Film Review – Start Wearing Purple

A film about the fight against gentrification in Berlin gives a sense of how we can win. A sequel about the messy aftermath would be just as informative


2021, The City of Berlin.

A pair of people wearing purple vests are going through an apartment block door-to-door collecting signatures. Volkan explains that he is paying €500 for a room in a shared house, and has had to move flat several times. It’s making him sick.

Chris is collecting signatures on the banks of the Spree, the river which cuts through Berlin. His previous political experience includes organising health workers’ strikes. When he moved into a flat owned by Deutsche Wohnen – one of the largest and most exploitative landlords in Berlin – he joined this campaign.

Welcome to two of the many activists for Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen (DWE), a Citizen’s Initiative, which organised a referendum to expropriate apartments owned by profit-extracting large real estate companies. Companies like Deutsche Wohnen.

For the campaign to force a referendum it needed to collect 175,000 signatures for expropriation. Historian Ralf Hofrogge explains how in Berlin if enough people propose a law, this must be put to a vote and a majority decision in favour will put it into the constitution.

The campaign is also addressing other social problems. Volkan talks of the difficulty that people with Turkish names have in finding accommodation. Landlords suddenly say that flats are unavailable. If a friend with a German name asks, it suddenly comes back onto the market.

Berta and Adelaide are both active in the DWE working group Right2TheCity, which organises non-Germans. Adelaide from Brazil explains how DWE largely consists of people who look like the city she lives in. It is more open to the participation of younger non-white women than other campaigns that she’s been involved in. Berta was active in the Italian student movement in 2008-2012, but never joined a German movement before this.

The campaign started through a loose movement of a few people who’d been involved in earlier tenants’ campaigns. They first met in a room full of sewing machines. Once they went public, they formed so called Kiezteams, which mobilise people in each local neighbourhood. The aim is to be completely non-hierarchical, but as Assal explains, there are always some people who take on more responsibility than others and some whose voices are louder.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

Katalin Gennburg is a councillor for die LINKE (the Left Party) in the Berlin parliament. She explains how the SPD-Green-LINKE government was elected on the promise that they would regulate rents and to solve Berlin’s housing problem. They passed a local law enforcing a rent cap. Unfortunately, the national court ruled that the rent cap was unconstitutional. Landlords used the ruling to start evicting tenants who could not immediately pay the arrears generated.

CDU politician Thorsten Frei argues that the Mietendeckel fiasco is the result of “socialist approaches”. He argues for building more houses, saying that in Hamburg many more apartments are built than in Berlin. His words are supported by Olaf Scholz (who has since been elected German Chancellor) who calls for a speed up in building more apartment.

Katalin Gennburg is not so sure. She says that “building, building, building as an answer to the housing market is really out of time”. The amount of available social housing is actually shrinking. The Hamburger “Alliance for Housing” is in effect an alliance for building luxury flats and assets for hedge funds.

Many people agree with Gennburg. When the rent cap was rejected by the courts, people were more determined to support the DWE referendum. In the week after the ruling, 15,000 signatures were collected – much more than usual. There was a feeling of determination that élite judges should not be allowed to control how much rent working class people have to pay.

Diego Cárdendas is a veteran of a previous referendum campaign, 100% Tempelhofer Feld. The old airport is currently a major park between the districts of Neukölln and Tempelhof-Schöneberg. In 2008, 100% Tempelfhofer Feld organised a successful referendum to prevent the park being privatised, thus stopping luxury flats being built in one of the free spaces that every Berliner can visit. Nonetheless, Diego explains, Tempelhofer Feld is still under threat every day.

The Battle But Not The War

In the final month of the DWE campaign, some collectors started to get demoralised. Some are filmed in May 2021. They have only collected two thirds of the necessary signatures and three-quarters of the time is over. Collecting signatures is not as easy as it used to be, and collectors are meeting an increasingly hostile reaction.

I’m sure that the reports are honest but this experience does not remotely correspond to my own efforts collecting signatures in the working class district of Berlin-Wedding. We collected hundreds of signatures every week right up to the end. We also knew that many people had full petitions at home, so we were sure of meeting our target.

In the end, even our expectations were exceeded. DWE & Co Enteignen was the most successful referendum ever, collecting 350,000 signatures. At the referendum which followed, nearly 60% of people voting supported Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen’s demands. However, winning the referendum did not automatically lead to expropriation.

On the same day as the referendum, there were local elections in Berlin. The main winner was SPD’s upwardly failing former minister Franziska Giffey, who had already made clear that she had no intention of implementing the referendum results. Any decisions were kicked into the long grass and an Experts’ Commission was set up in an attempt to demobilize the movement (for more information about what happened and why, there are plenty of reports here).

This is why viewing Start Wearing Purple should not be a passive act… How do we harness the massive energy and desire for change that electrified Berlin in 2021

Start Wearing Purple was made at a certain point in time, just before the referendum and the elections on 26th September. This means that the film contains the anticipation of victory, and its conclusion is slightly more optimistic than the current feeling in Berlin.

Time For A Sequel?

I would love the film’s directors to make a sequel about what happened next. In a sense, the content of that sequel is still being written. As I was writing this review, the composition of the Experts’ commission has been announced. Over half the members will belong to the SPD and Greens who have, to different extents, opposed expropriation. The suggestion of DWE that they should receive 59.1% commissioners, to reflect the number of people voting for the referendum, has been rejected.

Whatever happens, we will probably wait at least a year until the Commission publishes any conclusions. If things stay as they are, it is unlikely that anything significant will happen before the next elections in four years’ time. But if Start Wearing Purple shows anything, it is that things do not have to stay as they are. It was the active engagement of a determined movement which disrupted the permanent rule of the big real estate companies and the politicians who receive substantial donations from the Property Development Lobby.

Deutsche Wohnen & Co Enteignen was, and is, a popular movement that was suspicious of politics and just went off and tried to change the world. This was both a blessing and a curse. At the moment, the movement is disorientated and trying to develop a strategy of responding to politicians who have no respect for democracy.

This is why viewing Start Wearing Purple should not be a passive act. We should watch the film together and then discuss what it means. What did we do wrong? What went right? How do we harness the massive energy and desire for change that electrified Berlin in 2021.

The implications of Start Wearing Purple are important not just for Berlin, but for everywhere where rapacious landlords try to exploit poor tenants (i.e. everywhere). Deutsche Wohnen & Co was a start, which will hopefully inspire similar movements elsewhere. The campaign was not perfect, but there is plenty to learn from both its successes and its failures.

On Friday, 25th March, the Deutsche Wohnen & Co Kiezteam Mitte will be showing Start Wearing Purple at the Volksbühne as part of Housing Action Day. The film will be followed by a Q&A with the film makers. This is an ideal opportunity to take stock of the campaign, look at what we have won so far, and discuss what is necessary to take the campaign forwards.