On Aug. 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected, thereby dividing overnight a city, families and dueling ideologies for the next 28 years. On Nov. 9, 1989, the world watched as jubilant crowds gathered on both sides of that Wall to celebrate the opening of its crossings. Germany’s postwar division was over.
Next month, we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate that event, Western News asked five scholars to reflect on its meaning a quarter century out.
* * *
As our plane from Copenhagen was approaching the flat Berlin skyline on a sunny afternoon in July, we did not yet know the flight of the victorious German soccer team was scheduled to arrive from Brazil only a few minutes later. Once we had picked up our suitcases with clothes, baby toys and books for our sabbatical and entered the arrival hall of Tegel airport, the signs of athletic – and national – pride could hardly be missed: flags everywhere, children with painted faces, cheering girls in soccer tricots and a few men who already had one too many beers, waiting behind the barriers in eager anticipation of their heroes.
As an expat, I remain notoriously disengaged when it comes to the public display of national rituals. But even sceptics like me had to admit the atmosphere was different from 1990 – the last time Germany had won the Cup.
Fueled by the nationalist euphoria in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s collapse in November 1989, soccer mania quickly turned xenophobic and was suffused by waves of anti-immigrant violence that shook the unified country. Unlike the exclusively West German team of 1990, the 2014 champions, including players of Turkish, African and Polish heritage, represented a much more inclusive, diverse and demographically adequate understanding of what it could mean to identify as ‘German’ in the new millennium.
Berlin today is a fascinating palimpsest of different historical layers, political inscriptions and migratory routes, a hotspot of alternative lifestyles and a cultural magnet for hipsters from all over the world. Berlin’s remodelling from a largely de-industrialized island artificially kept alive into a ‘vibrant’ cultural capital and tourist destination began in the early 1990s, when young people lacking funds but rich in creative ideas took over abandoned buildings in Mitte (the old city centre in the former East) and opened up non-profit bars, clubs, record shops, second-hand stores and artist-run galleries – an anarchic atmosphere of lawlessness and possibility comically captured in the 2003 German film Goody-bye Lenin!
The DIY ethos has since given way to condos and overpriced lattés, and many artists have moved to cheaper locations, sometimes sporting a bitterness that their idealism has done nothing but prepared the ground for big money. Whatever one might think about this development, the rebirth of Berlin seems to hold a promise for other cities facing the future shock of an increasingly immaterial economy.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported enthusiastically about workshops organized by electronic music impressario Dimitri Hegemann in Detroit, teaching local artists, urban planners and investors how to turn a “ruined city into a cultural hub.”
Berlin remains a place where it is still possible to get by with little money. It only took us a few days to bump into the daughter of a Western professor who, after graduating, moved to Berlin without a job and now works for a film distribution company.
Berlin owns more movie theatres per person than any other German city with 97 theaters frequented by more than 12 million patrons per year; the annual Berlin film festival in February attracts 20,000 film professionals from across the globe.
And Berlin’s film industry also received a boost after the fall of the Wall. Goody-Bye Lenin!, Run Lola Run, Sonnenallee, What to Do in Case of Fire? or The Educators are internationally successful features that deal with life in the city before or after unification and were filmed on location. Hollywood blockbusters like Inglorious Basterds, Grand Budapest Hotel or The Hunger Games were all shot in Babelsberg, a huge studio lot in operation since 1912 and home to the state-owned, socialist DEFA production company until its privatization in 1992. It is currently Europe’s largest film studio.
If one walks through the streets of the Babelsberg theme park today, one finds only a few remnants of East German film history: a black and white DEFA logo displayed on a trolley card, a poster for the sci-fi movie Silent Star and the reproduction of a fairy tale set.
Already in the early 1990s there was no consensus of how to represent the fall of The Wall in German cinema: While tongue-in-cheek comedies such as Go Trabi Go! celebrated consumerism and the Deutschmark, Christoph Schlingensief with his brilliant The German Chainsaw Massacre turned the new-found auto-mobility and democratic illusions among East Germans into a trash horror fest (tagline: “They came as friends and ended up as sausage!”).
In the new millennium, a variety of media have been used to map the former divide.
Whereas the Walled in! project of the Deutsche Welle mobilizes glossy HDTV animations to help viewers “virtually experience history,” photographer Hayden West, filmmaker Tom Sanda and sound artist Laurence Elliott-Potter for their exhibit Berliner Mauer Dunkelheit (Berlin Wall Darkness) use raw black and white photographs taken along the route of the Berlin Wall at night, mounted on a 6-foot carousel or printed on a canvas roll. The gallery installation intended to mirror scrolling in an internet search, a more subjective and multi-faceted historical archeology.
At the party of an art critic friend, I recently ran into director Christian Petzold, whose upcoming melodrama Phoenix, about a returning concentration camp survivor, is a hotly debated topic. The film is partly inspired by Peter Lorre’s underrated classic The Lost One (1952), and I proudly chip in that I have watched and discussed this strange film noir with Canadian students on numerous occasions in my Berlin to Hollywood course.
Petzold, who closely worked with the late Harun Farocki, one of the greatest losses in German cinema this year, is part of what critics often refer to as the ‘Berlin school,’ a loosely knit network of directors gravitating around the magazine Revolver. Their consciously minimalist, and often radically austere films such as Yella, Bungalow or Passing Summer, have sometimes been read as responses to the scars a decade of neoliberal reforms and austerity politics has left in the Eurozone.
Facing the deserted landscapes with their disengaged travellers that have become a signature of the ‘Berlin school’ directors, we slowly begin to realize not only has the old East vanished and been replaced by nostalgia or amnesia, but something might be missing from our ‘post-ideological’ present, too.
Tobias Nagl is an associate professor of Film Studies. He has also worked as a journalist, newspaper editor, DJ and curator. He lived in Berlin until 2005 and has currently returned to the city for his sabbatical.