Between the blocks: East Berlin | City Symphonies

17 November, 2022

How does one discuss a city (from a country) that no longer exists? Maybe by keeping a fair distance from both ceremony (this way of suspending things in time, by using simplified models) and bastardization (the cynicism of not asking oneself questions regarding the path of history). That is, accepting that East Berlin was much more of a strategic hornet’s nest for the USSR than an actual city, formed from traitors and the oppressed, in a time when the chess game of geopolitics was strained to the fullest – and more than an ideal pretext for consumerist nostalgia that is ready to serve to millennials, under the form of the iconic Ampelmännchen, the funny little man with a hat that was featured on all of the country’s stoplights, and one of the few DRG-era artifacts that are still around. To find a fair tone when so much energy and passion have been consumed in this place where – to paraphrase writer Christa Wolf – the sky was split in half, is a truly hard endeavor: one can’t find it even in the DRG Museum, hidden somewhere on the hyper-touristic island in the center of Berlin, the kind of invention that is called upon to oxymoronically anoint the victory of capitalism, with cookie-cutter reasons that are insulting to the memory of people for whom a Trabant, an Interflug or the blocks of Marzahn and Hellersdorf meant much more than caricaturesque, vaguely touching memorabilia; just as it is impossible to find in the resentments of those novelists – from westerner Peter Schneider to easterner Monika Maron – who are now isolated in increasingly conservative political positions.

But in cinema – more precisely, not the one that returns to the DRG after 1990, with various results (Christian Petzold’s 2012 Barbara is one of the peaks), but in that which is born there and then, when divisions were still highly concrete, affecting the very urban fiber of the former capital? Even if out of to a spirit of rebellion towards this overwhelming shadow that has been cast over East-German cinema, allow me to examine a few films that turn Berlin into something more than the stage of an irreversibly, predictably McDonald’s-ified society, running from repression towards well-being.

Allow me to start, as one should, from this disputed sector that is neither inside nor outside of it – but that is taking joy in rejecting any sort of ownership. Cynthia Beatt belongs neither to the East nor to the West: a pretty big problem for partisans who try to polarize things. In context, she is a citizen of the world, without any clear affiliations and with no party slogans attached. This explains her intuition to co-opt Tilda Swinton – this great artist of in-between areas – into a project in 1986, arming her with a bicycle and asking her to pedal around. What does she see? A bucolic landscape (a lake, a terrace, forests) that is however incomplete: the Wall is always there to cut it off. The hypothesis of this 20-minute-long short named Cycling the Frame is simple: the Wall is an anomaly within the natural order of things. No revolution so far: it’s just that, after the Fall, Beatt decides to recreate this experience. What results in 2009 is a longer film (60 min), which, already from the title (The Invisible Frame), announces its great intuition: for as long as it was there, the Wall meant framing – in other words, option, the impossibility of gathering everything and so, by forcing the limits of the metaphor – cinema. In contrast to the previous film, the newer one was no longer that informal, but rather insultingly banal: what story are these places befallen by publicity and mass tourism still capable of telling? Besides, this is the entire meaning behind this current of nostalgia that aims not as much towards the Wall – a criminal construction, no matter how you look at it – per se, but rather for the political utopia that the wall engendered, even if involuntarily. I remember this commentary written by Jeffrey Skoller on Godard’s essay-film Allemagne 90 neuf zéro, where he claimed that “For Godard, the Wall indicated the possibility of difference. But in his image of a world culture of late capitalism, there is no <<outerland>>; there is nothing onto which the present can reflect.”

Cadru din „Solo Sunny” cu orașul Leipzig
Cadru din „Solo Sunny” cu orașul Leipzig

So let us take a step backward, until we reach the shadow of the newly-erected Wall, in August 1961. In 1964, Der geteilte Himmel is released, directed by Konrad Wolf, and based on Christa Wolf’s (without any family relations) eponymous novel, one of the most important writings of the “Wall” subgenre. The novelist avoided explicitly naming the Wall – she would only do so in her post-communist writings –, but it’s quite clear that this “very important year of our lives”, as the narration calls it, is 1961, when the erection of the Wall comes to forcefully determine the survival of East Germany as a national supra-structure. Once this decision has been made, the architectural element becomes decisive in the real biographies and fictional works of the East Germans. For Christa Wolf, it marks not only the protagonist’s intimate rift between collective duty and individual passion, i.e. between Fatherland and Man, but also the material possibility of moving from political ignorance to embracing one’s own role in the construction of socialism. Konrad Wolf attacks the problem on both fronts, but, unlike the novel, he is of course forced by the limitations of the format to do so with somewhat difficulty, didactically alternating between sequences shot in the factory and ones set in the couple’s attic. Seen today, Der geteilte Himmel is a rather clumsy addition to the Antonioni-esque aplomb of European Modernism: discussions between the two, underpinned by inevitable silences and moments of embarrassment, are held at the factory gates and in the train carriages that are constructed there. Symptomatically, the story doesn’t advance in Berlin, but rather in the province (the principal shooting took place in Halle); which however doesn’t prevent Berlin from casting its dual specter – a dreamy escape or a head-on confrontation with socio-political reality – until the very end of the film. When we finally arrive in Berlin, we’re theoretically in the west, where Manfred, the protagonist’s increasingly disillusioned and cynical boyfriend, tries to emigrate and pretend that he’s happy. Therein lies the film’s punchline: Berlin is barely sketched through synecdoche – a chic restaurant and a facade on which an advertisement for “Persil” hangs high –, like a citadel of consumption and loneliness. The protagonist, beholden to the socialist ideal, is the ultimate victor of this confrontation: she renounces love in the name of collective well-being, which is obviously superior. The film cannot suffer to contain this ideological arrogance.

