Earlier this summer I saw the film Barbara, the latest from Christian Petzold who some people believe to be the best German filmmaker alive today. You can get a sense of the intrigue, suspense and careful reconstruction of life in the GDR from the trailer, even without speaking German.
I really liked the film (and Nina Hoss’ wardrobe) and understand that it has US distribution. So if you are interested and planning on seeing it, what I am about to write contains a big spoiler. So decided now- turn back or keep reading.
At the end of the film, there’s a scene which features an escape to the west via the Baltic Sea. It’s night, and Barbara and her former patient are sitting on the beach waiting -for what exactly, no one seems to be sure. Suddenly in the darkness, a figure emerges from the sea and the sound of a small motor can be heard. There’s no time for explanation as the escape must begin immediately. But what becomes clear is that the patient is going to be ferried to the west clinging to what looks like a small boogie board dragged by a frogman propelled by an underwater motor. What?
As soon as the film was over, I turned to Silke and asked her if she had ever heard of people escaping to the west that way. She had not, though she seemed to think it was possible. We discussed the possibilities -would they be going to Denmark? Or would a larger boat be waiting to pick them up just past the border in international waters?
Then yesterday while I was in the library waiting for a book to be retrieved from the archives, I leafed through a book about the history of the GDR in pictures. Suddenly I landed on this one:
It’s a photograph of Bernd Böttger taken at a swimming pool in Schoneberg (West Berlin) in 1968. He is demonstrating to the press how he escaped from the GDR to the west via the Baltic Sea using this seaworthy motor he built from a scooter engine!
Christian Petzold’s inspiration? The story of Bern Böttger has the makings of a movie itself. Working at an auto-repair shop in East Germany, Böttger had long planned his escape over water but realized he would need some assistance to swim the distance required. He got certified in diving and worked on the motor in his free time. He sealed a two-crank engine inside a waterproof case, built a 14 centimeter long cigar-shaped air and fuel tank and mounted it all onto a hand-held bracket. Böttger himself would be the rudder.
On July 7 1967, Böttger set out to make his escape from Wismar and was caught on the beach by the Stasi. They confiscated his equipment and he went to prison, surprisingly for only three months. After his release, Böttger built another motor and set off to escape again, this time from Graal-Müritz on September 8, 1968. He made it into the water and set off for a ship he spotted 15 miles from the shore. He spent the first hour half a meter below the waves being pulled along at 5 km per hour. He did this until he was sure he was past any East German guards at sea, then switched to a snorkle and swam along the surface. The motor was only large enough to operate for five hours, and Böttger had packed emergency supplies -a small bottle of vitamin C and a mixture of milk, chocolate and sugar, a balloon of 10-ounces of drinking water, a rolled up air mattress and tools for on-site motor repairs.
At 4 AM -six hours after leaving the beach and some twenty sea miles away, Böttger finally reached the boat he had seen, which turned out to be from Denmark. As the Danes pulled Böttger onboard, it didn’t take them long to communicate that Böttger’s escape had been a success.
The story continues- once in the west, Böttger patents his “Aqua-Scooter” and begins sales discussions with American sport companies and even the US Navy regarding his invention. In 1974, he travels to Spain to test out a new prototype. It is there while diving with friends that Böttger suddenly turns up lifeless in the water. A strong swimmer, former life guard and experienced diver, Böttger’s death is very mysterious. Böttger’s family speculates that his international success with a machine invented to escape the Iron Curtain was too embarrassing for the GDR, and that a Stasi hit man was hired to take him out.
Böttger’s life is actually more interesting than the plot of Barbara and I wonder why no one has made a film about him yet? Maybe because as extraordinary as it is, there are dozens and dozens of amazing stories like this -real people taking incredible risks, and using such imaginative methods to escape. It just so happens that yesterday was the anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, so it’s also a perfect time to think about all the people who tried but didn’t successfully make it to the other side.