East Germany’s Secret Police Used to Spy on Skateboarders
For whatever reason the public perception of skateboarding seems to have changed over the last decade. Skaters on TV aren’t obnoxious, glue-huffing wasters any more; they’re admirable young men building community skateparks on Google ads. But the sport, or the culture that goes hand-in-hand with the sport, at least, did used to be seen as more of a threat to all things wholesome.
One country where this held especially true was communist East Germany in the 1980s—also known as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR—before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Skateboarding was American, therefore subversive and dangerous, so the Stasi began monitoring the skating community to keep tabs on any potential troublemakers or ringleaders. The perceived danger quickly made its way into the state media. A news clip from the time instructs viewers that it is “our duty to protect our children and youths from [skateboarding],” meaning skaters were demonized and left to smuggle Californian-made boards over the border if they wanted to skate anything more advanced than a plank of wood attached to some rollerskate wheels.
German filmmaker Marten Persiel made a “hybrid documentary” about the history of skating in the GDR called This Ain’t California, which was released last year in Germany and gets its international cinematic release next month. The film was criticized on its release for its liberal use of reconstructions and the fact its lead character never actually existed, but Marten told me, “all the things that happen in the film are true stories.” He simply amalgamated them to create a lead character who he could hang the narrative from. And in a “hybrid documentary,” that doesn’t seem like too big of a deal.
I spoke to Marten about his film, skateboard smuggling, and hugely successful punk bands made up entirely of secret service agents.
An American Who Defected to East Germany
Between World War II and the fall of Communism, many fled Soviet-controlled East Germany and headed westward. The stories of these dissidents, defectors, and hardworking citizens who were simply looking for a better life have been exhaustively documented. But much less is known about the histories of the few who headed against the tide, from west to east, repulsed by capitalism. Victor Grossman was one such person.
Born Steve Wechsler in New York City in 1928, Victor’s political ideology was shaped by his experiences living in America during the Great Depression and the events of the Spanish Civil War. After earning an economics degree from Harvard, his communist ideals led him to earn a simple living as a factory worker. In 1950, in the beginning stages of the Korean War, Victor was drafted and while stationed in Germany, his left-wing past was uncovered by the military. Fearing a court-martial for his beliefs, he sought refuge in the Soviet bloc, changing his name to Victor Grossman and settling among like-minded comrades in the German Democratic Republic.
For 30 years, Victor thrived in the GDR as a journalist and author. He published numerous books on US history and culture, lectured frequently, and hosted a popular radio show that introduced East Germans to the antiestablishment folk songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. Despite his criticisms of the GDR establishment, Victor still felt that he was seeing his ideal—“an antifascist state with economic security for everybody”—transformed into utopian reality. By the late 80s, however, it became apparent that the Soviet system could no longer sustain itself and would soon collapse under its own weight. Victor came to the bleak realization that he would have to “start over from zero.”
In 1994, he returned to the USA for the first time, where he was officially discharged from the army, 44 years after being enlisted. He remains today in Berlin and continues to write prolifically in German. In 2003 he published an English-language autobiography, Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany. Regardless of what you think about his political convictions, Victor’s ideological steadfastness is impressive. In a way he seems to be a man out of time, which made me think that speaking with him could provide not just a window to the past, but a different context for viewing the present.
VICE: When did you first become disillusioned with capitalism? Was it a gradual progression or was it one event?
Victor Grossman: The 1930s were a left-wing period. My first recollection from a newsreel was the big sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, which broke General Motors. I remember that and [what was happening in] Spain, the soup lines and college graduates selling apples on the corner to make a living. My father was an art dealer. Who buys art in depression times? It was often tight, but we never went hungry. We were never really down and out, especially because we had a bungalow in New Jersey in an experimental single-tax community called Free Acres. It was very simple; it had running cold water and no electricity. And it was wonderful, just wonderful. We ran around barefoot all day. It was like Huckleberry Finn. A lot of people living there were bohemians from New York and left-wingers. Some of the nicest people in that place were left-wingers who really determined my thinking.
You went to Harvard, but after graduation you started working in a factory. Why?
When I graduated Harvard, the Communist party secretary from Boston came to us and said, “You’ve got a Harvard diploma, but our party is supposed to be a workers’ party, and we don’t have enough workers. Have any of you considered becoming workers?” I was one of three people who said yes. I was provided with an address in Buffalo. I hitchhiked there and walked to this black neighborhood. I came to this rundown wooden house, and on the porch was a middle-aged black lady in a rocking chair. I said, “I’m looking for Hattie Lumpkin, do you know where I can find her?” She said, “That’s me.” She was the head of Buffalo’s Communist Party.
