Berlin Arts

‘This Ain’t California’: The Undeclared Mockumentary

Every once and a while a film comes around that does the truth a real disservice. This is one of them.

‘This Ain’t California’, which showed at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, is a movie about skateboarders in East Germany who stood up to the Communist regime, which considered their sport too individualistic. This is a great premise for a film, but because the film does not distinguish between historical footage and scenes which were recently filmed, it is impossible to think of it as anything but a pseudo-documentary.

More egregious is that the film deliberately misleads the viewer: never once are you told that (probably most of the) footage is re-enacted, or that the characters in the leading roles are actually actors. Worse still: it is well done. Most people I have met who have seen this film accept the antiqued footage is genuine, that it is historically accurate. All this deeply worries the historian in me.

German history is no ordinary history. This might sound high-minded, but we shouldn’t forget Germany unleashed Hitler and was later partly dominated by Stalin. You do not need conflate the crimes of the Nazi regime with those of the Soviet satellite states (under the aegis of ‘totalitarianism’, a conflation I’m adverse to) to think it’s important to be watchful and agitate for an accurate historical, documentary, record of the GDR regime.

This Ain’t California lets down the concerted efforts by historians, policy makers, educators and the public, who attempt to transmit a well-documented record of the past to those who come after us. They have instead added to the record a sexy commercial product that isn’t simply bad history, but something that might not be history at all.

Let’s put the record straight. As historian Eric Hobsbawn (who regrettably died today) says, it’s historians’ ‘business to remember what others forget’. Even more essential is to correct what others simply make up:

In an interview, the filmmaker Martin Persiel (who incidentally grew up in West Germany, not the GDR), talks about why he uses animation and ‘theatrical parts’ in his film, they give you

…the opportunity to exaggerate things, to make them plain and iconic. I think in documentary that is something that comes in very handy, because sometimes you just don’t have a good image for what you want to say, especially if you are talking about the past. Also, it’s funny how images that are obviously not ‘real’ can help to underline the emotional credibility of a real story.

On one level Persiel is saying that animation and theatrical and fictionalised additions are useful to his film. But the animated additions appear to be inserted at those moments when historical footage is missing, making the new Super 8 footage appear all the more authentic. Also here, the director is admitting a lackadaisical attitude to the documentary (as opposed to ’emotional’) credibility of the story. I don’t like that he puts the word real in scare quotes. There’s something disturbing about the idea that what’s real in the past is up to movie makers to craft without real documentary sources.

Watching the film, and knowing people here in the film industry, I was surprised to see actors I actually recognised! And to be surprised that they have time-traveled back to the eighties! I’ve even come across a skateboarder in the city, cast to pretend he was in the GDR regime, who asserts simply ‘it’s a fiction film’.

Never declared (and omitted from the credits) is that the model Kai Hillebrand plays the main character, an anti-authoritarian wild boy. According to the film, the character he is in the film (let alone ‘plays’: you are never told he’s anything but the original) was born in 1970, and not 1990. Does he look like a 42-year old to you?

We can immediately write off as anachronistic all the scenes in the film in which he appears: and those account for a significant percentage of the film… the scenes in the Prague hotel where skateboarders fight with fire extinguishers, the outlandish party scenes in the flat on Karl Marx Allee with the naked women and boozing, most of the boarding scenes, and the climactic confrontation with the Stasi. The director (who refuses to answer directly whether then film is fiction) has skirted questions about the actual existence of the historical figure Hillebrand plays, Denis ‘Panik’ Panicek, who was supposedly is killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011. Except as far as I can find, no one by that name was ever killed in action in Afghanistan. No matter, the film is dedicated to his memory.

There are plenty of other slights of hand in this film: so-called documentary footage that conveniently can focus on the skateboarders’ wheels, and not on the contemporary buildings, an interview with a Stasi agent that is acted so badly it’s almost certainly a theatrical job. I’m also very suspicious of the GDR news footage railing against the Imperialist threat of skateboarding (it struck me as an hommage to the fake news clips crafted by the boys for the mother in Goodbye Lenin). With so much amiss, it’s hard to believe there’s any emotional or documentary credibility left to what skateboard scene may or may not have actually existed in the GDR. This does a disservice to any actual skateboarders who may have stood up against the Party. Isn’t their story interesting enough to deserve a real documentary?

The film meanwhile provides convenient explanations for its deceits. You might be wondering: where did they get all that Super 8 film in the East? Explanation in film: my Daddy had connections and got it for me. Explanation necessary only if you wish to mislead, since much of the footage is not original. And how did they get Western skateboards? The son of a diplomat with CD plates snuck them in for us. He offers an interview in the film, and again we wonder if he’s an actor.

The producer of the film, Ronald Vietz, says ‘It’s not important whether it’s true or not’.

I beg to differ. It matters. If the film is entered as a ‘documentary’ for the Berlinale and other film festivals it should not be fiction. It matters if it wins prizes in that category, like in Cannes at the Independent Film Festival. It matters for German history. And it matters if your audience thinks it’s real.

It matters because the film is a lot less interesting to the audience if it’s fiction. One senses something commercially minded here: the film will sell better if people think it’s a documentary, especially an audience eager for Communism seen through the rose-tinted glasses of Ostalgie.

