THE SUN ISLAND
a film by
Thomas Elsaesser

About the Film

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The Sun Island - Synopsis

The Sun Island is an essay film about coincidences, shattered lives and posthumous fame. A found footage family film about love and passion, friendship and heartbreak set in Frankfurt and Berlin between the wars (1927-1935), during WWII and into the present. It includes the history of the Frankfurt Großmarkhalle (Central Market)– a landmark building of the International Style – before and after its acquisition by the European Central Bank, as part of its new headquarters. But The Sun Island is also a film about the origins of the green movement: about recycling, sus­tainability, and living off the grid – before these ideas had been properly invented.

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Director, Producer & Cast

The Sun Island was written, directed and co-produced by Thomas Elsaesser, on behalf of the Martin Elsaesser Foundation. Co-producer is Dieter Reifarth of strandfilm Frankfurt, for ZDF/3Sat (German television), with support from Hesse Film, Frankfurt. Consisting mostly of standard-8 home movie material shot by Martin's son Hans Peter Elsaesser, now part of the collection of the Martin Elsaesser Foundation. Interviews are with Konrad Elsässer, Regine Elsässer, Silvan Linden and Christoph Mäckler.

More information can be found at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8452430/

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Broadcasts, Screenings and Festival Premiere

The Sun Island had its Festival Premiere at the Kassel Dok-Fest in November 2017. It was subsequently shown at festivals in Frankfurt, Gdansk, Graz, Lund, Lodz and Warsaw. It was broadcast on 3Sat on April 16, 2018, and has been shown in cinemas, universities, at architectural conferences and other venues in Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Cluj, The Hague, Istanbul, Krakow, Kyoto, London, Los Angeles, Luton, New Haven, New York, Paris, Porto Alegre, Providence, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, St Andrews, Tel Aviv, Zagreb and many German cities, among them Berlin, Bremen, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Wiesbaden. Screenings in 2019 include Buffalo (NY), Rome, and Cambridge UK. 

A DVD is available on request (http://www.martin-elsaesser-stiftung.de/)  

The historical background

The Frankfurt Central Market in 1927

The Grossmarkthalle/ Central Market

The Frankfurt Central Market in 1928, the year it opened for business. It served the city as its fruit and vegetable wholesale market until 2004. Considered a key example of Expressionist Architecture and The New Frankfurt, it was designed and planned by Martin Elsaesser, Chief City Architect in Frankfurt from 1925 to 1932.

View of the Island and the Growing House from the Lake Müggelsee

The Other Key Location

The Sun Island is a small island at the South-Eastern border of Greater Berlin, between Köpenick and Gosen, at the edge of the Müggelsee, one of the lakes that fringes Berlin. The island (originally known as Dommecke, then Dommelwall) was leased by the garden architect Leberecht Migge (1881-1935) as an experimental site and research lab for pioneering work on recycling city waste, sustainable agriculture and urban gardening. The "green" experiment was continued after Migge's death in 1935 by  Elisabeth (Liesel) Elsaesser for another ten years throughout World War II. 

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The Main Protagonists

The main protagonists of The Sun Island  are Martin Elsaesser, architect and urban planner, Liesel Elsaesser, his wife, and Leberecht Migge, garden architect and radical reformer. He was Martin's colleague but also his rival in love. After Migge's death, it was the Elsaesser family - besides Liesel, her two daughters, two sons, plus two female protegées (one Jewish, one Dutch) and many friends - who kept the settlement going and for whom it provided food, shelter and a refuge. Martin was only an occasional guest: he did not feel at home on the island, preferring his small apartment in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

For more information on family and friends, go to Island People/Inselvolk

Additional Information

Director's Bio

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Thomas Elsaesser is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Media & Culture at the University of Amsterdam and author of several prize-winning books. From 2006 to 2012 he was Visiting Professor at Yale. Since 2013 he teaches part-time at Columbia University, New York. 

