For the vast majority of his career, English director Ken Loach has devoted himself to tackling complex, challenging political and social issues. Loach is a socialist with the passion of an activist, but he doesn't permit that passion to lead him into sensationalism. He's a social realist who wants us to see the world as it really is, even if that often means making movies that are only going to appeal to a fairly limited audience. He's also one of the rare filmmakers whose work has been provocative enough to ruffle some feathers in real world: his documentary The Save the Children Fund Film (funded by the charity itself) took such a negative view of the charity's business structure that the organization attempted to have the film destroyed, and many of his early plays, TV dramas and films dealt bluntly with many of the hot-button topics of the era (abortion, capital punishment, poverty).
Predictably, the conservative Thatcher administration was no fan of Loach's more liberal-minded work, which meant that a lot of Loach's creative opportunities started drying up in the 1980s (a great deal of his work had been partially or entirely funded by the British government). As such, the decade marks the least fertile period of Loach's career, as projects were altered, delayed and cancelled. Eventually, the director began seeking work elsewhere, which is what ultimately led him to Germany to make Fatherland.
The film is set in the late 1960s, and takes a look at the life of Klaus Drittemann (Gerulf Pannach), an East German folk singer who specializes in bitter protest songs. His political views have placed him in considerable conflict with the authorities, and eventually the pressure becomes intense enough to force Klaus to pack up and move to West Germany. He's greeted warmly by members of the West German government, as they see an opportunity to spin Drittemann's “defection” into some good PR material. Alas, Klaus has some pretty cynical thoughts about West Germany, too, and soon finds himself a whole new batch of conflicts to deal with.
Klaus' blessing and burden is that he's fairly talented, which means that he has record label executives eagerly reaching out to him and trying to help him craft a new image. Everyone is excited by the drama of Klaus' life story, but nobody really seems to care all that much about what he actually thinks or feels (when he reveals these things, they tell him to be quiet). One of the film's most memorable scenes comes around the midway point, as Klaus strolls through a lavish record label party and witnesses all sorts of sorts of excess and debauchery. The look on his face says it all: I don't belong here. Eventually, he ends up at a table with a handful of lonely drunks, one of whom is singing along to the closing lyrics of Randy Newman's “Guilty”:
You know how it is for me, baby,
You know I just can't stand myself,
It takes a whole lot of medicine,
For me to pretend that I'm somebody else.
It's easy to imagine the sort of connection Loach feels with this character: an artist who continually avoids fame but never fails to speak out about the things that are bothering him. It's unsurprising that Loach takes issue with the more restrictive political atmosphere of East Germany, but the film gains some real complexity when he discovers entirely different forms (subtler, friendlier, but still potent) of oppressiveness in West Germany. By the time Klaus lands in Great Britain, you get the idea: every part of the world needs a good protest anthem.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 1986