The subject matter distinguishes it from the brilliant Banksy hoax ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, because that film, full of flirtatious self-awareness as a misleading artwork, explores an artist playing off his own story, not a bunch of German filmmakers playing haphazard with a collective past of serious importance.

As far as I’m concerned ‘This Ain’t California’ sure ain’t East Germany either.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

10 thoughts on “‘This Ain’t California’: The Undeclared Mockumentary

  • As someone who has also recently viewed this film, I feel that by presenting This Ain’t California as a documentary, the director, writers and producers have done the viewers and themselves a major disservice.

    What’s great about the mockumentary genre is that its acknowledgement of its fictionality allows writers and directors to create the perfect story without superfluous additions. It borrows documentary format and style, but its UNtruths are what entertain us.

    Because This Ain’t California has been presented to us as The Real Truth by its documentary label, its flaws as a feature film stand out more. Once you realize the animated scenes are not based on real memories, they become a stylistic element that are just thrown in at different points. Anecdotes from people who may or may not have been GDR skaters become pointless digressions.

    Worst of all, if the film is indeed fiction, the ambivalent romance between Denis and “The Witch” is really just a half-assed attempt at commercialization (because every good movie needs a boy and girl in love, right?).

  • I’m a skateboarder and I recently watched this film in Berlin believing it was an authentic documentary. During and afterwards, I kept thinking, ‘wow, I can’t believe they shot so much footage in 80’s GDR’. It seemed incredible to me but I totally bought it…I also actually happen to have an MA in history, which makes me feel even more had…

  • I’m glad I found this article before I bought the movie. I was fooled as well, believing this was ass kicking historical material. Knowing the truth, even the “real” material looses all worth, because I can’t know what is real and not. The first time I saw the movie I was deeply moved and I was gonna add this to my collection of politically important documents.
    It is still, a good story. But in times like these, history still has got to hold some “real” weight that storytelling can’t.

    • I also thought this film was a documentary, but it didn’t take much digging to figure out it wasn’t. “Much digging” in this case just meant reading an article in “Zitty” magazine. I think the film is interesting precisely BECAUSE it plays with the documentary genre, subjectivity and the notion of authenticity. I don’t think the film has so much to do with any documentation of ‘actual history’, but rather memory and how it fixes itself in our understanding of ourselves in the present tense. The film uses ‘markers’ of the documentary genre to manipulate the viewer, which in my humble opinion, should challenge our readiness as viewers to just accept whatever information is fed to us as truth. It has nothing to do with the portrayal of an ‘absolute historical truth’, which I doubt you ever find in a documentary anyway. That this film was ‘allowed’ to be screened as part of the Berlinale as a documentary indicates a fault in the selection committee’s research- it also extends the effect of the film outside the screening room.
      Interesting to watch are “Ein Traum in Erdbeerfolie” and “Ostpunk”. (This is part of my MA thesis by the way)

  • I was quite impressed with the film, seeing this, I’ll gladly declare it a masterpiece. Herzog is right: To hell with the truth of accountants. This is poetic truth, and as such far more important. From the very first animation, we are told to question the factual validity of the story. It tells you up front: This is myth. This is a story. This is cultural narrative. I’m not surprised at critics throwing a fit over this. People always get upset when they are reminded that all stories are essentially fiction, they feel cheated. But in the end that supposed ‘cheating’ is what art is all about.

  • It is very annoying, that this film isn’t a real documentary. I thought, only little pieces were added. But to find out, that most of it is fake, makes me feel deceived.

  • I liked the movie, but was quite doubtful about it authenticity .

    1. How comes this guys had the camera with them ALL the times?

    2. Why not VHS? Wasn’t Super 8 an already obsolete medium the 1980s?

    3. The people in the supposedly old footage aren’t clearly the same that gather together remembering the story.
    Specially the girl, wich is like 35 years old.
    She should have been less than 10 in the late 80’s.

    4. The Stasi official is really bad acted.

  • I’ve just seen this hoax documentary on TV and I have to admit that I cried like a little bitch at the end, and realizing it was all fake made think of throwing my TV through the window (at the same time, isn’t that a classic Denis move – if he ever existed, of course). Although, I must say that the whole time I thought to myself that the main character looks just like that skater guy from Prayer in C music video, and eventually it was the exact same skater/actor/model! How shocking, and eye watering experience…

  • What you’ve written about the delicacy of the documentary (and the harmfulness of the mockumentary) in relation to German history is so important. In a German degree (Int MA German), you spend so much time being cautioned about the myths that have grown around German history because of blissful, media-fuelled ignorance; This Ain’t California is exactly what German history doesn’t need.

    I personally got a little bit suspicious when a piece of supposedly authentic footage from the GDR is shown of a kid doing a handstand on his board. “What incredible quality for the 80s”, I thought to myself. Damn right. I ended up pausing the film about an hour in after the woman who supposedly had a “thing” with Denis was asked by her partner “Did you two have a thing?” It was badly acted, and then it hit me. Is this not real? Apparently not.

    What’s worst is that I actually got excited about a potential research project for my next period abroad. How incredible it would be to go and discover this underground rebellion in the GDR, and how there would still be men living in Germany who could impart real-life experiences. Excitement destroyed. What a terrible shame.

    • I also feel like a pillock for not realizing that if this underground Skate-scene had existed, I’d probably have come across it during my studies. That one’s on me.

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