The urban material in 1964 is still that of a Mitteleuropa with cobbled little streets, central squares, and photogenic tram cars gently gliding downhill. In his last film, the masterpiece Solo Sunny, shot some 15 years later, Wolf records the radical change in the cityscape. The testimony of this lies in a short sequence of this Berlinese film which takes place in Leipzig, more precisely one that is set in a residential district that is under construction – the streets are muddy alleyways, tall cranes tower over the top floors, trucks line the stairwells – similar to so many similar urban projects scattered across Eastern Europe. For Der geteilte Himmel, Wolf worked with an interesting mix of sentimental love and non-ironic working-class ethos; here, he superimposes the image of a socialist Berlin, made up of grey apartment blocks, with that of the head of a cabaret dancer (an unforgettable Renate Krößner), who looks like she’s been ripped out of parallel film directed by Fassbinder. As such, East Berlin then becomes a space that is split between some moderate possibilities, without any consistent outlet for artists and the famous sleeping neighborhoods. This idea is best reflected in the magnificent sequence in which Sunny spends the first night with a saxophone professor with liberal views, both of them sitting in a tiny bed, but kept warm by the bohemia of art. And what a moment – both touching and unapparent – when we are offered the counter-shot: a window pierced by the grey light of the morning, and in it, the silhouette of the apartment block from across the street; the feeling of the entire existence, shared by all, is thus free to come all the way to us, the ones living in the present, a signal that Wolf was right to feel it, to film it and to protect it from post-festum schematics.

Cadru din „Coming Out”
Cadru din „Coming Out”

The tension between public and private space, which was so quickly diagnosed in 1946 and then renegotiated at length in 1980 still structured the late East German films. In 1988, Heiner Carow directed Coming Out, a film that was all the more forced, given that it wants to come across as well-intentioned. The protagonist here is, by and large, everything that East Berlin isn’t: progressive (when three hoodlums start beating up a person of color in the metro, our guy’s the first to intervene; amongst fuming Wartburgurs, he rides a bike, and so on), kind, handsome, and gay to boot. Obviously, all these character traits sound somewhat fake, called upon to fill up a revisionistic program whose conclusions we can already guess from the very beginning. But they do have the merit of sketching an alternative Berlin, even if it’s at times exoticizing (the LGBT bar where the protagonist spends his days is the scene of a scandal orchestrated by – another! – Fassbinder that’s studied at Muscovite institutes, with his feather boas, facepaint, and lascivious dancing.) On a popular website, an article that summarily recommends this film ends by saying: “As communist as it gets.” I must say that I found this assertion quite intriguing, with its ease, and its nonchalance as it quantifies the imponderability of history. But I assume it has to do with the film’s clumsy attempt at connecting to the rules and realities of “the free world” to the same degree to which it perseveres in performing in a town without any advertisements, that is dark and uninviting.

The discussion would be incomplete without a film that would take a critical look at the very transformations of East Berlin during the communist regime. Die Architekten (1990) by Peter Kahane is the last film that was approved by the DRG’s censorship board before the Fall of the Wall. Its complex position of being a film that is half part of the old order, half part of the reformist nineties, turns Kahane’s work into a very exciting object, that rigourously documents this abrupt opening – a turning point where it’s suddenly possible to poke fun at the Party or to explicitly refer to an acquaintance’s collaboration with the Stasi. Compared to the basic coordinates – an idealistic architect runs into the obtuse bureaucracy of the apparatchiks who rule the state –, Die Architekten is a meaty film, that foretell the transition from grey plattenbau blocks towards newer and friendlier urban spaces, where one goes “to meet friends instead of getting lost”, as the protagonist succinctly puts it. But the pessimistic conclusion contained within the journey of this character, whose marriage crumbles in parallel with his futile fight with the system, is somewhat of a tempering force to the bright dawns of tomorrow. In it, one can especially read the gaze of an artist that loved Berlin and who is taking a sip out of this new wave of freedom, without forgetting the anguish of this historical acceleration that leads to nowhere.

Film critic and journalist; writes regularly for Dilema Veche and Scena9. Doing a MA film theory programme in Paris. At Films in Frame Victor presents Kinostalgia - a monthly column about repertoire cinema.