Postcard: Goerlitz

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:12pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:42pm

Under communism it fell into ruin, but 25 years after the Berlin Wall came down, the small eastern German town of Goerlitz now has ambitions of giving Hollywood a run for its money.

Goerlitz's historic facades and venues have already featured in acclaimed films such as Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel and Stephen Daldry's adaptation of German novelist Bernhard Schlink's The Reader.

The town hopes to cash in on the lucrative film industry by promoting its evocative streets that run the gamut of styles, from Gothic and Renaissance to baroque and art deco, to help revive its flagging economic fortunes. To facilitate filming in the town of about 54,000 inhabitants, which sits on Germany's border with Poland, it has nominated a point person to co-ordinate matters related to the movie world.

"Under communist East Germany, the town centre buildings were all grey, dilapidated," says Kerstin Gosewisch, who holds the position. "People preferred to live on the outskirts in new buildings, well heated and with toilets in the apartment and not on the landing. After the fall of the wall, people from the west arrived and marvelled at the remnants of the town."

Spared damage by Allied bombing during the second world war, Germany's easternmost town was sliced in two after the end of the Third Reich by the German-Polish border. After Germany's 1990 reunification, about 78,000 people lived in Goerlitz. But it has seen an exodus since, as people sought higher wages in the western regions.

Through it all, its atmospheric courtyards, mouldings, historic arcades and archways have remained a constant. The town - which residents have dubbed as "Goerliwood" - has already been chosen to depict New York, Berlin, Paris and Heidelberg, among others, in movies, says tour guide Karina Thiemann.

Initially known only to German filmmakers, Goerlitz has gradually made its name among international producers, bolstered by its proximity to the mythic Studio Babelsberg outside Berlin. In 2003 it provided the backdrop for Frank Coraci's version of Jules Verne's classic adventure tale, Around the World in 80 Days. Other movies filmed there include Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the film version of popular novel The Book Thief, and George Clooney's second world war-era art caper, The Monuments Men.

For three months at the start of last year, the town's old department store was also the imaginary central European setting for the Grand Budapest Hotel in Anderson's film.

Built in 1913, the art nouveau building with a coloured glass roof and open floors was empty ahead of filming after its previous owner went bankrupt. It is now being renovated with plans to re-open as a store towards the end of next year.

The town, located on the Lusatian Neisse River in Saxony, has known two golden periods. The first was at the end of the Middle Ages, when it was home to many drapers and fabric merchants. Its second came at the beginning of the 20th century, with the advent of the railway bringing many wealthy Berliners to retire in the area, which was popular for its clean air.

But the Iron Curtain led to Goerlitz becoming marginalised on the far eastern flank of divided Germany, with the German half of the town maintaining little contact with its Polish sister town, Zgorzelec. Since the end of communism in Europe though, Goerlitz has again attracted wealthy residents who have invested in preserving its architectural beauty.

Still, a lack of employment has led to many of its youth leaving. And while tourists stream into the town during the summer months, they are rare in winter. So the town hopes its movie roles can be an even greater source of income. Plans are afoot to film a Christmas tale in the old department store this year and discussions are under way for a separate international production, possibly to be filmed next year, according to Gosewisch.

Goerlitz also has a real-life mystery of its own: for 20 years an anonymous donor has been granting €500,000 (HK$5.3 million) a year towards the store's renovation. "Nobody knows who it is," says Thiemann. "Everyone imagines their own story."

Agence France-Presse