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.
VICE: Hey Marten. Why did you want to tell this story?
Marten Persiel: I'd been living abroad for a while and become quite detached from the German part of me. So I came up with the idea of making a comedy about everything that's kind of dorky about Germans—like their lack of style and how they can't dance—and obviously the more East German people are, the more dorky they get. Skateboarding has been the only real line going through my life, so the idea was to make a film about German dudes on a skateboard. I thought it was an original idea, but after I researched it I realized that there really was a skateboarding scene in East Germany.
There was a bit of controversy after the film was originally released about your use of reconstructions—how you combined stories from various real people to create new characters. How do you respond to that?
I think the controversy was mainly because, if you’re a filmmaker—or if you have a film that doesn’t go to festivals—you’re going to have to slog it either through the documentary section or the fiction section. Those are basically the only two doors in, and I like to compare it to a public toilet in a train station. You have to piss, and you either go in the ladies' or gents'. If you’re a hermaphrodite, you’re stuck. And no matter what you do, someone’s going to get pissed off with you. That’s basically what happened with our project.
Your film is a hermaphrodite?
Yeah, basically. Because it’s a true story told with slightly constructed characters. It’s very much a documentary in that it's a true story and there are interviews and photos and everything. But it’s also got a fictional aspect, because although everything that happens is a true story, I put it together using tools of the fictional movie-making—reconstructing characters and all. Really, the problem that we had was basically that documentary filmmakers felt the purity of their trade was diluted by our film.
The thing that fascinated me most in the film was the GDR state's opposition to skateboarding. Where did that come from?
It’s a story you have to tell in three parts. Firstly, it was regarded as an American thing, and therefore subversive and not wanted. Then it was regarded as a new sport that, if it was going to be in the Olympic games, they would have to start training people for. Then they realized that skateboarders are very hard to organize and basically don’t collaborate, so they went back to their original attitude of not liking skateboarding. There's a bit in the film where a newsreader says that skateboarding creates amorality and egocentric individualism. And that’s really skateboarding, isn’t it? It is egotistical in the sense that you do exactly what you want.
And that didn't quite chime with the GDR.
Exactly. That’s not in line with any totalitarian system. No totalitarian system is going to be into things that further individualism.
Do you think that played into the state trying to turn the skaters into an Olympic team? Reining them in a bit with sponsorships and training schedules and that kind of thing?
Yes and no. That was more like a reaction to the fact that they couldn’t stop the popularity. It was too late to stop that, so they had to take a share of it and be seen as the winners of this trend. They did the same with music; one of the most popular punk bands consisted almost purely of secret agents.
Wow. Do you remember what they were called?
No, but I remember they hyped that band and made them really popular, basically to infiltrate and control this alternative music scene. There are so many cool stories about that kind of thing that, obviously, I was tempted to put in my film. But I decided not to because I really wanted to keep it to the main story.
Cool, you can tell me instead.
One story that British readers might relate to is about Rammstein. In the 90s, they presented themselves in a neo-fascist, neo-Nazi kind of aesthetic. I hated that kind of thing when I was a teenager because I was an anti-fascist, punky guy, so they were the enemy. But when I was researching, I found out that in East Germany, they were a punk band without any of the fascist stuff. More punk in the way you and I know it, imitating the British punks. But then the wall came down, and when you're coming from socialism and you want to be a rebel, the last thing you want to be is left wing. So they completely reinvented themselves because they realized the only way to keep pissing people off was to dress like neo-Nazis.
How much access to Western music did East German kids have back then?
It’s kind the same as it is now, in that you have Germany and you have Berlin, and they're really two different universes. If you were living in the East or in Dresden or in the country, you were really, really cut off from getting your hands on even a single tape of Western pop music. Whereas, if you were living in East Berlin, like the guys I’m talking about in the film, you could actually receive Western television and be visited by Western Berliners. There was a sort of underground trade where people from the West would pack tapes and hide them and take them over to the East and sell them for a lot of money. Long story short: if you were in East Berlin, it was possible to get stuff. But anywhere else in the East, forget about it.
And people smuggled boards over the border as well, right? Titus and John Haak are the two smugglers in your film.
Yeah, Titus is the guy in the West. He’s still around and he’s basically the godfather of German skateboarding in the West. And John Haak could travel because his father was Finnish and Finland had a special diplomatic agreement with both sides. So he could go back and forth whenever he liked. The way he did it was to put some pornography on the top of the bag, so the border guards would get the gist, take the porn mags and not search any more.
And this was still going on after the GDR started making skateboards?
Yeah, but the Eastern skateboards were terrible. They had the rollerskate stopper at the front. It was a really bad design.
Do you think it had something to do with wanting the American products still as well? There's a bit in the film that mentions how skaters used to paint American brand names onto their own clothes.
Yeah. In the film, I tried to portray it as a kind of war paint—like native Indian tribal symbols. The 1980s were a time when you could be a rocker and find rocker friends anywhere in the world. This kind of tribal behavior was new, but also very strong in the 80s—wearing the colors of your posse.
I imagine that all hit East Germany a bit later on as well, so when they got it they went all out.
Oh yeah. I'm from that generation—I grew on the western side—and we were all pretty good when they were just starting to learn ollies and do a bit of trick skating.
It was heel flips on one side and handstands on the other?
Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. It was two different attitudes—heel flips were a new style of skateboarding, and handstands were really much more to do with the freestyle skating of the 70s.
Yeah. I don't want to give any spoilers away, but your film kind of culminates with the secret police monitoring the All-German Skateboard Championships—where West German skaters came to compete in the East. You spoke to an ex-secret service agent for the film—did he say why they were monitoring skaters, exactly?
Yeah, they were trying to gather intelligence for the sake of gathering intelligence. It's like the NSA scandal; if they actually had a case to solve and they already had everyone on file, it would make it a lot easier. It was like Mossad in Israel—a small country with a huge secret service. So they would gather intelligence, and when they identified who the leader and the opinion-makers were, they tried to infiltrate the whole scene. They weren't interested in arresting people from the scene—they were more interested in keeping tabs on what was happening at all times.
Lastly, how did things change after the wall came down? Did skaters integrate or just move on to something new?
Some of them integrated and carried on skating, because they were in, like, their early 20s, the right age, so they just adapted to the real world, to the Western world. But a lot of it was lost. A lot of people stopped skateboarding and a lot of the spirit was lost. That was the special thing about skateboarding in the East as a whole: it was hard to do and it gave you enough enemies to rub against. It filled the teenagers' lives with an energy and an extravagance. For a lot of young people and teenagers, when that has gone, the thrill is gone as well.
Because there's nothing left to rail against.
Yeah. And that’s what sucks about the X-Games, when everything is Olympic and stuff, it's only half the fun. It's much more fun if it’s illegal.
Click through to see more photos of skateboarding in the GDR.