It is not every day that a group of Hollywood celebrities intervenes in an election in a small German town. But Hollywood has a special interest in Görlitz.
So many big-name movies have been shot here that the town bears the nickname “Görliwood”. Its beautifully preserved art nouveau frontages and baroque buildings have served as settings for everything from Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel to The Monuments Men, with George Clooney.
Now Görlitz may be about to make headlines in a different way. On Sunday it could elect Germany’s first mayor from the far-right Alternative for Germany, a potential milestone in the AfD’s development from fringe protest movement to serious political party.
Some of the producers and directors who have worked in Görlitz are horrified by such a prospect, which they fear could damage the town‘s welcoming reputation — and have issued a public appeal to stave off an AfD victory.
“Please vote wisely!” says an open letter signed by the English director Stephen Daldry, Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, and actors Brigitte Broch and Daniel Brühl, among others. “Don’t succumb to hate and enmity, discord and exclusion . . . Don’t betray your convictions as soon as someone claims he can solve things for you.”
So far, the appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears. “It’s ridiculous,” said one pensioner, Beate, at an AfD stall in Görlitz’s town centre. “It’ll only backfire on them. People don’t like this incitement campaign against the AfD.”
The AfD’s candidate is Sebastian Wippel, a 36-year-old policeman, who already represents the party in the regional parliament of Saxony. He won the first round of voting in May with 36 per cent and has a strong chance of prevailing in the second round tomorrow.
“The first round showed 60 per cent of voters want a change, and we are the real alternative,” said Mr Wippel. Voters seem impressed by his emphasis on law and order: he once campaigned on a slogan: “Safe borders instead of boundless crime”
“Görlitz has a big crime problem, and maybe we need a policeman to sort it out,” said Benjamin Kornblum, a local restaurant owner. “The government has been cutting back police numbers for years and we need to reverse that.”
Though statistics show a decline in overall crime rates, some locals are unconvinced. Görlitz is Germany’s easternmost town, on the border with Poland, and since border controls were lifted after Poland joined the EU, cross-border crime has been a persistent problem.
Mr Wippel has called for random checks on the border. “I think we should have a right to control who comes in and out of Germany, despite Schengen,” he said.
Others are attracted to the AfD’s anti-Islam rhetoric and its tough stance on immigration. Mr Wippel gained notoriety for handling out Arabic postcards to refugees with the words: “Your homeland misses you”. “The idea was you’re our guests and you should go home when the war is over to rebuild your country,” he said.
The message has resonated with some locals, even those who are not ethnic Germans. “The refugees who came here in 2015 don’t work, get benefits and just keep having kids,” said Sukdev, a market trader who hails from India and said he would be voting AfD.
Mr Wippel’s rival is Octavian Ursu of the Christian Democratic Union, the party of Angela Merkel. He won 30 per cent in the first round and has positioned himself as a moderate, holding the centre-ground between the idealism of the Greens and the extremism of the AfD.
“What we don’t need is diesel driving bans, as the Greens want, and border closures and a German exit from the EU, as the AfD demands,” the professional trumpet player told one recent CDU election event.
Mr Ursu, who was born in Romania and came to Germany in 1989 to study music, wants to turn Görlitz into a “future region” with “innovation as its business model”.
While Mr Wippel’s campaign slogan is “Life is better with borders”, Mr Ursu portrays Görlitz as a city open to the world: it lies on the old Via Regia that connected the great trading cities of Europe such as Leipzig, Frankfurt, Kiev and Paris in medieval times.
But he has also emphasised law and order, promising, for example, to install more CCTV cameras in public places. He has benefited from a “stop-Wippel” movement: after the first round of voting, all the other parties called on their supporters to vote for the man from the CDU.
They have also vowed not to work with the AfD group in the town council, despite the fact that after May’s election it is the strongest faction, with 13 of 38 councillors.
“Wippel won’t be able to get anything done, even if he wins,” said Harry, a pensioner shopping in the local market. “The council will be even more of a circus than it is now.”