The 2012 almost-documentary This Ain’t California blended fact and fiction to portray a small but vibrant skateboarding community in the GDR. The real story behind the film is of spontaneous creativity, teenage friendship and a disturbing case of life imitating art imitating life.
Alexanderplatz, East Berlin, the mid-to-late 1980s. A small group of teenage boys are skateboarding in front of the Rotes Rathaus. It could be a scene in any city of the Western world at the time – the height of “skateboard fever”, when Back to the Future had brought skateboarding solidly into the mainstream consciousness. But this is the capital of socialist Germany, and passers-by look like they don’t know quite what to make of this odd sight. On closer inspection it’s clear that the boards are at least partially homemade; logos of California brands have been painted on, or are glued-on images from magazines. A few visiting Westerners stand out with their superior equipment and colourful clothing. But when it comes to skateboarding skills, the East boys hold their own. One of them manages a particularly improbable trick – a one-handed handstand and flip. Someone on the street takes a photo. The skateboarders know that it’s probably a Stasi camera, but they don’t seem too bothered by it. The scene was brought back to life in a stunning 2012 documentary called This Ain’t California, which, for the first time on screen, offered a window into the long-forgotten world of GDR skateboarding. The grainy, sun-drenched footage of the skaters served as visual counterpoint to interviews with contemporaries who used to skate there – recounting in particular the antics of one talented skateboarder: Denis Paraceck, nicknamed “Panik” for his rebellious and unpredictable nature. But soon after the release of the film, the truth emerged – the ‘historical’ footage was fake and Panik had never existed. Director Marten Persiel began to refer to his film as a “documentary-fiction”, casting a shadow on the very existence of a GDR skate scene. However, the Alexanderplatz days were a reality to many, including Christian Rothenhagen, who joined the crew in 1987. “There were usually around 10 people skating there,” he remembers. “Once I had this board – my first board with a concave and a kick tail – I went straight there. I said, ‘Hey, I’m Christian, I’m the new guy.’ And in one minute, I was part of the crew.”
Beyond GDR control
“I must have been 10 or 11 years old when I first saw skateboarding on TV,” says Rothenhagen, an artist based in Mitte. Born in 1972 in a small town near Erfurt, East Germany, he moved to East Berlin when he was four years old. Here it was easy to pick up illegal TV signals from Western channels, which was how he first discovered skateboarding. He was instantly captivated. When his family became friends with a West German family living in East Berlin temporarily for a job, the family’s young son let him have a go on a “banana board” – a flexible plastic skateboard. Inspired, young Christian began searching for a board of his own – but there were no skate shops in East Germany. So, at 12 years old, he built a skateboard: nailing two halves of a roller skate to a piece of wood. By trading with friends, he was gradually able to improve his board with better parts – but it wasn’t until 1987, when his West German friend gave him one of his old boards, that he felt brave enough to skate at Alexanderplatz. According to research by Kai Reinhardt of Münster’s Sport Science Institute, there were two to three hundred skaters in the GDR. This small scene was surprisingly accomplished and dedicated, despite limited access to proper skateboarding gear and a somewhat uneasy relationship with the socialist state. “Everything had political meaning in the GDR,” explains Reinhardt. “Sport was serious, ideological thing, supposed to prepare you for work. The concept of fun-oriented sports like skateboarding didn’t fit so well.” Nonetheless, skateboarders began to appear on the streets of East Germany – particularly in Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig. Some, like Rothenhagen, had first seen skateboarding on illegally-intercepted Western TV; others had encountered it in the film Beat Street, an American drama about the beginnings of the hip-hop scene in New York City. Made by left-winger Harry Belafonte and showing the poor living conditions of African Americans, Beat Street had enough socialist credentials to justify its being shown in cinemas around East Germany in 1985. It became a big influence on teenagers; many took up break-dancing, spray-painting or skateboarding in emulation of the film’s heroes. Faced with a self-organized youth movement that seemed to be imitating US culture, the state was unsure whether to forbid the new sport or to support and centralise it. “There was never a clear decision either way,” says Reinhardt, “but in many cases they tried to integrate skateboarding into organised mainstream sports culture. They made dedicated sections in the state sports centres – carefully calling it Rollbrettsport, rather than skateboarding. But skaters didn’t want trainers or official structures. They wanted to be out on the streets.” Perhaps the most farcical attempt to bring skateboarding under state control was the Germina Speeder – the only Rollbrett to be manufactured in the GDR. “It was a big joke to us,” Rothenhagen recalls. “It was such a bullshit thing. The people who designed it had no clue about skateboarding. It was just four wheels on a piece of wood.” In fact, the Speeder was an attempt to regulate skating itself: the board came with a list of rules about how and where you were allowed to skate. Nonetheless, a few Ossi skaters did get hold of a Speeder – but only to poach its wheels and attach them to better boards. Berlin-Alexanderplatz was the centre of East German skating. “Ost Berlin was very sleepy compared to a Western metropolis,” Reinhardt explains. “Only here, at Alexanderplatz, did you have a bit of that feeling of modern urban youth culture.” The proximity to West Berlin was a source not only of TV signals but also of direct exchanges with Western skateboarders. The growing community around West Berlin’s “California Sports” skate shop would cross over the border to spend the day skating with the Ossis – smuggling in boards, trucks and wheels to upgrade or repair Eastern DIY skateboards. Towards the end of the 80s, Cantian Stadion hosted the unofficial Berliner Meisterschaft – a friendly competition between Eastern and Western skaters. The presence of the Westerners – including journalists from Monster Skateboard Magazine – attracted the attention of the authorities. “Of course there were Stasi checking us out,” says Rothenhagen. “But I never got in trouble politically through skateboarding. Sometimes we were chased by hooligans, or had complaints about the noise, maybe someone might throw a bucket of water out of the window – just the same as in any city. Sometimes police came but they’d only move us on for being too loud, destroying the curbs, whatever; they didn’t really know what to do with us.”