He is the grandson of German architect Martin Elsaesser, a protagonist of The Sun Island. He is also the co-editor of Martin Elsaesser – Schriften (Niggli, 2014) and of Martin Elsaesser und das Neue Frankfurt (Wasmuth, 2009).

http://www.thomas-elsaesser.com/

Review of The Sun Island

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"The film shows a different side of Germany during the second world war, in an environment where Weimar ideas continued to live on, as deeply lived values, but intermingled with personal concerns. Different from the film’s first draft, with scenes on the island showing an idyllic life during cruel times, a full picture gets unwrapped, with certain continuities, although strained, of hopes and desires, instead of merely ruptures." Floris Paalman http://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2018/01/the-sun-island/


Review of The Sun Island

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"Elsaesser's film is a small miracle. On the basis of family photos and documentary observations of his father, created between 1938 and 1956, the well-known film historian succeeds in an unexpectedly multi-layered view of the cultural and moral history of the 20th century.  This subtle reconstruction of a social and ecological experiment stays in one's mind because of its melancholy mood. The film shows that while the three main protagonists lived intensely for their ideas and visions, they never truly arrived on the sunny side of life." Manfred Riepe, epd Medien 

Martin Elsaesser Bauhefte

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The Martin Elsaesser Bauhefte are a series of publications dedicated to documenting as fully as possible each of the architect's surviving landmark public buildings, which include markets, schools, churches, clinics, swimming pools, a bank and a community hall. Each booklet, comprising some 35-40 pages is based on extensive historical research and is richly illustrated. Written and produced by  Dr Jörg Schilling, head of research for the Martin-Elsaesser-Foundation.

https://schaff-verlag.de/kategorie/martin-elsaesser-bauhefte/

Martin Elsaesser Schriften

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Less well-known than his buildings is the fact that Elsaesser continuously reflected on his work as a master builder of the city. These texts, brought together for the first time, form a kaleidoscope of reflection on a wide range of urban construction projects.  Architectural expression is just as important to him as constructive clarity, functionality as well as beauty, artistic tenacity as well as social responsibility, respect for tradition as well as innovative actuality. The volume comprises selected essays, a comprehensive list of publications and two introductory articles.

Martin Elsaesser & New Frankfurt

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Martin Elsaesser and the New Frankfurt accompanied a 2009 exhibition and documents in detail the architect’s projects that were realized as well as those that never left the drawing board during his tenure as artistic director of the Frankfurt Buildings Department from 1925 to 1932. The book also gives a glimpse of the teacher and other periods of creativity of the architect, who left behind a rich œuvre before and  after his Frankfurt years.  It also presents the most extensive catalogue of Elsaesser’s buildings and designs for Frankfurt from 1925 to 1954.

Viewers' comments

"filling out the silence ..."

The Sun Island tells two interconnected stories: one is of Martin Elsaesser, the German modernist architect. His architecture is on a grand scale--masculine, modern, precise, and scientific. 

The other story is deeply personal, also to do with architecture, but of an entirely different kind. It turns out, that Martin's wife, charismatic Liesel fell in love with her husband's less successful, less fortunate colleague Leberecht Migge. Migge was a landscape architect, obsessed with creating sustainable self-sufficient environments (nearly a hundred years before it became fashionable).   

in the Nazi years, an island becomes a kind of sanctuary for the Elsaesser family, and for another person: a Jewish girl, out of work due to Nazi laws, comes to work at the island. During the war, the island, with its self sustainable agricultural production will keep the family afloat.

The second kind of architecture--is feminine, fertile, it's about soil, water,  and weeds. It's also impermanent: Martin's buildings are still around. Liesel's and Migge's island has gone to seed.

What makes these stories of love, and refuge so evocative is that they are based on a bunch of home-movies and love letters found after Liesel's death. It turns out, Hanner was an accomplished cinematographer, but Elsaesser, the film scholar, never knew it. "The Sun Island" is now filling out the silence between father and son...”

"this utopia is so down to earth ..."

I am writing to you after seeing your film The Sun Island and having the pleasure to exchange a few words with you about the amazing strength and vividness of the women in your family.

 

However, as the film itself turned out to be rather haunting, some other thoughts concerning The Sun Island came to me. What seems most striking is the longing for the (social/ist?) utopia visible in the architecture, the garden design of Migge and also in the gardening labour on the island. Yet, at the same time, this utopia is so down to earth, so practical and so physical. It appears to me to be a radical, even if only private fight not so much against Hitler or Nazism, but against any regime of totalitarianism, brutal destruction and war in general.

