke Schwabe
US theatrical: 12 Apr 2013 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 14 May 2012 (General release)
During those 90 minutes you can’t ever really know what is going to happen next; it’s spontaneous and it’s not political education. It’s like skateboarding in a way. It’s a ride.
“It was a typical Denis story,” narrates Nico, as he recalls his first meeting with Denis “Panik” Paraceck. They were kids in Olvenstedt, “one of those prefab housing settlements near Magdeburg” in the East Germany. It’s “sometime in the ‘80s,” Nico says, and the story goes like this: preteen Denis is looing out his bedroom window, listening to the sounds of life in the courtyard, kids’ voices, leaves rustling, and skateboard wheels.
You know what Denis sees and hears because This Ain’t California shows you, or imagines for you, in animated line drawings: the camera seems to pan the yard, restless and back and forth, just before the shot cuts to another, looking up at Denis in his third story window—as he jumps: he hits a tree, which breaks his fall so that he lands on his feet. From here, he walks around the corner to find Nico and his best friend Dirk, and their skateboards, underscored as the animated camera takes what might be Denis’ view, looking up from the wheels that had been making sounds to the boys looking back at him. “That’s Dirk with the cool glasses, and that’s me,” Nico narrates, introducing himself to you as he does in the next moment to Denis.
The scene is nostalgic, the meeting fateful. “Knowing Denis,” Nico goes on, “You know it’s not impossible for him to pull a stunt like that. He himself has always insisted it happened just like that, like in a dream.” The phrasing is key here. You actually don’t know Denis, though you do know he’s a “legend,” as the film has introduced this first section with that title. You will soon know that the remarkable non-animated footage of long-haired 14-year-olds skating and building boards (“You relate to things differently when you make them yourself,” Nico narrates over images of the boys with solder guns and goggles, “when you’re the one doing the sawing, sanding and assembling”) is the result of Dirk having a camera when they were kids, a camera that his dad taught him to operate. A few choice images provide what seems like evidence: Dirk’s father looking into the lens, at work in the garage, cheering on the boys: “He really let do our thing as long as we didn’t hurt ourselves, but otherwise we had our freedom.”
At first look, freedom—illusory, inspiring, intense—is what This Ain’t California is all about. The boys-now-men recall their pasts in East Germany, stories of insurgence and joy, of developing their skills and mastering tricks, of skating for hours and hours. They remember how skating expressed and developed their sense of independence, their resistance. Their memories of skating by way of Denis are occasioned by his funeral, following his death as a soldier in Afghanistan in 2011. The friends sit outside an abandoned building with fires burning in trashcans nearby, the camera panning their faces as they speak. Sad but also determined to celebrate Denis’ resistant spirit, they narrate the 8mm and 16mm footage of themselves and their friend in what seems eternal motion.
And as they also voice their surprise to hear that Denis—with whom they’d lost touch as they went on to marry and work at jobs and raise children—had joined the army, his story becomes simultaneously mythic and historical in another way, as priorities for rebellious East Germans changed post-1989, when the Berlin Wall came down. The friends now cherish their past, their shared childhood, and especially, the wind and motion, excitement and endlessness they felt while skating. When Nico and then Denis moved to Berlin, he says, they came upon “a giant concrete desert,” Alexanderplatz. In Alex, the skate punks find the perfect place to stretch out and fly, to resist and have fun, they find “corners, edges, and smooth surfaces everywhere: it was fantastic.” And so again, the archived footage says as much, the soft sunlight and rough grain lovely, haunting, and also exhilarating.
The tricks are terrific, the kids lithe and athletic, the camerawork acrobatic, signaling the end of the GDR and the Stasi. The film assembles clips of whole squads of kids on boards, their hips swaying and their shorts short, of breakdancers in big pants and girls in big ‘80s hair, the camera zooming and swooping, expressing the delight of gaining access to “the wide world” through skateboards. All the movement is mesmerizing, even more so when you hear the counterpoints, an East German TV report warning of the latest trend from the West, an activity and commercial enterprise that “spreads like a virus, quickly devouring its way through the cities,” a man in a brown suit and a brown set odiously asserts. “And it’s up to us to protect our children and our youths from it.”
Some of that so-called protection takes the form of surveillance, recalled by one Karl-Heinz Lindner, captioned here as a former security officer who insists the aim was not to “infiltrate” skateboarding, but rather, to “give it a direction.” One more time, the phrasing is significant. For one, the direction has to do with the shaping of history, collected by government cameras, a kind of institutional mythologizing that in turn also document official fears and oppressions (the surveillance footage looks the part, with grainy video images, grimly black and white). The direction Lindner might mean is related to the national project in another way. Based in the GDR’s socialist ideal, the one that American individualism erodes, the one that might be measured by competitions, this direction has to do with East Germany’s continued superiority in international sports, the fiction it sustains and the heroic imagery it provides. Denis, it happens, was trained as a child to be a swimmer before he quit during a race—in another “typical Denis story” illustrated by animation—literally stopped in the pool, treading water as you see him in another black line drawing, other swimmers making their ways around him. This makes him both the primary emblem of a generally youthful resistance, especially when, Nico remembers, Denis—who came to call himself Panik—attacks police officers, in a scene that ends with him “swinging his skateboard at them.”
Even as you’re caught up in this moment and in this movement, you might be wondering how all this footage has been recorded, how this history as film (or film as history) is so intact. And at some point, you will know the reason, that even Denis serves as the embodiment of this fraught and irrecoverable past, in his friends’ minds he remains a legendary skater punk. And in This Ain’t California, he is also something else, utterly punk and utterly genuine, a boy who was rebellious, beautiful, blond, and… played by a skater/model named Kai Hillebrandt.
Whenever you come to know this about Denis—before you see the film, after or even during—the discovery breaks open This Ain’t California in ways more fascinating than you might have imagined. The history the describes is true enough (however you measure “enough,” or for that matter, however you measure “history”), and the memories may be or may not be accurate. But the representations here cross all kinds of borders and raise all kinds of questions—about what a documentary can be, how the past is recorded and used, how experience is transformed in the very act of remembering.
You may also come to know that, while Denis isn’t exactly what Nico, Dirk, and others remember, neither are they. Played by actors too, they serve as means to the memories, however these are made visual, in animation, reenactment, and archival imagery and music too. Filmmaker Marten Persiel calls This Ain’t California a ‘documentary tale’,” which is yet another kind of key phrasing, and another kind of reminder, that that documentary as a genre continues to change, that the means to document, to tell a story, and to make memories visual in a film or video.
As a sign for history, for change, for transgression, Denis is both too perfect and provocative. And as This Ain’t California presents him—as animated or reenacted character, as footage and as memory—he is also elusive. When Nico claims direct and intimate knowledge, a girl decides to keep secret the details of their relationship or a policeman declares him a troublemaker and arrests him, Denis remains what each needs him to be. Much like documentary.