Minnich made his first trip to the Hauptstadt as a wide-eyed student on a Viennese exchange in 1989. He was so taken by the then-divided city that he swore to return, which he did after graduating from New York’s Columbia University, just missing the Fall of the Wall by two short months. It was during this time that the young Minnich experienced the intoxicating post-Wende Luft – starting out in a WG and picking up a sense of ‘anything is possible’ naiveté: “I thought, I have a bachelor’s degree from an Ivy League university, the world is going to fall at my feet.” Instead, a Greek restauranteur did, offering him under-the-table dishwashing cash.
Minnich quickly moved up in the world, becoming the personal English tutor to the President of the Bundesdruckerei, before a newfound taste for photography and communist memorabilia set him on the hunt for the last-standing Lenin statues in a post-Soviet Europe that was busy decommunising. “I was taking pictures all the time and someone joked that I should make a book about these Lenin statues. So this was the idea that became the story of the film: that I had a publishing deal to make a book about statues which are being torn down faster than I can photograph them.” So, on a hot summer’s day in 1994, Minnich set out to give the Platz der Vereinten Nationen Lenin statue, torn down in 1991, its Lazarushian moment.
Luckily for Minnich, friend and photographer Andreas Kemper had been present at Lenin’s Köpenick forest ‘burial’, and based on Kemper’s old snaps, the pair were able to find the site near a former NVA shooting range. “We just had shovels and buckets but we didn’t find the head until the end of the second day, and by then it was too dark to film. I was so poor back then, we did all this and I only had three minutes of film which had been in someone’s fridge for months.”
Minnich got his footage and left Lenin in his not so final resting place. If it weren’t for Spandau Citadel director Andrea Theissen, Vladimir Ilyich’s head could have remained buried under the forest floor forever.
“Theissen fought for years with the Senat to get permission to dig up the head, and eventually the government admitted records of where the head was buried had been lost. I saw this in the news and on a whim I wrote to the mayor to say, ‘Uhh, I know where the head is, I can help you out of this embarrassing situation.’”
Minnich got no response, but after contacting local papers floods of journalists wanted to see the site. “I took them out there and, man, trees can grow in 20 years, everything looked completely different!” Eventually Mr Lenin was excavated in 2015 and has been on display at Spandau Citadel’s museum ever since.
Thirty years on, 52-year-old Minnich is a family man living in a four-room Prenzlauer Berg Altbau with his wife and five children. But he hasn’t stopped finding surprising tell-me-more stories. 2015 saw the release of The Bomb Hunters, his doc following the mayor of Oranienburg’s attempt to rid the Brandenburg district of its 300 buried and unexploded World War II bombs. While next year Minnich hopes to release The Strait Guys, a decade-in-the-making story of perhaps the greatest modern engineering feat, the attempt to connect the USA and Russia across the Pacific Bering Strait.