 

Watching the film I had an impression that although the war is almost invisible, seemingly in the margins (in both image and in commentary), being a background, not in any way the subject, its invisibility makes its presence extremely overwhelming. What the screening had left me with was the feeling that work - fundamental, human, material, in-spite-of-everything work - may have an enormous political power. And this is a very optimistic feeling."

"... essential grounding in realism"

"I thought this film was quite superb. So much of interest to me. The biographical first: what a remarkable family, extraordinary characters, especially Liesel and Martin of course. And the sequence of generations. including the director as baby and child. 


Second, the socio-history: extraordinary to think of this happening near Berlin during WWII. The superb, sachlich commentary is exactly right, understatement, a few people in uniform used to turn up, the drama of the mother-in-law and the Gauleiter in Wiesbaden (but she survives after 3 years, again understated). Your essential grounding in realism. 


Then the reflections on home movies and analysis of your father's skills in staging the game of boules - technical but accessible, easy for an ignoramus like me to understand.


Yet in the actual film Migge is secondary, except in the intensity of your grandmother's love and devotion to the island. This of course has to do with the fact that he isn't in many of the films, since he died too early. The essential focus and 'hero' is Martin, as you want it to be. A kind of tragedy.”

"... your grandmother was a visionary"

“I went to see your film. It was very suitably screened in the new, elegant wing of Lund's Museum of Sketches. I sat next to a retired art historian and an expert on German, modernist architecture. We were both in awe of the film, enjoying it immensely, chatting away for half an hour afterwards. 

The way the two storylines intertwine – your grandfather's and your grand­mother's with their separate visions – and the subtle analysis of the home movies. I have not really encountered anything as intricate as this. Needless to say, your grandfather was a great architect and your grandmother quite a visionary. And your father, as you rightly claim, something of a film director! 

It does resemble, to a small extent, my own grandmother's life. She built her summer paradise by a lake in the 1930s where my family spent their summers in a huge garden not entirely dissimilar. So I congratulate you on a truly great work!”

"... one of the deepest films on such themes."

“First, let me, on behalf of my wife as well, thank you for your presentation of the Sun Island last week. The film was fascinating and the discussion illuminating.

My wife, who lived up among the Jeckes in Switzerland & Israel, feels that, rather than a Jewish/Holocaust story, it is an important documentary of a particular aspect of German life between the wars, a style of life in which many Jews participated. Bearing this in mind, she thought that it would be appreciated by such people as survive, and their descendants. It also shows how a non-Nazi family could not avoid being, eventually, drawn in … Again, one sees how your grandfather was sidelined postwar by the ex-Nazi networks: unfortunately, a consistent pattern then.

My wife considers your film to be one of the deepest and most significant films on such themes that she has seen."

"... The Sun Island is also a fragment of the epoch"

  "The reason for my email is your documentary The Sun Island, which was recently shown on 3Sat television. I knew some of the fragments of your family history, but The Sun Island is also a fragment of the epoch that impressed me very much. Why? Let me just touch on the current situation: as in other countries, the public / media discourse in Germany has deteriorated enormously. There is now a broad spectrum of xenophobia that manifests itself in hate mail, racist resentment, veiled threats, etc. You will now wonder what this has to do with The Sun island. For me, the film documents the German bourgeoisie I have always been in search of: enlightened, civil, creative in the public domain. I sense an attitude that earns my great respect and sympathy. I do not know if I am making myself clear enough, but the film seems important because it also gives answers to questions that have been bothering me for decades."

Plot Summary

Life and Career of Martin Elsaesser


The Sun Island documents the life and professional career of Martin Elsaesser (1884-1957), architect and chief city planner in Frankfurt (Germany) from 1925 to 1932. The controversial acquisition of the Frankfurt Central Market by the European Central Bank is the ostensible occasion to weave the building's turbulent history into Martin Elsaesser's biography, his wife Liesel's liaison with notable landscape architect Leberecht Migge (1881 -1935), and the director's own family history. 