Truthfulness or the making of a tragic hero
Among the East Berlin crew, there were a few skaters that showed real potential and talent. According to director Marten Persiel, the character of Panik in This Ain’t California is a combination of three of them: René Falk Thomasius, Marco Sladek and Torsten “Goofy” Schubert. All three appear in the film, in interviews or performing skate tricks – as themselves, rather than as Panik, who is never shown as an adult. In fact, the film is centred around Panik’s funeral – we quickly learn that he left the skateboarding world behind, vanished from his friend circle and surprised everyone by becoming a soldier, eventually dying on the frontline in Afghanistan. This last part is based directly on Sladek, who also joined the army. Panik’s death in the film is revealed to be a suicide. Sladek, too, committed suicide. But four years after the film came out. “Originally I thought it was going to be a classic documentary, just a series of interviews,” explains Marten Persiel, “but I realised this wouldn’t do justice to the subject matter.” Born in West Berlin in 1974 and growing up in Hannover and Hamburg, Marten was also a skateboarder in the 1980s but had no knowledge of the GDR scene. “So I set myself a rule: I would write a script, but everything in the film was going to be true. We made up the character of Panik – he was based on three people: Goofy [Torsten Schubert], who had a childhood of competition sports and rules but left it behind to become a skateboarder: I took his childhood and made it Panik’s. Then this rebel who gets all the girls, this is René Falk Thomasius. And the last chapter – this guy that used to be a punky skater and ends up being a soldier, this was Marco Sladek. So Panik is fictional, but every single thing that happened to him was an anecdote from an interview.” In fact, the stories that make up Panik’s life in the film are not just those of Thomasius, Schubert and Sladek. As Rothenhagen explains, “some of it happened to me, some to others – there are stories of around 15 people. The film crew would ask us to tell a true story from our lives but replace a name with the name of the character.” The script was already underway when Persiel met Marco Sladek, whose soldier career would provide the inspiration for Panik’s transformation and death in action. Sladek had almost completely cut himself off from his former scene. After the Wall came down, most of the East Berlin crew happily integrated with the Western world: as Rothenhagen puts it, “the 1990s were our high times – the crew split into different crews, new people joined, we joined others. It was the best time in skateboarding for my generation.” But Sladek went through a change that alienated him from his friends. “He had been a sort of role model to me, though I don’t like that term,” says Rothenhagen. “He was a brilliant skater, and he was the guy who introduced me to punk rock: I remember he played me “California Über Alles” by the Dead Kennedys. But he chose a different path.” Namely: a career in the military that would alienate his friends from him for 20 years. “Marco Sladek was an atypical case,” says Reinhardt. “Most skateboarders of this generation would probably classify themselves as leftist. In general, the Wende was easier on skateboarders than other East Germans – they already had a very Western lifestyle, so integrating was not a problem.” According to Persiel, Sladek’s enrolment in the Bundeswehr was actually preceded by years spent among far-right hooligans, which he now explains as “a combination of fear of the new, fear of the foreign” and a rebellious nature looking for “a shiny new way to piss people off.” Persiel also contends that Sladek confided to him a suicide attempt, which inspired Panik’s death in the film. Around his 40th birthday, Sladek was on the front in Afghanistan. “He told me he had decided he didn’t want to live anymore,” explains Persiel. “He was under fire, he was ordered to retreat. But instead he stood up straight and waited to be shot. The way it’s depicted in the film is exactly the way he described it to me apart from that he didn’t actually get shot – they shot at him, but kept missing. That’s the only moment of fiction in the film – that he didn’t get shot.”
The story of a friendship
Sladek’s role in the film allowed him to reunite with his former community, healing some of the friendships that had been destroyed, even forming new relationships. He took up skating again, after a 20-year respite, and even managed to recreate his famous one-handed handstand flip. “He had a couple of years in the limelight after the film came out – a lot of interviews, was on TV,” says Persiel. “Then he killed himself.” Critically praised and receiving a string of awards, as well as a Goethe-Institutfunded world tour for its creators, This Ain’t California was a success. But its blend of fact and fiction was controversial. “It was revealed, in the middle of the cinema release, that Panik was fictional,” recalls Persiel. “And then in every Q&A, that’s all we’d talk about. Some people felt like they’d been betrayed.” Overall, though, he’s pleased with the film response; most importantly the response from the skateboarding community that contributed their stories.“For me, a good way to look at it is truth versus truthfulness. I don’t think you can make truth on the screen, so you’re left with truthfulness, and that’s what you have to go for. The reaction from the skaters was that it was truthful,” says an unrepentant Persiel. Christian Rothenhagen agrees. “The name of the character doesn’t really matter – it’s more about conveying the whole thing. It’s the story of a friendship.”
Catch This Ain’t California and meet Marten Persiel at Lichtblick Kino on Sep 23, as part of our EXBlicks monthly series.