We're not going to Berlin until October, so we'll miss Ostpunk, an exhibit revisiting the punk movement in the GDR (East Germany). The web site plus this article from Deutsche Welle will have to suffice.

When Michael Böhlke, otherwise known as "Pankow," took to the stage at the opening of Germany's first-ever exhibition on punk in the GDR last Friday, it was as if the last 25 years had never happened. Reunited with his former fellow renegades, he brought down the house.

"It felt so right -- I realized that I was born to perform," he said later. But while members of many former punk bands in West Germany went on to become household names -- die Toten Hosen, die Ärtzte, Einstürzende Neubauten, to name but a few -- Pankow never managed to carve out a successful musical career for himself.

Like many of the GDR's punks, his flirtation with counterculture had lasting repercussions. In the late 1980s, he was refused permission to study theater directing and forced to train as a mechanic. His former girlfriend Jana -- whose photo features in the exhibition -- was sent to jail for her punk activities and is psychologically traumatized to this day.


Broadly dismissed in the west as nihilistic, punk in the GDR was fuelled by optimism and a desire to change society.


"In retrospect, I was probably more of a hippy," shrugged Pankow. "I had a vision; I was full of hope that things could improve. We didn't do drugs and we didn't drink -- we thought we were better than everyone else, and every last loser in the GDR drank beer like it was going out of fashion, so being a teetotaller was a form of rebellion."


The cultural depth of GDR punk is reflected in the exhibition. Housed in a former industrial warehouse in Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, the show features paintings, drawings, print graphics, photography, super 8 film, collages, rare audio footage and miscellaneous pop culture ephemera such as record covers, buttons, flyers and posters.


"Punk inevitably became political very fast," said Pankow. "If you were in a band, you had to apply for permission to perform in public and audition before a committee that would assess your musical competence, the way you looked -- and above all, whether you were politically acceptable. The punks refused to go along with this -- it was considered a compromise."

As the youthful rebellion began to spiral out of state control, punks in the GDR were no longer seen as disaffected teenagers -- they were denounced as enemies of the state. By 1983 the secret police had sunk its talons into the movement and the scene was slowly but surely infiltrated with informants, forced under pressure from the State to choose between cooperation, a jail sentence, expulsion or military service.

[Image from the Ostpunk website.]

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Published on September 3, 2005 1:12 PM.

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