Marco Wilms clearly remembers an early lesson from his days as an elementary school pupil in communist East Germany. One day, the director drew a crooked tree on a chalkboard. She then explained to the class that her job, and that of the socialist collective, was to bend that tree and make it grow straight.
“It was obvious that she was referring to me,” said Wilms, laughing.
Under a regime that demanded conformity, Wilms preferred individualism, and wasn’t afraid of speaking his mind. He paid the price. As a teenager, he was labeled a “potential enemy of the state” and barred from finishing high school, despite top grades. Instead of applying to art academies as planned, he spent the next three years waking up at 6 a.m. to work at a factory making fish hooks.
But when a scout spotted Wilms at a disco and recruited him to join East Germany’s elite cadre of state-sanctioned models, Wilms finally found his niche: Pulsating on the fringes of East Germany’s highly regulated mainstream fashion world was a brazen alternative scene that reveled in self-expression, subverting precepts of how a citizen of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was to dress and act.
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wilms — now a fairly ordinary-looking, if sleekly dressed, 43-year-old filmmaker — has documented this thrilling movement. His touchingly personal “Comrade Couture,” which hit German cinemas earlier this spring, combines film footage and photos from the 1980s and revisits four of the scene’s most vivid personalities in an attempt to summon the thrill of freedom and economically unencumbered creativity that lent East Germany’s fashion underground its potency.