In the Movie Bunker | Lutz Seiler | Granta

In the Movie Bunker

Lutz Seiler

Translated by Martyn Crucefix

It started with the poster – the wording framed in black, not unlike an obituary. Year after year, it was displayed at railway stations, at bus stops and on trees along the streets. The headline read musterung, followed in bold by the year of birth of those who were being summoned. As a child, I thought I knew well enough what the word Musterung meant – ‘pattern’. For me, it was a word almost entirely associated with the plastic cloth on our kitchen table, with its dull sheen and pale blue check pattern that every morning took my tired eyes hostage. But for what or for whom was this ‘pattern’ being announced on the poster?

Then the posters would vanish; I forgot about them and, one year on, they would reappear, displayed on the churchyard wall beside the path I had to walk along at least once every day. There was some obligation here that no one was able to escape – that much I’d already understood: something was going to be unavoidable, but the years being referred to (the 1950s) were unimaginably distant in the past. It was only when the year 1960 showed up on one of these posters – and thus my own decade had been broached – that I persuaded myself to stop and stand in front of it. ‘Attendance is due on . . .’, ‘You must bring with you . . .’, ‘In the event of failure to attend . . .’, and so on. The words had the kind of seriousness that frightened me: no chance of escape. From an early age, I was disposed to believe in such a possibility – a system of repression that made it possible for me to feel pretty much carefree for long periods of time. Because of this my mother often used to say I was ‘happy-go-lucky’, but that was not really true because, fundamentally, I sensed the threat perfectly clearly, yet my home-spun insouciance sought to draw an immediate veil over it. She was mistaken – but the unreasonable demands of the real world could actually be made to vanish for remarkably long periods of time with the help of this cloak of invisibility.

One of the phrases on the poster – the District Conscription Office – impressed me (it still impresses me today). It had the ring of a genuine military operation. I was seventeen years old when the year of my birth, 1963, appeared on the posters. On 6 April 1981, I walked into the District Conscription Office, thereby obeying the very first command of my time as a soldier.

I can see the date in my health record. The health record book was begun on the day of recruitment and – this was the intention – it was updated throughout the remainder of my military career. Stages in your life were recorded there according to phases or categories of fitness. As a soldier in the National People’s Army, you progressed through various kinds of deployment appropriate to your age and physical condition. On 4 April 1986, at the time of the final entry, twenty-seven of the thirty-eight possible service categories still remained available to me.

In some ways, the brown card-bound health record is my very first diary. Although strictly military and medical in character, some of the entries contain details that I find astonishing today. Entry for 7 February 1984: ‘On 31.1 several slabs fell on the pat.’s lower back / lumbar x-ray / urinalysis.’ What slabs? I remember none of it.

When soldiers were discharged from military service, the health record was entrusted to them ‘for personal safekeeping’ until the next call-up. To ensure nothing untoward occurred, there were ‘Instructions for the Safekeeping of the Health Record’ printed inside its card cover: three paragraphs in small font and three more on what you were expected to do, divided into further points and sub-points, including the proper treatment of what was referred to as ‘medical resources’, which included the gas-mask goggles that were supposed to be retained by their owner after active service and be appropriately maintained, protected and kept at the ready. According to Section 3, Sub-section 2, Paragraph a), the gas-mask goggles were to be ‘brought with you to each new call-up to military service’. Otherwise, any use of them was prohibited, though some of my friends disregarded this because the little plastic frames with straps to go round the ears, reminiscent of rubber bands, would never slip off your head when you were playing football. When we caught sight of a striker wearing gas-mask goggles, it was impossible not to think of Wolfgang Borchert, who we read enthusiastically in our first year at university: ‘You call those spectacles? I think you’re being deliberately odd.’

I have mostly forgotten what else happened on that first day at the District Conscription Office. I do remember my readiness to comply with the almost cheerful tone of command that prevailed there. Perhaps I wanted to show that I was not stupid and that I already understood what all this was about. I was certainly hoping that, after the process was over, all this would disappear again as quickly as possible under the cover of my invisibility cloak.

I do still remember that the Musterung, the summoning to medical examination for military service, started with the presentation of the ID cards we had been told to bring with us. Then there was a long wait in the corridor, perhaps two, maybe three hours. A first brief interview was followed by a series of medical checks as we processed from room to room, at one point having to strip down to our underpants. I was pleased to have remembered to put on gym shorts that morning and looked on in silent triumph at the other hapless guys standing in their baggy fine-rib briefs.

I was measured and I was weighed. I had to hop on one leg across the room, to stand up straight, to bend forwards, and so on. In the hearing test, I managed ‘whispered speech at six metres’, or so my health record tells me. And, although I knew what was coming (because of countless stories embellished with obscenities), I was still shocked at the end by the swift, firm grasp of my pants, a hand gripping my balls and toying with them, the testicles and epididymis, a practised hand that took four, maybe five seconds, foreskin back, no restrictions and, as for the rest, ‘All there!’ The uniformed doctor dictated something of the sort across the room and the nurse sitting behind him conscientiously wrote it down. She was at a school desk in the middle of the room and, without glancing up, she recorded everything in her small, careful hand in the health record. At first glance, I took her for a student.

But most of the doctor’s speech remained incomprehensible. The tone in which it was spoken also deprived me of my last hope of a miracle. The night-time sleepwalking – which I had made report of because it was said to be on the legendary list of grounds that might prove sufficient to declare a conscript ‘permanently unfit for service’ – was received without so much as a flicker of interest from the senior physician, Dr Seyfarth (I can still read his name; I can see his rubber stamp).

Lutz Seiler

Lutz Seiler is a poet, novelist and essayist living in Wilhelmshorst and Stockholm. Since 1997 he has been the literary director and custodian of the Peter Huchel Haus. His novel Star 111, his volume of non-fiction In Case of Loss and the poetry collection Pitch & Glint are now available in English. In 2023 he was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize.

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Translated by Martyn Crucefix

Martyn Crucefix is the author of six collections of poetry. His translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies was shortlisted for the 2007 Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation, while These Numbered Days, translations of poems by Peter Huchel, won the 2020 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. His latest collection is Between a Drowning Man.

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