Berlin: Traces of a Once-Divided City

Taken close to the Brandenburg Gate, April 2009October of 2009 will mark the 20th anniversary when East Germans were allowed to travel to West Germany after a lengthy ban, reinforced by the infamous Berlin Wall that was built by the communist regime to stop the flow of immigration into the West, as well as those escaping after the border was closed in 1961.

That same year, Billy Wilder was filming his acidic comedy One, Two, Three in the gorgeous city of Berlin. His bombastic story dealt with a Coca-Cola executive (James Cagney) trying to save his daughter (Pamela Tiffin) from marrying an East German boob (Horst Buchholz). The divisions between the East and West in early 1961 were no longer funny when the wall was erected in the fall, and people were plotting and sometimes succeeding in escaping to West Berlin, most notoriously by tunneling under the wall.

The best-known film today is Der Tunnel / The Tunnel (2001), a superb production about a brother trying to get his sister into West Berlin after his own successful escape in 1961.

Back in 1962, however, veteran director Robert Siodmak (The Killers) directed his own version of another underground flight, the aptly titled Escape from East Berlin, and exploitive as the movie was (not to mention melodramatic), it’s a rare snapshot of the tensions as depicted straight-faced under the wall’s fresh shadow. Other films later used West Berlin as a background for spy sagas, but Siodmak’s movie dealt with ordinary people, not dapper spies or diplomats sneaking through alleys in search of a trench-coated man with a secret password and fake passport.

Escape from East Berlin recently aired on TCM, and it was probably a premiere of sorts, since the film more or less slipped through the cracks over the years. I’ve uploaded a review of the film, as well as a documentary/travel video called Mauerflug (literally translated as Flight Over the Berlin Wall).

The film is available online at (and at, although the version I reviewed contains additional language tracks for the main segment where a camera crew flies over the southern sections of the wall months after a hole was poked through in the winter of 1989-1990, and people were able to step through with passports.

In a nutshell, Mauerflug is a snapshot of the wall around the time the East German parliament voted for reunification with West Germany. That effectively killed the wall’s purpose, although a gradual dismantling was already in progress.

The video and its bonus segments also cover parts of Berlin, Potsdam, and historical locations previously unseen except by those able to visit East Germany. Having been to Berlin in April of 2009, the change during those 20 years is astonishing, as are the massive restoration efforts for buildings that seem sooty and lonely in the video, circa 1990.

The eradication of all things GDR is a whole big topic and a hot one, and undoubtedly there’s a compelling documentary to be made about what’s happened to the cultural identity of those born post-1961, and how many aspects of their youth are still extant or have been built over or discontinued.

A humorous example of the change is in Wolfgang Becker’s superb drama Good Bye Lenin! (2003), in which loyal a son tries to maintain the illusion of an extant East German republic post-1990 to ensure his mother’s fragile recovery from a heart attack and coma isn’t endangered. It’s a bittersweet comedy-drama, but it exploits the reality of how many small things – food brands, clothes, furniture, and music – were smothered by a flood of western products.

What’s worth noting about Becker’s film, though, is the its popularity – perhaps a sign that people could find some humour in the circumstances caused by the wall’s erection in 2003, something that eluded Wilder’s One, Two, Three (but is no longer the case).

My memories of the wall exist from glimpses in 1978, asking at a young age why a big wall cut through a beach and continued with wire into the water; as well as odd curios, like a pair of pens that show a plane in a clear pane that glides towards the “You are now leaving the British Sector” sign when you tilted the pen.

There’s also a trip I made in December of 1989 to West Berlin, which a close family friend said I ‘had to do’ because of the historical importance.

In that era, the easiest method to visit the city was flying in a bumpy, narrow-seated propeller plane into the western sector. In December, one could approach the wall – smothered with fascinating graffiti – and look up and see armed East German guards on patrol, but they had orders to be more ‘benign,’ because many youths were pounding away at the wall with picks and hammers to extract coloured chunks which they sold for 15+ Deutsch Marks.

Near the Brandenburg Gate was a hole where foreigners could pass with their passports and check out the East, but I chose a bus tour which still required passage through Checkpoint Charlie. The line up was slow, IDs were checked, and the bus never allowed us to leave except at specific locations: the Pergamon Museum, with its massive Babylonian wall attraction; the huge Soviet War Memorial; and a coffee shop where we could spend our valuable foreign currency.

I bought a souvenir book of East Berlin purposely because I knew the images and text would lose their relevance within months. The tour guide proudly pointed out the efficient trams and buses, waxed on about ‘great social progress,’ but admitted quite often that everything was ready to fall at any time – a reference to the government, as well as a way of life. No one seemed to know what was coming, and indeed a few months into 1990, things did change after the reunification vote.

The bus tour, though, was still rooted in Careful Travel; we could observe, but not mingle with locals, and it was unsettling to imagine the flipside as an East Berliner: ‘Here comes another bus carrying arrogant rich westerners, literally and ideologically looking down at us, our cars and everything else.’

The tour (unintentionally?) propagated a superiority complex because there was no sounding board for one’s thoughts; we travelled in a secure bubble with an official guide but weren’t permitted to interact with anyone on street-level.

Flash forward to 2009, and there are virtually no traces of the wall, save for brick outlines and the occasional plaque marking its route (see pix above). Travel by bus into Berlin is no different than arriving by highway in any other city. The tour buses go everywhere and are exhaustive in their scope of the city.

Any remaining wasteland has been built up or will be covered by a new building. Everything old has been restored. And anything East has been either destroyed – like the Palast der Republik, a combo parliament building/entertainment center – or remodeled to fit with the newer contemporary styles.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is massive and stunning, and once again one can visit the entire island of museums – making a day trip to Berlin a feeble attempt to really sample the city. Berlin is expensive, but the same can be said of any major city when one has to buy meals if one’s not staying with a relative or friend.

Many of the historical buildings in Mauerflug have been scrubbed clean and restored, and while I’ve linked some locations to online snapshots and websites, it’s hard to imagine the before/after unless one sees the state of some buildings as they looked in 1990.

Mauerflug is a bit dated (mostly in the music) and the footage is literally Camera Looking Out from Helicopter, but the views are often startling, and the scope of the wall is daunting. The only equivalent today is perhaps the two Koreas, where travelling out from the North is forbidden.

A family friend had relatives in East Germany and said one could gain permission to leave if it was something special, like a birth or wedding of a relative; but once the token goodwill allowance was used up, that was it – unless you were a pensioner (medical or age-wise). Even the tour guide in 1989 told us that to buy a car one had to order the vehicle when a child was born, so that hopefully by the time it was of age, the car would be ready.

My 1989 bus tour was schizophrenic in the way stupidities and virtues were acknowledged by the guide himself. One could buy an East German Trabant for a pair of jeans at that time; it's ridiculous to think how a westerner could buy a car with a pair of Levis that otherwise took an easterner years to acquire, pre-1989.

But it must seem surreal for ex-easterners to see their relatively recent lives chronicled in Berlin’s DDR Museum, including common objects and furniture reduced to curio status.

Each of the aforementioned films and documentary address fleeing from an oppressive regime, the physical after-effects, and the life and history that was deemed irrelevant by some, but as slices of GDR culture make their way to DVD – be it newsreels and other ephemera, documentaries, or DEFA films – one wonders if there are intangible things the East may have taught the West, and whether those too have been obfuscated by a need to modernize and recall with selection.



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