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Exploring no-man’s land

EPI and I went to see a fantastic film this evening: Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others] – a German film that won the Oscar this year for Best Foreign Film, and very deservedly so. Set in the former German Democratic Republic [East Germany] before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it’s an incredibly moving story about the lives of people being watched by the Stasi [GDR secret police] and the corruption and terror that involved [think Orwell’s 1984]. The film was incredibly powerful but in that quiet, compelling way that many European films are – managing to involve and engage the viewer through identification and compassion, as opposed to manipulation. Personally I don’t recall leaving a movie theatre so completely enthralled by a film in a very, very long time.

That said, I think part of the reason it evoked such powerful emotions in me because I was living in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down. I can still recall exactly where I was when I heard that Hungary had opened its border and hundreds of East Germans were passing through: in a restaurant in the Ruhrgebiet, after a rehearsal by an English-speaking theatre group that I had hooked up with, having made friends with the director who was a professor of English at the university. This particular professor visited East Berlin on a regular basis and I’d heard stories from him about the ‘shadows’ that always followed him from the moment he arrived to the moment he left. We sat in that restaurant and stared at the TV along with everyone else, and couldn’t believe what was happening. The dissolution of the Iron Curtain had seemed utterly inconceivable – until then.

The week that followed was overwhelmingly intense. Each day something monumental happened, and less than a week later people were dancing on the Berlin Wall, hugging each other and celebrating. I lived hundreds of kilometres away, but it didn’t matter: all through the country, people were absolutely elated. Nobody talked about anything else. Nobody really knew what was going to happen next – it was all so new, so bizarre, that people had barely begun to form ideas about reunification at that point. But suddenly, what had seemed impossible was not only possible, but real!

Six months passed before I actually made the trip to Berlin to have a look around. At that point a decision had been made to completely dissolve the old GDR and unify Germany, but they weren’t quite there yet. The wall was still up – but it was a dinosaur, a relic … East German soldiers that one previously wouldn’t have been permitted to talk to, let alone take photos of, smiled and were perfectly amiable; tour buses ferried businessmen in suits – probably in town for a conference – up to the wall, equipped with little bags that had a small hammer and chisel in them, to allow them to take a piece of the wall home. Large chunks of it were already missing, and you could walk onto the dreaded no-man’s land – that deadly strip of land between the East and the West parts of the wall – as though it were just any old piece of turf.

I went through Checkpoint Charlie to enter the GDR and was probably one of the last people to get a stamp from the soon-to-be-defunct country in my passport. People were warned against exchanging their West German marks on the black market, but everybody did it: for 10 BRD marks [probably around USD 5 at the time] I got 40 GDR marks on the street, as opposed to 20 GDR marks in a bank. Thus equipped, I set off on my journey of exploration around East Berlin.

What a culture shock! Whereas the buildings and streets in West Berlin were modern and well maintained, the East German streets and residential houses – just a stone’s throw away – hadn’t been touched for decades. Stately old houses looked like complete run-down slums on the outside and at first I took them for just that – until I looked up and saw the lovely flowerboxes in the windows and realized that this was normal housing for normal people. I had a three-course lunch in an ‘exclusive’ restaurant, too costly for most East Berliners, had coffee in a swanky café in the afternoon, and had a gander around one of their shopping centres – and I still didn’t manage to spend all of my 40 GDR marks. For the life of me, I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy. I still have those coins, in all their flimsy aluminium glory.

The film tonight really captured the essence of that period in history for me, particularly the succeeding years. Living in the country, you couldn’t help but be involved in the reunification process: hearing reports of the East Germans who finally were granted access to their Stasi files and, sadly, experiencing the growing sense of disillusionment and discontent among the Germans when it transpired that they were really not one big happy family as everyone had initially wanted to believe, but two nations divided by a Berlin Wall that was still very much present in their minds.

I also found it immensely moving to see that now, through its art, Germany is setting out to explore and come to terms with that time in its history. I’m sure it was inevitable – and very much needed. And I’m happy to say that Das Leben der Anderen is an exceptional work of art in doing just that – apart from just being a superexcellent film.

Spring is just around the corner. Although it’s supposed to get a bit colder this weekend, and we can feel it already. Right now 7°C [45 F], sunrise at 4:51 am and sunset at 10:00 pm.