German city left behind by unification finds a spot in the movie business

Kerstin Gosewisch was walking the dark cobbles of her hometown’s medieval lower market, discussing the hard times familiar in so many parts of what used to be East Germany, when she paused and pointed at a window several stories up.

“Jackie Chan jumped out of that window,” she said. “In ‘Around the World in 80 Days,’ he jumped out of that window into a hot air balloon. Of course, the balloon was added in the studio. Here he jumped out hooked onto a crane.”

If Gosewisch’s conversation seemed incongruous, it was no more so than the ancient city around her. Frequently called Germany’s most beautiful city, Goerlitz also is almost tragically empty. The fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago saw thousands of jobs in railway manufacture and textiles here vanish. Unemployment still sits above 15 percent.

Today, in the silver anniversary year of the event that led to the creation of the unified German economic juggernaut, Goerlitz is a former East German city in crisis. The population, a booming 100,000 during the East Germany days, is down to 55,000. Thousands of apartments and homes, lovingly restored as financing became available, sit empty. Wages remain 25 percent under the national average.

And yet the city has never looked richer – on the silver screen, where its untouched veneer has made it a star in dozens of movies needing a quaint European setting. Last year, the city even trademarked the nickname “Goerliwood” (pronounced “Girlywood”).

The city has been featured in Hollywood films such as 2008’s “The Reader” and last year’s “The Book Thief.” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” set for release March 7, was filmed almost entirely in Goerlitz. The city has been a stand-in for postwar Italy, Heidelberg in the 1950s, 19th century Paris and many more.

Georg Rittmannsperger owns the Hotel Borse, where many in the cast and crew of the “The Grand Budapest Hotel” stayed during filming. He’s told German newspapers in the past that housing a piece of the movie business was thrilling. He didn’t want to go home at nights, it was so exciting.

But on a recent February day, he seemed barely able to remember those days.

“Look at the square outside,” he scoffed, waving his hand at a black cobbled stretch between historic buildings, which has been featured in many films but was simply chilly that afternoon. “It’s empty. It’s empty again. That was chaos. I guess this is normal.”

He’s hardly the first to discover that the movies are glamorous, but glamor is only skin deep.

But if Goerlitz redefines the notion of “nice house, nobody home,” it is worth noting that it is a stunning house.

The city boasts a rich collection of architectural styles dating back to the Holy Roman Empire, when it was a wealthy merchant center along the Via Regia trading route.

The Gothic spires of St. Peter’s Church tower over the city. The Renaissance Rathaus (city hall) serves as the town center. Street after street is lined with baroque apartment blocks, with an occasional art deco facade sprinkled in.

Perhaps most remarkably, almost none of it was destroyed during World War II, when so many German cities and towns were leveled as Allied forces destroyed the Nazi regime. Its centuries of obvious wealth made it antisocial during the communist years after the war, and it was largely ignored, a shameful relic of a merchant past.

But it’s back.

“Goerlitz has never been as beautiful as today,” former Oberburgermeister (mayor) Joachim Paulick said in an interview with a German newspaper. The head of the German Foundation for Historic Buildings says simply, “Goerlitz is the most beautiful city in Germany.”

That’s partly the result of a pathologically anonymous donor. In 1995, the still-secret donor gave a million deutschemarks (about $700,000 then; Germany has since replaced the deutschemark with the euro) to restore the beauty of the city. The same donation arrives every year, 500,000 euros, or about $685,000 at today’s exchange rate. But he’s instructed his attorneys that if his name ever becomes publicly attached to the city, the money is to stop.

This is the 20th anniversary of the donations, and town officials are holding their breath over whether the money will continue to arrive.

All told, private and public investors have pumped half a billion euros ($685 million) into remaking the place.

Karina Thiemann, a city guide who specializes in film tours, knows that the movies will not save her city.

“Real growth has to come from elsewhere,” she said.

Still, she said that in the last couple years, there is a sense that the city has stabilized. The number of empty apartments and homes remains above 3,000 (and by some counts close to 6,000), but their ranks don’t appear to be growing, at least not by much.

“Call centers and the software business are our future,” she said. “Film is very nice, but it can’t be a pillar of economic development. Film will always be an extra.”

Kerstin Gosewisch is the city’s official film industry liaison. She says about a third of her job revolves around helping moviemakers, while the rest focuses on one of several city history museums. She said there is no complete list of films made in the town, though the six made here last year are about the average.

She says she still gets the same thrill when she sees her home in film, a thrill she first experienced while watching “Around the World in 80 Days” after it was released in 2004.

“The films love this city,” she explained. “They find real substance here. They don’t have to build a new world. But to me, in these films, the city is always the star. It needs attention, and it deserves that attention. But attention alone is not enough.”

McClatchy special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed to this story.