Helke Misselwitz: Moving East to West Amidst the Sperrmüll

Reflections on Bulky Trash (Helke Misselwitz, 1991)

by Elspeth Vischer

Reflections on labour and parenting in the final days of the GDR are framed within an interesting dichotomy of music and creative freedom in Helke Misselwitz’s documentary Sperrmüll (Bulky Trash)

In her signature intimate and empathetic style, this film charts a rift in political systems, protests, and young people’s allegiances to the GDR in unexpected twists and turns. It is a moving portrait where the camera pans from right to left down a river as a couple moves geographically east to west in Berlin during the final days of the Cold War. 

Of particular interest is the mother-son relationship between Erika and Enrico, or ‘Rizzo’.  Named for the opera singer, Enrico fulfils his mother’s hopes of being a musician, albeit in a very different style to his namesake. Rizzo and his pals form the four-piece experimental group Sperrmüll, playing on discarded bin lids and other unwanted items. In an early surreal and sublime scene, the group play in a colourful fairground in East Berlin, on the day of Erika and her new husband Heinz’s wedding. Theirs is a matrimony with the star-crossed aspect of a West Berliner marrying an Easterner in 1989. In an official GDR letter, shown on screen, it is expressed there is ‘no desire to publicise such a marriage’ as it is considered ‘unusual’. 

Misselwitz’s film challenges any outsider assumptions about East Berlin that the western press would promulgate. It posits quandaries of ideology and loyalty, on the side of the east, both from those who choose to stay and those who leave. As the young men retain an allegiance to the GDR in 1990 once the wall has fallen, and express scepticism around a reunification of Germany.  

Erika moves to the west with her new husband Heinz and bids an emotional farewell to her son Rizzo.  In one pivotal sequence, we see Erika working in a primary school; ‘1990’ is written on the wall. She leaves work and drives around in a small red car, discussing the different working conditions between the east and west with Misselwitz. In reference to West Berlin, she says, ‘I think women have it harder here. If a woman works here, she has to go home, cook and shop.’

‘In the East we get dinner in the factory and the kids get school meals.’

‘There’s none of that. I had to adjust.’ 

‘Having to go back out after work to buy food and cook a hot meal.’

‘Every day.’

These questions drawn from Erika in Bulky Trash seem prescient to an audience in 2023, in thinking about how individualised and monetized labour forces neglect the needs of workers and working parents. Erika’s musings on how the West leads to a harder life for women provide an insightful and unexpected snapshot of this pivotal moment in history, from a perspective very rarely documented. Testimonies tenderly recorded by Misselwitz in Sperrmüll therefore evoke a ‘personal-as-political’ message that is potent and powerful to watch over thirty years on.

Elspeth Vischer is a filmmaker based in Belfast who specialises in documentary and experimental content. She has just completed a PhD on the topic of grassroots feminism in Belfast and she also teaches and works with children. 

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