Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#2 Geert Lovink 1 Jan 1993

Günther Walraff in Transylvania

German journalist, activist and master of metamorphosis Günther Walraff revealed to Mediamatic the details of a project that foundered recently. Walraff was to live under cover in Ceausescu's Rumania, document the miserable living conditions in a Transylvanian village and leave the country via a role in a real Dracula film.

In 1988, West German undercover journalist Günther Walraff came into contact with Rumanians of German origin, descendents of Germans that had settled centuries before in Transylvania. They had arrived in the German Federal Republic in a desperate state, after fleeing Rumania. Only a short time before, a year before dictator Ceausescu fell, had information begun to reach the West about the impending destruction of thousands of villages, catastrophic living conditions and the paranoid features the personality cult surrounding Ceausescu had begun to display. The information gathered by Walraff about the destruction of villages and the deportations to mass housing silos was confirmed by the Rumanian-German writer Herta Müller. The horror stories were definitely not anti-communist propaganda, so Walraff got to work. Another reason for Walraff to tackle Rumania was the tv report by one of the journalists of the Bavarian broadcasting network, who had visited official Rumania and found that such alarming reports were exaggerated and needed to be put in perspective.

As always, Walraff went in search of a new identity:// I found a double, a Rumanian German who had emigrated thirty years before to the Federal Republic. As far as his attitude, one might call him a political dissident, but he was not active politically. With his papers, I was to officially return to his birthplace and move in with his family, who still lived in Transylvania. The Rumanian authorities could have used me for propaganda purposes. They would have found it splendid: a Western businessman declaring loyalty to Ceausescu in public. I would also have been able to have a negative report about his return appear in the Bildzeitung (a German sensationalist magazine). That would have made the case appear all the more feasible. Two family members would play along in these dangerous circumstances and I would document daily life in this dying village for a couple of months or half a year. The village school was already closed, the houses were in ruins and the street had become a mud path. The village was on the list of villages to be wiped off the face of the earth. I was to work with a small, hidden video camera; the same kind I'm using on the project I'm working on now.//


The problem for Walraff and his 'family' was to get back out of the country unharmed. In the eighties, the 'surreal' communist regime had already maneuvered the country into total isolation. It was impossible for Rumanians to leave the country. In this preparatory phase, a film idea was introduced that became part of the Rumania plan. Walraff:// I was in touch with the American director Bobby Roth, a representative of the New American Cinema. He had made a film about my undercover job at the Bildzeitung. We had already wanted to work together for some time; besides, he was descended from Rumanians. He was to submit a plan for an innocent Dracula film project through official channels. Rumanian government institutions were eager to cooperate; they needed hard currency. We were to have the historic Dracula castle in Bran at our disposal as a location. Roth had already found financial backing and was busy obtaining the necessary permits and writing the scenario. The film was supposed to ultimately become a feature film and documentary in one, a political parable in which Ceausescu was compared to Dracula as he sucked the life energy from the people, made perhaps the same way as the first Kurdish feature film, Siyabend ü Xece//by Sahin Gök (shown at the Film Festival Rotterdam in 1993). The acting in that film was silent; sound was dubbed in later so that the guards on the set would not understand what the film was actually about.

How was Walraff to get in touch with the crew of Dracula? The lead actor would become ill and have to be replaced; while looking for a replacement, they would chance upon me. The director would then 'discover' me, as so often happens in the film industry. Our idea was to mix the Dracula images with images taken from hard reality. The feature film material would be mixed with video images I had made under difficult circumstances. Work was in progress on the film script when news came of Ceausescu's fall. Luckily, I did not have to play that dangerous role. Two or three times in the past, reality had overtaken my plans. In these turbulent times, it had happened once again.

In light of the catastrophic situation in post-1989, neo-communist and nationalist Rumania, there is actually every reason to continue to work on the Dracula project. Walraff: Certainly, at this very moment Rumanian refugees in Germany are being deported back to Rumania, while responsibility for the destruction of 500,000 Rumanians during the nazi regime is still denied; much less does the government seem to have learned anything from it.

Walraff has already worked with video cameras during his metamorphoses. What does he think of the lightweight cam-corders? For Ganz Unten (the role of Turkish immigrant worker) I had to drag around seven kilos; that's now been reduced to two. The fear of being discovered is less. I used to have my big work-bag with me, camouflaged with a thermos with coffee in it. When I was working at Thyssen, I kept a porno cassette in it in case I was discovered. Smaller cam-corders don't necessarily allow you to get closer to events, but you can behave more naturally. You can take the bag with the camera in it from one spot to another without it being noticed. The big carrying bag had to stay in the same place most of the time, and the chance was small that something would happen in that room. Sometimes nothing happened for hours on end. You can move the little bag back and forth more easily; and also take things out of it.

In light of the popularity of home video, also on tv, will it become easier to film openly in the future? No, the situations I move in are still pervaded by secrecy. Even a guileless tourist camera would be alarming. I do make use of a camera with a special mirror that allows me to take photos in the direction opposite the one the camera is aimed. But I am interested in the small video-lenses used by surgeons. They might mean a revolution in documentary work.

translation jim boekbinder