In 1968, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, ushered in a program of reforms that he called “Socialism with a human face.” The new “Action Programme” allowed greater freedom of speech, press, and travel, limited the power of the secret police, and raised the possibility of democratic elections. The achievement of these goals, however, was thwarted by the invasion of half a million Soviet troops and tanks and an occupation that lasted eight months. It was a revolution that never happened. Based on her family history in Romania and Germany, director Anca Miruna Lazarescu’s (“The Secret of Deva”) That Trip We Took with Dad (Die Reise mit Vater) puts us right into the center of the dramatic events unfolding in Europe and does so with suspense and engaging humor.
Caught in the middle are Mihai Reinholtz (Alexandru Margineanu, “California Dreamin’”) and his brother Emil portrayed by Razvan Enciu in a breakout performance. The family is traveling from Arad, Romania to bring their sick father William (Ovidiu Schumacher, “The Beheaded Rooster”) to Dresden for an operation that is unavailable in Romania. The film begins in Arad where Mihai is a doctor who seems to have accepted life in Ceausescu’s Romania and acts as a reluctant informant for the Securitate, Romania’s repressive secret police. When his young brother Emil, an anti-Stalinist activist, becomes involved in an anti-Communist protest, however, Mihai provides a name to the authorities, but spares Emil whom he vigorously calls out and warns of the danger into which he is putting his family.
Lazarescu depicts the family’s journey to the GDR in their yellow Skoda with mordant wit. Emil plays the guitar and sings anti-Soviet songs, William yells at him never to sing the song again and berates Mihai for trying to prolong his life which he’d rather not. In Hungary Emil is surprised and happy that he is able to purchase Beatles and Rolling Stones albums, but sadly they are confiscated by East German border guards, though Emil tries to convince them that “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a hymn to collective agricultural production cooperatives. The humor does not last very long, however. Traveling in Germany, they meet up with Soviet tanks on the road heading towards Prague and are detained by the GDR authorities.
Forced to stay in an East German holding camp where Russian, Czech, German, and Hungarian detainees are at each other’s throats, Mihai tries to keep order until the groups are separated into different rooms. The Romanian detainees are thrilled to watch on TV as President Nicolai Ceausescu denounces the Soviet invasion, though they are unaware that his government would later become even more authoritarian and repressive than other Communist regimes. When Mihai meets Ulrike (Susanne Bormann, “Barbara”) a German countess who pretends to be pregnant, Mihai is offered the opportunity to come to Munich with her where his father can get the operation he needs.
With the Czech-German border closed, the only safe way to return is through West Germany, Austria, and Yugoslavia, bypassing the Russian-controlled countries and with the help of the Romanian Ambassador and some smuggled cognac, Mihai leaves with Ulrike. What Mihai finds in Munich is not what he expected, however. He moves into a commune with Ulrike that is filled with students vigorously vocalizing positions favorable to both East and West, some supporting Marx and Lenin and criticizing the West for the Vietnam War and the disparity between rich and poor, others blasting the Russians for their oppression of freedom in Prague. An idealist, Ulrike envisions a world where people can live together in peace and harmony, but her vision seems far away.
When Emil and his dad finally show up, ideology takes a back seat to practical realities as William’s condition takes a turn for the worse and Mihai and Emil are forced to weigh contradictory options to live in freedom or return home in spite of the obstacles. That Trip We Took with Dad is a thought-provoking film that brings us back to the days when freedom and human rights was still a dream for millions of people living under Communism in Eastern Europe. It also brings into focus the fact that the fight against repression did not end with the dismantling of the Soviet Union. As blacklisted author Millard Lampell’s Cantata “The Lonesome Train” tells us, “Freedom’s a thing that has no ending. It needs to be cared for; it needs defending. A great long job for many hands, carrying freedom ‘cross the land.”