Mansfeld is a small town in Saxony-Anhalt near the Harz Mountains. It has approximately 9,600 inhabitants and apparently Martin Luther spent a big part of his childhood there. Mansfeld used to be a mining town and has 15 different districts. I researched all of this because, quite frankly, I was sure that Mansfeld didn’t exist. Not only had I never heard of it before, but after watching Mario Schneider’s documentary film, I was convinced that this place, its people, and rituals existed only in the fantasy of their children and were nothing but a beautiful fiction.
Paul, Sebastian, and Tom are the little knights of this real-life fairy tale. They come from different backgrounds, different lives, and different families. Paul is big boy. He has a large family and watches life and death on the farm. His daddy is in the hospital and he has problems at school. Sebastian is a little dreamer and loves fighting with his little brother more than paying attention to his math homework. At school, the girls interrogate him thoroughly about which girls he likes and which he does not. Tom has two mommies, but he also has a daddy who comes to visit him regularly. Tom reads the newspaper, makes coffee, and is very alert. He is a pretty child, but he’s afraid of the dark. Tom is sure that the grown-ups have stopped playing because work and housework got in their way.
It’s not easy being a child, but it’s also not easy to make a good film about the experience of being a child. When watching MansFeld, I was thrown back into my own childhood, not because the stories are necessarily similar to mine, but because the film captures the moments of growing up so delicately and sweetly and, therefore, universally. Director Mario Schneider, who -together with Florian Kirchler -is also responsible for the camerawork, has the open eyes of someone who doesn’t know yet how boring, stressful, and bleak being an adult can be.
All senses are alert: Peng! Peng! Peng! Peng! We hear the whips being lashed and we wonder what they will be used for. The sound of this weapon is more reliable than the sound of words for a kid like Paul – his Saxon accent fails him at school when he turns all the “t”s into “d”s and his mother threatens to cancel the holidays. Some cruelties are serious for a child, others become banal in the everyday routine. To exsanguinate and skin a rabbit is no biggie, when you’re used to it. The death squeal of a gigantic pig might me a little frightening, but less so for the children watching than for someone who has never witnessed a live butchering before.
While the camera observes with great interest and even greater patience, the omniscient narrator is on holidays. I was almost waiting for the reassuring voice of an old man to tell me the story, but mind you, this fairy tale is real, despite all its enchantedness. As we become companions to our little princes on this journey back to childhood, we grown-ups get the chance to reconsider some of the politics we discuss wholeheartedly now that we think we are wiser. Can two women raise a child? Why don’t we ask little Tom, who looks like he couldn’t be happier with the attention he gets from mom, her girlfriend Steffi, and dad. Is it fair that in our goal-oriented society all children are treated as if they had the same educational and class background? When Paul fails at school, it doesn’t seem to be his fault so much, but in the end it’s him who’s suffering. These ideas are marginal notes in the film, but they expand the wonder of childhood towards the realities of being an adult.
Some of those responsible for the magic of MansFeld are no less than Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Igor Strawinsky, whose orchestrations add dramatic force and a hint of mystery to the tale of three boys and their town. They do it sparsely but effectively and, as much as I hate dominant music scores in documentary films, here, it couldn’t add more perfectly and magically to the real life drama.
The grand finale of the film is the celebration of Whitsuntide (Pfingsten) where all of Mansfeld turns into a whimsical spectacle of costume and ancient ritual. You finally discover the symbolic function of the whip, and gape with open mouth and wide eyes at the ethnographically documented festivities that involve colourful disguises, fancifully decorated vehicles, and lots of mud. By this point in the film, you wonder if what you see is real or not.
The fairy tale of childhood closes with a group of kids looking into the camera like the passers-by from the 1926 archive footage of the town’s people. Like childhood itself, you wish that this fascinating and utterly charming little film about the little people of the world would never come to an end.
MansFeld, Germany 2012, 98 min.
director: Mario Schneider, cinematography: Florian Kirchler/Mario Schneider and Peter Badel/ Thomas Plenert (2nd Unit), languages: German, distributor: 42film
To win 3×2 tickets for the special screening tonight at Hackesche Höfe, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (until 4 pm), subject line: fairy tale.
First come, first served: the first three emails win. The screening will be in German, no subtitles.