In the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the announcement of the dissolution of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, a special screening of part of a classic documentary, Imagine a City Called Berlin, was followed by a discussion with the film’s writer and presenter Michael Frayn, director Dennis Marks and author Ian McEwan, who spent much of his childhood in Germany and set his novel The Innocent in Berlin.
The fall of the Wall, and the 20th anniversary thereof, has signified different things for different people, and has had a profound impact on Berliners and the world beyond Berlin. The atmosphere in the lead up to 9 November 2009 has been one of celebration and it’s against this backdrop that this English PEN event took place. As Marks commented, “until the election of Obama as president of the United States, there had not been this much elation in the public sphere”.
The panellists, all of whom spent time in Berlin before, during and after the fall of the Wall, shared with the audience their unique perspectives of the city. Their ‘fly on the wall’ experiences and sociological observations revealed dimensions of a place that only someone who had seen it first hand during this period could be privy to.
Anecdotes from journalistic investigations painted a picture of a divided city – literally and metaphorically – where one half looked as a capital city should, and the other half appeared to be stuck in a time warp. What is surprising is that the Communist East was not necessarily viewed by all West Berliners as being an undesirable place to live; in fact it “had a certain charm for some Westerners who had seen the transformation of the West”, according to Frayn. It was also a relatively safe place to live, especially for the people whose allotments were close to the Wall: they didn’t have to lock their houses as the guards were so close they had their own 24 hour security service. Conversely, “many East Berliners had a glamorised idea of what life was like in the West.” Marks concluded that while the Wall was in place, Berliners “had a distorted mirror image of each other”. McEwan felt that he was witnessing “empires in rise and decline”, as troops from the United States – with its burgeoning economy and military strength – could be seen alongside German soldiers rendered virtually powerless as Berlin took its first steps towards re-unification.
Years later, many signs of the past still remain in East Berlin, where in the West these have all but disappeared in the swift march towards modernisation and progress. Train stations in the East, as Frayn explained in the documentary, still have signs bearing Soviet inscriptions, and there is still a remarkable absence of advertising and other telltale signs of capitalism. The freedom of movement and ability to buy a train ticket and travel unhindered between East and West Berlin is in remarkable contrast to the experiences McEwan describes when, in 1962, one had to travel into East Berlin in a “sealed bus” and could only visit one park.
The evening left an impression that the world has still not quite come to terms with what has taken place in Berlin. McEwan, who observed that the Wall is underrepresented in German literature, was once told by a Berliner that “the wall is a subject for journalists, not novelists.” Why is this and will it change? seems to be the next question for writers to face when examining this fascinating city.
Report by Anika Morshead
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/imagineacitycalledberlin/