— digitalgrip.fieldnotes

My own “significant detail”

The basis of this project is the claim, that everybody has one or several objects that accompany her and link closely to their work. The objects might sit in pant pockets or desk drawers or half-forgotten in the back of deep shelves, but they are always there. To claim this is a bit bold, however, because I have no data whatsoever to support this. Just anecdotal evidence. Which is fine, because this is film, not science.

But I admit that I was more than a bit flustered when somebody asked about my own “significant detail” and I wasn’t – for a long time – able to come up with one.

Until I finally realized – it’s this:


I use it as a key chain now, but originally it was a cloakroom tag from one of the pithead baths of the Brown Coal State Combine Bitterfeld. I found it in the early 1990s and it has been in my pocket ever since and the aluminum stamping is actually beginning to wear quite thin.

At the time, I was still a biologist and working as a research student at the Bauhaus Dessau in a project about landscape planning and regional development. We were a motley crew of scientists, artists and developers from both sides of the old iron curtain, and we spent a lot of time exploring the various legacies of the former regime. Bitterfeld is a small town south of Dessau and at its time it was one of the industrial centers of the GDR. In the early 90s most of the production had been shut down, but the structures were still there for us to roam – abandoned factories, coal pits, mining dumps – a vast and often dystopian industrial landscape, uncannily like in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, disturbing and utterly fascinating at once.

It has been a long and meandering process since then, but I do believe that it was there that I became a filmmaker, at this place, with these people, seeing what we saw. I made my first film, years later (and after finishing my degree in biology), about brown coal mining landscapes, and I have made many films about history and nature since. But the old factories are gone, replaced by shiny new plants, the mining pits are flooded and have become lakes and even bird sanctuaries. So this little badge is my last physical connection to that old time and place. Which makes it a real treasure.


Fotos: Kai-Olaf Hesse

Bitterfeld and environs in the early 1990s. Fotos: Kai-Olaf Hesse