Hattie’s place was Buffalo’s left-wing hub. The family her daughter had worked for had been leftists; they had asked her to sit at the table with them to eat. This was absolutely unheard of. She became a Communist. At first, Hattie had told her to get the hell out with her atheist ideas, but they argued and Hattie was convinced. Hattie’s place became my home away from home when I worked the awful graveyard shift at the factory.
You’ve probably heard a little bit about the top secret experiment the Army conducted during the Cold War. A room glowing flourescent blue, with an unwitting soldier seated in the middle. A doctor wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a cigarette walks in with a syringe. He mutters something softly as the needle goes into the soldier’s arm. Cut to the outside of the building and the sound of breaking glass, as the soldier’s body falls to the ground. (Pro tip: Stay away from windows when experimenting with LSD.) That’s what it’s like in the movies, anyway.
Turns out these experiments were worse in real life. Raffi Khatchadourian’s sprawling exposée on the Army’s psychochemical warfare program in this week’s New Yorker details the collective confusion and chaos that took hold of the armed forces as they imagined the worst during the Cold War. The program was underwritten by an utter disregard for human dignity and medical ethics: Many of the young soldiers who volunteered for the program weren’t told anything about the medical tests they would undergo at Edgwood Arsenal, the Army’s classified facility on the Chesapeke Bay. And many say they were scarred for life after what happened to them inside.
MOZART’S TAILOR: THE CZECH COSTUME DESIGNER WHO WON THE OSCAR AND LOST HIS COUNTRY
Theodor in his studio, wearing his everyday costume.
Theodor Pištěk, now 80 years old, is a Czech costume designer best known for his work on 1984’s Amadeus, for which he won an Academy Award. During the 1980s, when Czechoslovakia was cut off from the West by the Iron Curtain, Theodor was shut out of the Czech film industry, then a puppet of the Communists. However, he managed to transition into the US market and make films with his friend Miloš Forman, who in 1968 fled Czechoslovakia for the USA. They collaborated on Valmont and The People vs. Larry Flint, but Amadeus was the pair’s biggest success. It took home eight Academy Awards and turned Theodor into an icon among fashion designers.
One could view the victory of a bunch of Czechs at the premier American film awards as one of the signs that the Cold War was ending. But back then, in the mid-80s, the totalitarian regime running the country tended to punish citizens who experienced success abroad, and Theodor became an unlikely target. I asked him about his struggle.
VICE: How did you become a costume designer? Were you appointed by the regime?
Theodor Pištěk: They didn’t appoint me. It was an existential need for me. I loved it. I had no education in the field. The only experience I had was studying at the Academy of Arts, where one only knew costumes from old paintings.
I saw it as creative work. I felt like I was the first person who knew what the film was going to look like. I was always one of the guys who got to see the screenplay first, because that’s where you’d find out that this character was supposed to be a lawyer and such and such. A lot of costume designers just get the general idea of what people wore at the time the story takes place and give their characters a suit, but it’s not really that easy.
Was it difficult to find materials for your costumes back then? I imagine the shopping options in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia were somewhat limited.
That’s where the trouble began. The only thing that saved me was this one particular shop that the wives of top members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia would visit. Prague’s Barrandov Studios had tremendous power and could arrange for some of their costume designers to shop there for various movies. You could get real quality stuff there. That’s where I was able to meet all the ladies from the Communist Party. I always had to wait until they were done, and then they would let me in. The first movie I worked on without all of these obstructions was Amadeus.
But you ran into different kinds of problems with Amadeus, correct? Every time Miloš Forman came to Czechoslovakia he was surrounded by the secret police.
There were a bunch of directors at Barrandov who were in the Communist Party, and when people started talking about Forman coming to Prague to shoot Amadeus they wrote a letter to the Central Committee saying that they, as conscious filmmakers, protested against Forman shooting here. But because the economy was so bad in the 80s, the party felt it was better to make a few dollars than listen to a bunch of Communists from Barrandov. Although they did set up a meeting with Forman and the producer and make an agreement about how the filming would proceed.
LEFT: A fancy dress costume, complete with a swan mask, that Theodor made for Elizabeth Berridge, who played Mozart’s wife in Amadeus. RIGHT: Tom Hulce, who played Mozart, wore this costume and launched the pink wig trend of the mid-80s.
What was the agreement?
Each of the more significant members of the team had his own cop tailing him, but the truth is that it wound up working out differently. The guy who was supposed to take care of Forman would come in every morning, and for a bribe of 20 bucks, he’d spill all the orders he had, what he was supposed to be taking care of that day, and also what Forman should watch out for. That cop would have taken a bullet for Forman. But Forman kept the agreement with the Communist Party. Because of that, he didn’t go meet with [playwright and dissident] Václav Havel, since he promised he wouldn’t.