Global Estonians: filmmaker Katrin Laur (Cologne, Germany)

For the “Global Estonians” feature, we have usually interviewed people who have left Estonia in the last 10-15 years, after the country regained independence and the “iron curtain” was lifted. Katrin Laur is an exception – she’s among the relatively few who managed to leave the then-Soviet Estonia in 1982. Katrin is a filmmaker and lives in Cologne, Germany. We chatted about leaving Estonia, living in Germany and the difficulties of returning to her homeland.


Katrin, what made you leave Estonia and how did you end up in Germany?

In my case I actually left the Soviet Union – Moscow – in 1982. Contrary to the popular belief, the Soviet people were not naïve, they did not believe that socialism was a great thing and the Soviet Union a splendid country, or that Estonia had voluntarily given up its independence. So I saw myself living in an occupied country, under the yoke of socialism which I disliked then as I do now and there was only one way out – to leave the country. Well, it was impossible and the newspeak expression for that was “betrayal of the socialist fatherland”. Attempting to leave without permissions to a non-Eastern Bloc state was punishable as treason. Hopefully they would not have shot people for that any more in the 1980s; perhaps sent to Siberia.

After I had finished my studies at the Moscow Film Academy I however found the opportunity to leave the Soviet Union, using the fact that I was married to a Colombian guy with whom we had studied together at the film school. We had a young daughter as well – one more reason for me to want to leave the Soviet Union as I did not want my child to grow up there. It was generally a time when many people were desperately looking for ways to leave the Soviet Union – it was not the Stalin era any more, so some opportunities were already there. Some people used their contacts with Finns and got married on paper, thus getting an opportunity to leave the country. But nobody believed in or predicted the collapse of the Soviet empire yet.

We came to Germany and decided to stay in Munich as I had read that many films were being made there. In Munich I also found out that Radio Free Europe was based there and I later worked at RFE for quite some years. In order to get the permission to stay in Germany I had to apply for political asylum which I gladly did – I was not sorry to trade in my red Soviet passport. It took two years until the decision came that I was entitled to asylum.

These first years in Germany were the most difficult years of my life. I knew that I would never see Estonia, never see my friends and relatives – it was leaving for good an burning all the bridges behind you. But it was the only way to get out of the Soviet Union at the time.

Of course, Estonia did regain its independence only nine years later and I could visit Estonia again, but the nine years had been a long time. My daughter was going to school, my life was in Germany and I did not plan to move back to Estonia at least until she was grown up.

Later I understood that I was this person who would have wanted to go experience the world anyway. If Estonia had been a normal country, I could have done so and later chosen a time to return. I am happy that young Estonians today cannot imagine what it means to experience their country as a prison.

Where have you lived since leaving Estonia?

I lived in Munich for 13 years and then moved to Berlin. During my Berlin period I also lived a couple of years in Zürich and in Schwarzwald (southwest Germany). At some point I moved back to Estonia and worked there and would have stayed if had not lost my job. Alas, Talendid koju (“Talents, come home” was a campaign in Estonia, with an aim to lure back young people who’d left the country recently, but the campaign was considered a failure -Editor) does not mean they are welcome when it comes to working and earning money. So I had to take a step back again and now I work in Cologne, Germany, trying to commute and pursue my film projects – and the “grandchildren project” – in Estonia.

What have been your greatest challenges, after moving to a new country?

My great challenge back in 1982 was that I could not go home anymore, not even for a visit; it was difficult to even place a long-distance phone call. Another thing was language – I did speak very good English, but no German. Being young I thought that it would be easy, much easier than it actually was. Well, I learnt the language but it took a few years and Germans, like almost all people, are quite narrow-minded when it comes to their language.

Today I teach German students in German and I also teach them how to write. And yet people in everyday situations mention that I am not a native speaker and almost every day offers me a tiny moment what reminds me that I am a foreigner. (In my whole life have personally witnessed only one person who was able to speak a learnt language, ie a foreign language without any accent). Looking back on my life I am maybe a little bit sorry that I did not go to the United States. For one thing – the language. And I think that in a country of immigrants people are a little bit more generous when drawing the line between “ours” and foreigners.

After language comes the code of behaviour. Every country has it and one has to be very attentive to observe how people communicate with each other and try to copy them. The best way to get “into” a country might be to marry a local. But it might be also dangerous, depends on your own nature and diplomatic abilities (normally Estonians are not very good at these).

How do you make a living and what has been your best work experience?

