Fatherland is something of a forgotten, overlooked film in Ken Loach's body of work. Made in the 1980s, a decade which saw Loach at his least prolific and most openly disillusioned with the feature film making process, this marked an intriguing change of pace for the director; working from a script by acclaimed left-wing playwright Trevor Griffiths, it saw Loach move away from his familiar social realist depictions of the issues based within the UK to focus instead on the issues inherent within 1980s Germany and specifically Berlin, then still divided by The Wall.
German singer-songwriter Gerulf Pannach stars as an East German protest singer Klaus Drittemann who is, at the start of the film, facing expulsion from the GDR because of the openly critical views he expresses through his work. As the politicians, reporters and record company executives in the West eagerly await his arrival, they openly wonder if such a move is hereditary, given that his estranged father was also concerned a political dissident asked to leave by the East in the 1950s. Presumably Drittemann can be viewed as a fictionalised version of Pannach himself, given that he too was expelled from the East Germany in the previous decade.
Fatherland is a film of two halves. The first half of the film establishes Klaus's situation in the East and sees him cross the checkpoint into the presumably more open West Germany. Here he is promised greater artistic freedom, a more appreciative audience and huge money-making potential. He is wined and dined and thrown parties and press conferences by the record company, and he meets up with Rainer (Hans Peter Hallwachs) another previously outspoken, artistic exile from the GDR and an openly gay man who now makes music videos in the most sexually explicit of styles. In these scenes the film asks us to compare the notions of East and West and whether the grass really is greener on the other side - indeed Rainer seems no happier for the fame and freedom he has secured. In the East, Klaus had a family which, like his father before him, he has left behind. His artistic integrity was compromised by censorship and open contempt from the authorities and he was plagued by constant surveillance by Stasi agents. In the West, Klaus is alone; he has no family, he is followed by other intelligence agencies such as the CIA, and his record company openly refer to as a 'commodity'; a money-generating product for this capitalist society whose art will surely be compromised by commercial pressures. In one blisteringly good key scene, set at his inaugural press conference, Klaus rips into a local Christian Democrat politician who promises him a better, freer existence in the West by pointing out how the oppression he faced within the GDR was likely to be more honest than the hypocrisies he faces in West Germany. He mentions the Bitburg controversy - the 1985 visit by Ronald Reagan to a German military cemetery which contained many burial plots dedicated to members of the Waffen-SS - and argues that a society that was founded on the fascist ideals of Nazi Germany, and which continues to protect and preserve those war criminals in high office, can offer him no guarantees of greater personal freedom. It's a great scene and one which was cut by West German backers ZDF when broadcast on television in Germany; "It was ironic that they cut the only decent scene in the film" Loach lamented, being somewhat harsh on himself.
The second half of Fatherland deals with the mystery surrounding Klaus's father. Once he arrives in West Germany, Klaus meets a French journalist, Emma (Fabienne Babe), who believes she has tracked down his old man to Cambridge, England where he is now living under an assumed name. En route to the UK to investigate further, the pieces of the puzzle gradually begin to fall into place revealing exactly why Klaus's father defected and why he is keeping his identity such a closely guarded secret start to fall into place, revealing exactly why Klaus's father disappeared from the limelight after he left East Berlin, and why he might now be living in England under an assumed name. In short, Klaus's father was working every possible side and, upon that discovery, Klaus is forced to confront the fact that the reality of his estranged father is not in keeping with the image he has carried with him in his head since childhood.
Whilst the general consensus may be that Fatherland is a film of two distinctive halves as I've laid out, I've yet to actually discover anyone who agrees which half is the most superior. Loach himself believes that the key to Fatherland ought to have been the East v West argument that appears in the first half and that, giving over to the search for the father in the concluding half, was something of a mistake; a strong storyline, but a mistake nonetheless. Others however claim that the first half is a little too ponderous and that the internal argument Klaus feels about his country can be summed up in just a couple of scenes (such as the aforementioned scene where Klaus finds his critical voice again during the press conference, and Rainer's obvious dissatisfaction with working and living in the West) whereas Griffiths' script only really comes into its own with the father storyline. It's fair to say that Loach has always been found of an arbitrary style when it comes to plot and is happy to allow narratives to go off wherever they will. His only other feature film of the 1980s, Looks and Smiles, which came out five years earlier, also employs an overdue narrative in the film's final half which suddenly focuses on the girlfriend of the central character and her own estranged father, but Loach seemed happy with that instance, whereas he is most emphatically not happy with his work on Fatherland. He cites a frustration with film making at the time which led to an incompetence on his part when it comes to clarity. He also felt that, despite he and Griffiths sharing the same political outlook, the script was more literary than the type he usually works with and that the film required a director who would have allowed the film to be more plot driven. Lessons he claims he went on to learn when exploring the mystery at the heart of his next feature, 1990's Hidden Agenda.
In my first review for Hidden Agenda I argued that it was sometimes hard to believe such a thriller, with two relatively big name American stars, was a Ken Loach film. I would argue that Fatherland is equally disorientating, if not more so. This was the first time Loach filmed outside of the UK (he would go on to do this in films such as Carla's Song, Land and Freedom and, most explicitly, the US set Bread and Roses) and a good 80% of Fatherland is a proper European foreign language film, with its German cast understandably speaking German to one another (it's worth pointing out too that some actors have a better command of English than others; I struggled with Fabienne Babe's pronounciation at times, which rather detracted from the key information we were being given at that stage) . There's also the somewhat expressionist dream sequences, shot in eerie black and white, that concerns Klaus's father and haunts his nocturnal hours. All these things are stuff that you do not expect from 'A Ken Loach Film'. Indeed there's one scene, when Klaus and Emma arrive in the UK and are travelling to Cambridge only to be stopped by a police patrol who are checking all the cars coming into the region, that I found myself wondering if the real 'Ken Loach Film' wasn't actually occurring on the periphery of the frame at this point; when we witness a group of striking Yorkshire miners, intending on a peaceful protest at a Cambridgeshire power station, turned back by the police.
Ultimately, though it's clear Loach recognises it as a production which he should have handled better, I still find much to recommend in Fatherland. Personally I found both halves of the film interesting and felt that they led to an experience that wasn't as disjointed as I initially feared. It also boasts the as usual excellent cinematography from Chris Menges and, in his only film role, an intriguing central performance from the musician Gerulf Pannach who sadly passed away from cancer in 1998 aged just 49.
Lastly, though the film struggles to preserve its own identity given that it shares a title with the Robert Harris alt-history thriller, I actually really like the title Fatherland, far more than the title it goes by in the US (Singing the Blues in Red - named after one of Klaus' songs) because the irony inherent in that title is really satisfying. Still, you can't expect America to appreciate irony can you?