The film draws on a unique collection of home movies, photographs and letters, as well as contemporary interviews in order to document and dramatize a life-changing episode in the family histories of two all but forgotten German pioneer architects: one designer of churches and markets, the other inventor of urban gardening and sustainable cities during the crucial years between the Weimar Republic and WW II.


The Sun Island /Die Sonneninsel Trailer (German)

Martin Elsaesser, architect: 
on the island, but not of the Island (ca 1942)

Martin Elsaesser, architect: on the island, but not of the Island (ca 1942)

Interview with the director

"I made some surprising discoveries"

“The Sun Island" is about your family: your grandparents, their marriage and a love triangle. What moved you to make this very personal story the starting point for an essayistic documentary?

The starting point was the decision of the European Central Bank (ECB) to structurally alter the building they had acquired in 2004 from the city of Frankfurt as part of the site chosen for the bank’s new headquarters. The Frankfurt Großmarkthalle (wholesale market) is a protected monument, and the proposed structural changes threatened the building’s architectural integrity. 

One of the leading Frankfurt architects, Christoph Mäckler initiated a publicity campaign to "rescue our wholesale market” (Rettet unsere Großmarkthalle) and eventually turned to us, the descendants of the architect Martin Elsaesser. After protracted legal action, an out of court settlement was concluded between the ECB, the City of Frankfurt and the "Elsaesser descendants": the three parties committed themselves, each in their own way, to protect the artistic reputation and to preserve the architectural legacy of this important pioneer of the "New Frankfurt". 

To this end the Martin-Elsaesser-Foundation was launched in 2009, with the purpose among others, of organizing exhibitions, of editing books and other publications, and generally to promote and commemorate Martin Elsaesser’s work, and to keep it in the public eye. 

"the focus shifted"

This is how the idea of ​​a documentary film arose, especially after I discovered a cache of home movies made by my father in the 1940s some of which also featured my grandfather. 

When I started doing the research, I initially knew little about Martin Elsaesser. But as I looked more closely into family history, at first through my father's home movies and then thanks to the correspondence we found between my grandmother and family members, but especially the love letters she exchanged with the garden architect Leberecht Migge, the concept of the movie changed and acquired a more personal colouring. Because both the home movies and a large part of the letters refer to a small island near Berlin during the years 1933-1945, the focus shifted away from Frankfurt, the Central Market and Martin Elsaesser the chief city architect, towards the reform settlement and the island community that had survived there during the difficult years of the War and its immediate aftermath. 

It seemed important to me to introduce, in addition to the controversy around the ECB, this second aspect – also in light of the challenge posed by interweaving the story of one family with that of one of the most troubling decades in modern Germany history. What connects the two parts are on the one hand the Frankfurt years of my grandparents and their – already then – complicated marriage, and on the other hand my own family history, represented also by the  

"a chance meeting"

presence in the film of my sister Regine and our cousin Konrad, a resident of Frankfurt and with whom we had set up the Martin Elsaesser Foundation.  

It was the chance meeting with David Haney, at the time a PhD student from the University of Philadelphia, and who was in Berlin writing his doctoral thesis on Migge, which introduced – and then convinced – me of the contemporary relevance of Migge’s ideas about sustainability and renewable resources (the Kreislaufwirtschaft), about the "growing house" and "urban gardening", about composting, household waste separation and dry toilets, and about recycling urban garbage and turning it into arable land and fertile garden soil. 

Interestingly, it was an American who became aware of the importance of Migge, the first in a long time, more precisely since 1981, when a group of landscape architects at the University of Kassel had remembered Migge's 100th birthday with a book. But that was before the green movement became a political force. In return for teaching me about Migge, I was able to provide David with information and materials pertaining to the "Sun Island" experiment, of which he had found no trace in the literature, since for understandable reasons the Migge family had ignored and even suppressed this part of Migge’s life and work. And yet the Sun Island project, however much cut short by his death, represents something like the fullest realization of Migge's 

"a complicated marriage"

overall concept for the circular economy. That's what I also wanted to document and express in the film.