I am a professor for filmmaking at the Academy of Media Art in Cologne. I have also worked as a radio journalist at Radio Free Europe and I’ve been a playwright, a filmmaker and a scriptwriter. Like most people who have moved to a strange country I have also held simple jobs like working as a cleaning lady.


In 2008 I went back to Estonia to teach scriptwriting in Tallinn at the Baltic Film and Media School, until 2011. I liked it very much and the students were happy with me. However, it’s not easy to get and keep an interesting job in Estonia after you have been away for a long and do not belong to the “inner circle”. Even If you find a job, later somebody who also needs a job and belongs to the “inner circle” may turn up, so you may lose your job. I did not want to come back to Germany and would have preferred staying in Estonia but now I am here, I love my job and my students. And here I earn my living.

Making films is not a job that will feed you in Europe – with a few exceptions. Plus I would not want to make such films – in Germany it would mean films (and scripts) for TV. Teaching is much more interesting for me. Advertising was also an opportunity, but again I prefer teaching.

I do develop my own film projects in Estonia though. I have made two feature films in Estonia; “Ruudi”, which is a popular family film and “Surnuaivahi tütar” which also was very popular with the audience and at festivals. Plus I’ve made two long documentaries: “The Poet and her Time” – about the Soviet era poet Debora Vaarandi – and “Roots – Hundred Years of War and Music”. The latter is a deliberation on the meaning of a human being after leaving his native country and cultural context and being planted into a foreign soil. I recommend the film to everybody who is thinking about their own life away from Estonia. The story is based on the life of the Estonian conductor Olav Roots who, after emigrating to Sweden in 1944 lived and worked the second half of his life in Colombia.

“However, it’s not easy to get and keep an interesting job in Estonia after you have been away for a long and do not belong to the “inner circle”

I also have new, ambitious feature film projects in Estonia and I am confident that I will make at least some of them into new films. While developing the projects I finance my life by being a film professor in Germany.

What do you like most about the life in Germany and what are the downsides?

I call it my stepfatherland (sounds good in German and in Estonian). Last weekend I was in Munich where I don’t go very often. I love this town and Bavaria in general. Sitting at the Wiener Platz and the sky is blue and the dogs are trotting without leashes. And again I managed to have a clash at the registration office – a young clerk tried to deny issuing me my new German passport, for some utterly bureaucratic reasons. Things like that can also happen in Estonia, but being an Estonian you do not feel so vulnerable there.

Mostly living in Germany is quite easy and nice though… It is rougher in Tallinn, much rougher.

What do you miss most about Estonia and would you ever consider returning?

I feel much more alive in Estonia and I guess it is not only me – my daughter who grew up in Germany, and her German husband and kids, live in Estonia. They could live in Germany – they are both educated people and they would earn more money here. Yet I think there is a bigger kick in living in Estonia. I love the nature, especially the clouds and the light.

But then again, I also love my work here and living in Cologne. I think that for some time I will go on commuting between the two countries.

What do you think should be done differently in Estonia?

Estonia has one huge advantage – it is so tiny. On one hand we have just a very thin layer of culture, but at the same time it means we have no class or social strata. It doesn’t really matter if one’s rich or poor, from a town or from the countryside – if we compare how deep are the differences in other European countries. We should make it our advantage. Well, it is to a certain degree, but it’s mostly being used the other way around – to exclude those who do not belong to the “inner circle”. Estonians can be quite nasty and merciless to those who are not from their “circle”.

I think Estonians should spend more time with their children, speak with them and show their feelings. First of all fathers, and with sons! Then the next generation of Estonian men will not be so clumsy in expressing their positive feelings.

“I am also quite confident that the Soviet era is still playing an important role in the mentality of people. It is part of the Soviet heritage to think of human beings as belonging to a country and “betraying” it when leaving”

I have one important thing to say to the young generation of Estonians who live outside Estonia or are thinking about leaving. Even if you get a very good education or working experience outside Estonia – it will be difficult to return to the country. I am afraid that it is the Estonian tradition – that the door will be shut on those who have been away for a longer time. I am also quite confident that the Soviet era is still playing an important role in the mentality of people. It is part of the Soviet heritage to think of human beings as belonging to a country and “betraying” it when leaving. In today’s Estonia I don’t see many signs of a change in this mentality – if there is a job opening then a person who has contacts in the organisation will be preferred. If nobody knows you and you are coming from “outside” the chances of getting the job are scarce. The higher your qualification is, the greater is the fear to hire you. Strangely enough it is different with “real” foreigners. In the case of native Estonians envy apparently plays a serious role. So, if you imagine living your life in Estonia, which is a great country, believe me, it might be a good idea not to stay away for a long time and better study in Tartu.

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