Friday, May 4, 2012 / 2:48 pm

The East is Pressboard

A day in the life of pre-fab.

by Gary Phillips

The East is dancing

In another in the highly infrequent series of addressing where do I get my ideas for stories, comes this tidbit has surfaced via SVT, a Swedish television network.  They ran a report recently claiming after examining Stasi (the East German secret police) files, Ikea knowingly used political prisoners in the former German Democratic Republic to make their pre-fab furniture in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Too, last year German public television channel WDR leveled the same charges at Ikea.  The company denies that they had knowledge of this practice.

But it’s long been known that starting in the 1960s, the furniture giant cum housing developer (see 4/18 post on “Ikealand”) farmed out the manufacture of its cute cubby desks to several of the then communist East Bloc countries for the cheap labor aspect.  Added to that you have the fact that their fonder, Ingvar Kampard, was a member of the Swedish Nazi party in his halcyon youth, you got yourself some elements to work with story-wise.

Certainly one way to come at this is a riff on the One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  This was a novel (made as a film with Tom Courtenay) that chronicled one bleak, unrelenting day among many such days of a political prisoner in a Soviet gulag during the Stalin era in the‘50s.  It’s about how even in a day of harshness and casual repression, the human spirit can still endure. 

We start with an exterior establishing shot of a God-awful gloomy East German labor camp.  Then cut to our un-named prisoner inside.  He’s making the parts for desks and chairs with a vacant stare in his eyes, while also having to contend with the savage caprice of his guards.  His lone possession is a tattered photo of his smiling wife and child whose fate we’re left to wonder about.  It would be shot in washed out colors and a big event for the prisoner would be getting a piece of meat in his gruel.  In the end, we’d follow a particular shipment of children’s desks he made and see this one particular box kit being opened by a mother to the delight of her child in a bright and sunny living room.

I think though I’m more inclined to do this as a musical a la Oliver based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist novel.  We’d still have the dark and gloomy labor camp, the snarling guards and a corrupt warden of course.  Our prisoners would be beaten down until the arrival of Greta Grata played by Karin Schroder, the Doris Day of the East.  She among other East Bloc actors are featured in a great doc about the state is good musicals I saw years ago at the Nuart and now on DVD, The East Side Story.  Her indomitable spirit is infectious and soon the prisoners are signing tunes like, “We Drill the Dowel Holes To the Correct Depth,” and “I Make the Laminate Glue Fresh Today.”

There’s a tradition of these sort of movies that came out of the Eastern Bloc including the Tractor Drivers and The Loveable White Mouse, the latter with Schroder.  This is how Ikea can turn this business around by making a musical to show that working in one of those East German factories spontaneous joyous singing always broke out as did dance numbers atop giant machinery.  Get it shot in time for the grand opening of Strand East, the Ikea housing project in London.  As the paparazzi takes their pics, a dude looking like the late crazy bug-eyed actor Klaus Kinsky comes out in a grey suit on the red carpet.  He holds up his hands and s the din subsists, he says to the gathered in the manner of Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes:

“You vill haff fun…or else!  Now enjoy.”

Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.

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