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Missile from the East

Directed by Justin Stokes

Documentary | 90 minutes | UK | 2021 | English | SPECIAL PRESENTATION


He has an impossible choice; win the World Championship or make a bolt for freedom.

Against the backdrop of the 1961 Swedish Grand Prix, prodigiously talented East German motorcycle racer Ernst Degner flees the Iron Curtain – risking his life in the hope of freedom – as he defects to the West in a heart-stopping stunt with his family and Stasi- protected engine technology. Returning to the racetrack the following season with Suzuki, he wins the world championship and catapults the Japanese industrial giant into global domination of the motorcycle industry.

Set where two worlds collide – the colour and freedom of the West contrasts the oppression and threat of Cold War East Germany. It’s Bridge of Spies meets Senna, a cloak-and-dagger world with lethal Grand Prix motorcycle racing and one family’s death-defying, dramatic bid for freedom.

More To Know

"If you like your sports doc served with a side of cold war intrigue, you'll enjoy this film." – The Guardian

Director's Statement

For myself and Producer Mike Wells, this story has been close to our hearts for a long time. Not only is our hero’s story absolutely compelling, it’s an astounding story which deserves to be told on film. It’s a story about choices and freedom which comes to a head as Degner is about to become World Champion on the grid in Sweden 1961. It’s his moment of truth, to choose between his life’s ambition or escape to freedom for him and his family.

This subject is also very personal to me. Having discovered the story in 2010, it was two years later that I realised that my close childhood friend’s father was Jimmy Matsumiya. Having never

completed an interview on this subject he agreed to tell us his portion of the story and we met in the village I grew up in where he recounted the details of the story which were far more vivid

than has ever been written. Meeting Jimmy was the catalyst for this film and it has been a rollercoaster of a project ever since.

There have been many challenges in the process of making this film. Our fundamental problem was how to tell the story of a man who is no longer with us, who never did interviews and was

rarely photographed or filmed. It required a great deal of painstaking and exhaustive research to be able to tell the story visually. During this period the scope of the story expanded and evolved, to reveal Ernst's struggle in his later years and eventual death alone in Tenerife in 1983, which contrasted with the excitement and achievements of his earlier career. It was an interview which took years to come to fruition, with Degner’s son Olaf, that revealed a much deeper complexity to Ernst and his story, and this felt too important to ignore.

The spine of the story is formed by the testimonies of the contributors, who were either contemporaries of Ernst, or are experts in their field, and who bring personal experiences of Ernst and his life, or an illuminating perspective of this period of history in East Germany. Sometimes their opinions of Ernst and his actions were at odds with one another but they were all generous in giving us their time and memories. The project has been realised by many phenomenal people. Everyone from the composers, the crew and the cast really took to the story, wanting to know every detail of our characters' lives. It was sheer joy to take them through the research we had amassed and the characters we had gotten to know so closely. Despite shooting at the height of the lockdown pandemic we managed to film recreations which are detailed and cinematic. Building Gerda Degner’s log transporter defection set with real tree trunks in a closed pub during lockdown was something truly unique. John Ebden, the production designer created it, and Malte Rosenfeld lit the challenging set brilliantly with moving lights to create the rumbling motion of the truck; just one example of how the collaboration with crew elevates ideas and allows the actors to get into the minds of the characters and the high-risk situations they were going through.

Director Bio

Missile From The East is Justin’s debut feature length documentary. He cut his teeth as an editor and camera operator in the commercial world, and after directing renowned thespian John

Shrapnel in his short film Method Actor Justin made a move into directing. This quickly led onto directing major high profile TV campaigns in the UK and USA for brands such as Range Rover,

O2 and Ikea.


Directed by

Justin Stokes

Produced by

Mike Wells, Nick Taussig


James G. Nunn, Alan Wai, Andrew Fettes, Aliona Baranova, Murray Walker, Anna Funder, James Matsumiya, Christian Steiner, Stromhardt Kraft, Olaf Denger, Hugh Anderson


Yann Heckmann


Malte Rosenfeld

Written by

Ray Battersby, Justin Stokes

Music & Sound

Benji Merrison, Will Slater


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