It seemed important to me to introduce, in addition to the controversy around the ECB, this second aspect – also in light of the challenge posed by interweaving the story of one family with that of one of the most troubling decades in modern Germany history. What connects the two parts are on the one hand the Frankfurt years of my grandparents and their – already then – complicated marriage, and on the other hand my own family history, represented also by the presence in the film of my sister Regine and our cousin Konrad, a resident of Frankfurt and with whom we had set up the Martin Elsaesser Foundation.  


Your grandmother Liesel Elsaesser stood between two men. Married to your grandfather Martin, she fell in love with the landscape architect Leberecht Migge, who among other things started the eponymous, visionary project of the "Sun Island". What makes for the continuing fascination with Migge’s ideas?

The name "Migge" had occasionally cropped up in the stories of my parents, as the lover of my grandmother for the brief period during the early 30s until his death in 1935. But the “Green Bolshevik” (as he once called himself), Leberecht 

"not a word of the war"

Migge was of enormous importance for several of the reform movements during the early years of the Weimar Republic, so much so that he must be considered one of the “grandfathers” of the Green Movement in Germany. His historical significance was for me one of the unexpected discoveries I made in the course of researching the movie. 


Your film consists largely of private normal-8 footage shots photographs taken by your father, Hans Peter Elsaesser, then an engineer with Siemens and at least at times a passionate family chronicler. How would you describe the work with this material emotionally, and what kind of aesthetic challenges did it pose for you?

Again, I made some surprising discoveries. I knew the movies from my childhood when we were often shown some of them during friends’ visits and family occasions,. But we saw them with little or no commentary, and certainly no reference to contemporary history or to the role of Migge in the family’s wartime history on the island, because by the time my father was filming, Migge had been dead for five years. What we saw was our extended family on an idyllic island, with many summer and Sunday guests, among whom we recognized our future parents, our uncles and aunts. Not a word of the war, the bombing nights, the privations or persecutions, nor about the men being drafted to the front, or of the young women 

"editing in the camera"

having to serve in the Reich labour service. All this I had to painstakingly reconstruct and do research on: partly by going through hundreds of letters, partly thanks to the masses of photos kept in brown envelopes and cigar boxes, few of which ended up in the film.

The other surprise discovery was the realization of how talented my father was as an amateur filmmaker. He obviously had an eye for the expressive settings, for cinematic rhythm, and for “editing in the camera”. Although the material had never been properly edited, it required only very few interventions and cuts, in order to make the sequences "walk" and "talk". So the narrative almost emerged by itself, which proved to me that my father probably had a plan and that one of his intentions was indeed to document Migge’s island experiment for posterity or at least for his mother. For whatever reason, however, it seems he never got round to completing it. So even now, after the film is finished, there are still several unresolved puzzles, not just for the viewer. As a film historian, these are questions that occupy me professionally, and so some aspects of the various enigmas are also included in the film and thematized as integral elements of the narrative.


Questions: Daniel Schössler, 3Sat

https://www.3sat.de/page/?source=/film/dokumentarfilm/196745/index.html

International Screenings

Brown University Providence RI

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Dok-Fest, Kassel

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Columbia University, New York

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Doc Film Festival, Gdansk, Poland

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King's College, London

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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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Lichter Festival, Frankfurt

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Kassel University

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Porto, Portugal

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Naxos Cinema, Frankfurt

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Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Deutsche Haus, NYU

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Film Academy Zagreb, Croatia

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Cluj, Romania

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Lund, Sweden

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St Andrews, Scotland

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ZDF/3Sat Television Broadcast

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The Sun Island on the Web

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Video

The Sun Island is on Vimeo in an 89 minute version in English (https://vimeo.com/213682193 ) and in German (https://vimeo.com/212421083 ). It is also viewable as screened on German Television (in German)(https://vimeo.com/267142729 ) and in an English 72 minute version (recommended) (https://vimeo.com/222116323 ).

A DVD is available on request (http://www.martin-elsaesser-stiftung.de/) 

For permissions, passwords and further information please contact elsaesser.thomas@gmail.com

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Thomas Elsaesser

Reguliersgracht 20, 1017 LR Amsterdam

elsaesser.thomas@gmail.com

Martin Elsaesser Foundation

Herxheimerstraße 31, 60326 Frankfurt am Main, Germany

info@martin-elsaesser-stiftung.de