The Iron Border (Die eiserne Grenze)

Peter Wagner, 1999, Austria, 53min, German with English subs


When the major changes in East-West relations were announced in Europe in the spring of 1989, it affected not only the abstract level of politics but also actual individual fates, two of which Peter Wagner singles out in the “Die eiserne Grenze”: a Hungarian border official and an Austrian teacher who has been visiting him at his border post for a long time. The two know each other from looks and conversations across the border fence, which despite the verbal proximity guarantees physical distance, thus offers space for fantasies and longings about the unattainable on the other side. With the opening of the border, it will become clear whether reality can hold up to what was imagined. 

It is 1989, the time of the great emigration wave from Eastern Germany over the Czech Republic and Hungary to Austria and Western Germany and a couple of weeks before the wall falls, when the fence of the Austrian-Hungarian border becomes the meeting point of a youthful Austrian elementary school teacher and a young Hungarian volunteer of the border police. Their encounters take place close by the ruins of St. Emmerich church, situated right at the border on Hungarian territory. The church served the communist border guards as control- and watchtower after 1945 and was then left to decay. Until the end of the war the local Hungarians used to buried at the adjacent and completely overgrown cemetery right at the border fence.

This cemetery is Lajos’ favourite spot. The stout young man is one of the few people left speaking with the typical dialect of the ‘Hianzn’ in the southern part of the Burgenland which had, however, disappeared but in a handful of German-speaking enclaves on the Hungarian side. The young school teacher whom Lajos calls ‘Christl’ just recently moved to the sleepy border village. Attracted by the odd world-dividing fence, she spends much of her time close by.

It is this fence which provokes the two people’s attraction towards each other; the tabu area the fence creates is in itself the breeding ground for their relationship. This borderline also represents the inner limits of their constant fight against this attraction.

Together, as much as against each other, they spin their bold-growing fantasies of a sexual encounter, which the fence as a rescueing anchor between them makes impossible to become reality and saves them from the actual move. This, in turn, helps to unfold the unrestrained and partly vicious power game between them.

Without noticing, they move themselves into the disastrous situation of mutual attraction and repulsion, the craving search for and the cynical reflexion of the other. In the end, those two people become a metaphor for the different political and social systems of the East and the West, which, shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain, began to strive for proximity and unity.
The short relationship between ‘Christl’ and Lajos is over once the fence between them has been torn down. Several years later, in a mass taking place in the now renovated St. Emmerich church, the two run into each other again…

Watch movie here: