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Goerliwood, the movie star of the German far east

GOERLITZ, Germany: Under communism it fell into ruin, but 25 years after the Berlin Wall disappeared, the German town of Goerlitz now has big ambitions of giving Hollywood a run for its money.

Its name may not be well-known internationally, but the town’s plethora of historic facades and venues has already featured in acclaimed movies such as “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Reader.”

The town now hopes to cash in on the lucrative film industry by promoting its evocative streets that run the gamut of styles – from Gothic and Renaissance to Baroque and Art Deco – to help revive its flagging economic fortunes.

To facilitate filming on location in the far-eastern town of around 54,000 inhabitants, it has nominated a point woman to coordinate matters related to the movie world.

“Under communist East Germany, the town center buildings were all gray, dilapidated,” said Kerstin Gosewisch, who currently holds the position. “People preferred to live on the outskirts in new buildings, well-heated and with toilets in the apartment and not on the landing.

“After the fall of the Wall, people from the West arrived and marveled at the remnants of the town.”

Spared damage by allied bombing during World War II, Goerlitz was spliced in two by the then-new German-Polish border.

After Germany’s 1990 reunification, some 78,000 people lived in Goerlitz, but like many towns in the former East it has seen a mass exodus since, as people sought higher wages in western regions.

Its atmospheric courtyards, mouldings, historic arcades and archways have nevertheless remained a constant.

Dubbing itself “Goerliwood,” the town has already been chosen as a location stand-in for such centers as New York, Berlin, Paris and Heidelberg, according to tour guide Karina Thiemann.

Initially only known by German filmmakers, the town has gradually made a name for itself among international producers, bolstered by its proximity to the mythic Studio Babelsberg, outside Berlin.

In 2003 it provided the backdrop for Frank Coraci’s “Around the World in 80 Days.” Other movies filmed there include “The Reader,” which won Kate Winslet an Oscar in 2009, Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” and some of the scenes from George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men.”

For three months at the start of last year, Goerlitz was also the imaginary central European setting for Wes Anderson’s movie “Grand Budapest Hotel.”

“Wes Anderson was thinking of filming in a hotel in Marienbad in the Czech Republic,” Gosewisch said, “but, in the end, he chose Goerlitz’s department store transformed for the occasion into the Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Built in 1913, the Art Nouveau building with a colored glass roof and open floors was empty ahead of filming after its previous owner went bankrupt. It’s currently being renovated with plans to reopen as a shop toward the end of next year.

Goerlitz has known two golden periods in its history, the first at the end of the Middle Ages, when it was home to many drapers and fabric merchants and was situated along a key East-West trade route.

Its second came at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of the railway bringing many wealthy Berliners to retire in Goerlitz, which was popular for its clean air.

On the far eastern flank of then-divided Germany, Goerlitz was marginalized by the Iron Curtain, with the German half of the town having little contact with its Polish sister town, Zgorzelec.

Since the end of communism in Europe, Goerlitz has again attracted some wealthy western residents who have invested in preserving its architectural beauty.

With a jobless rate of around 13 percent, underemployment has seen many youth leave. So the town hopes its movie roles can offer a greater source of income.

Plans are afoot to film a Christmas tale in the “Grand Budapest Hotel” location this year, according to Gosewisch, and discussions are underway on a separate international production, possibly to be filmed next year.

The town also has a real-life mystery of its own – for 20 years an anonymous donor has been granting the amount of $676,700 a year toward its renovation.

“Nobody knows who it is,” said the tourist guide. “Everyone imagines their own story.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 20, 2014, on page 16.

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Summary

Under communism it fell into ruin, but 25 years after the Berlin Wall disappeared, the German town of Goerlitz now has big ambitions of giving Hollywood a run for its money.

To facilitate filming on location in the far-eastern town of around 54,000 inhabitants, it has nominated a point woman to coordinate matters related to the movie world.

After Germany's 1990 reunification, some 78,000 people lived in Goerlitz, but like many towns in the former East it has seen a mass exodus since, as people sought higher wages in western regions.

For three months at the start of last year, Goerlitz was also the imaginary central European setting for Wes Anderson's movie "Grand Budapest Hotel".

The town also has a real-life mystery of its own – for 20 years an anonymous donor has been granting the amount of $676,700 a year toward its renovation.


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