The Berlin Wall had a lasting effect on popular culture, and that influence is still being felt decades after the wall fell. Whether exploring viewpoints from the East, the West, or the aftereffects of reunification, it has remained a point of fascination and a stimulus for creativity during the years the wall stood and since it has come down.

Here we'll take a quick look at five areas of culture that have used the Berlin Wall as inspiration: and some of them may come as a surprise...

ART  |  CINEMA  |  LITERATURE  |  MUSIC  |  THEATRE

"My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love"

Despite the associations with LGBTQ issues that have become attached to the image in later years, the piece is based on a real photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker's Bruderkuss in 1979, at the 30th anniversary celebration of the formation of the German Democratic Republic. In a 2014 interview, Dmitri Vrubel discussed the origins of the piece:

"A girl I met in Paris who came to Moscow and gave me a photograph of Brezhnev and Honecker kissing. She said, “Look at this cool picture. You have to paint it.” .... I started making sketches on paper, and at one point [poet and artist Dmitri] Prigov saw them and said, “Dmitri Vladimirovich, this would be good to paint on the Berlin Wall.” We laughed and forgot about it, of course. But then a man named Alexander Brodovsky visited my apartment gallery. He’d come from Berlin to find artists for the first exhibit in East Germany of the contemporary Soviet avant-garde. We discussed everything, he officially invited me, and in April 1990, I went to Berlin to see him […].

The Scottish girl [granting licenses to paint on the wall] said that Brezhnev and Honecker was politics, and that she had to talk it over with someone. I was told that the senate of West Berlin and the government of West Germany are afraid that if Gorbachev sees this painting on the wall, he’ll refuse to let East Germany unite with West Germany. I even believed this. But then they gave the permission. I came back to Moscow briefly and started telling people I knew that you could paint on the Berlin Wall, and all my fellow artists said, “You’re an idiot. That fence will get knocked down in a month. If you want to paint on fences, do it in Moscow.” But I wanted to paint specifically on the Berlin Wall and specifically Brezhnev and Honecker’s kiss. In this painting, there’s one German and one Russian, and the Berlin Wall is about the same thing but in reverse: here [in the painting], there’s total love, while the Berlin Wall separates two worlds — it was a perfect fit. When you paint something large in the open air, you’re thinking not only about people’s perception but also about their gut reaction. You’re expecting everyone to say, “Wow!” I was waiting for this, too. But of course I didn’t think that 25 years later my painting would be seen as a symbol of the Berlin Wall."

Dmitri Vrubel, from an original interview in Kommersant Weekend with Andrey Borzenko, 11 November 2014. The English language version is posted on The Calvert Journal, and you can read it here.


 

"Es geschah im November" ("It Happened in November")


When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Kani Alavi was a young artist living in an apartment overlooking the border between East and West Berlin. He remembers seeing East Berliners streaming through "like a wave of water," he said through an interpreter. "Some were joyful, some were doubtful, some were afraid they might not [have the chance to] cross again."

Alavi painted that moment: a flowing river of faces he calls "Es geschah im November," or "It happened in November."

Alavi and a group of artists created it in 1990, soon after the wall fell. They wanted to preserve part of history, and felt it was symbolic to paint on the East side — which was blank during the East-West division, since East German soldiers patrolled the area dubbed the "death strip."

Irene Noguchi, "Historic Art, Luxury Apartments Battle Over Berlin's Famous Wall" October 3, 2015. Read the original article on the National Public Radio (NPR) website here.

"La Trabant"


Birgit Kinder,This painting by Birgit Kinder is on a segment of the Berlin Wall that was on the east bank of the Spree River that separated portions of East and West Berlin. Because this section of the wall was on the opposite shore of the river, it was not covered by graffiti as was the case with the rest of the west face of the Wall (accessible to West Berliners).

After the reunification of East and West Germany, this segment of the wall was made into a public gallery and various artists were invited to add their work to the wall's unadorned segments. This particular image commemorates not only the breaking of the wall in November 1989, but the ubiquitous Trabant--the car driven by most East Germans in 1989.

Birgit Kinder, "Berlin Wall Trabant," Making the History of 1989, Item #718

Escape From East Berlin (1962)

 

Shot from 'Ecape from East Berlin'Scores of film artists fled Nazi Germany during the 1930s and found their way to Hollywood. Only a handful of these refugees returned after World War II to make German-language films....Unmatched for topicality, however, was Mr. Siodmak’s West German-American coproduction “Escape From East Berlin” (1962). This Cold War artifact...was inspired by the escape of 29 East Germans who tunneled to the West beneath the Berlin Wall in January 1962, only months after its construction. (Unlike theirs, most tunnels were dug from the west to the east to provide a way for East Berliners to flee.)

Although Robert Siodmak didn’t care much for “Escape From East Berlin,” which he described as an exercise in “tedious liberalism,” it is easy to imagine some personal investment. The director — a Jew who left Berlin for Paris after Joseph Goebbels demanded that one of his films be banned and who left France for the United States the day before World War II broke out — was himself something of an escape artist.

Taken from: Hoberman, J.: "‘Escape From East Berlin,’ Reissued Five Decades Later", New York Times, June 26 2015. Read the article here.

Good Bye, Lenin! (2004)

 

Shot from Good Bye, Lenin!One of the very best films of 2004, a generally mediocre year for Hollywood, was a Cold War allegory from Europe, misread by many reviewers as merely a “comedy,” made in Germany but focused on former East Germany, directed by Wolfgang Becker in 2003 and co-written by Becker and Bernd Lichtenberg.... Good Bye, Lenin! tells the story of an East German Hausfrau, Christiana Kerner (Katrin Sass), who suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma, after seeing her son, Alex (Daniel Bruhl) beaten by the East German police during a protest demonstration leading up to the collapse of the East German Communist state, the GDR.

She is incapacitated and comatose for months in the hospital as the world she knew is forever transformed. Meanwhile, there are seismic political changes in Germany after the Berlin Wall is brought down and the mechanism for reunification of the German nation is set in motion.

 

[…] The film's alleged comedy comes from the son's attempt to maintain his mother's delusion that she is still living in a Communist state.... The theme of the film, then, is delusional happiness and stability. The film is itself delusional. It at first seems to be a pleasant nostalgic comedy, but it ultimately proves to be much more than just that. The story is solidly grounded in melodrama, concerning a family abandoned and adrift. 

Taken from: Welsh, James M. "Good Bye, Lenin!" Magill's Cinema Annual 2005: A Survey of the Films of 2004, edited by Hilary White, et al., 24th ed., Gale, 2005, pp. 163-165. 

The Lives of Others (2007)

 

SHot from The Lives of Others (2007)It is appropriate that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's award-winning film about betrayal and surveillance by the East German secret police, called the Stasi, is set mainly in the metaphorically appropriate year of 1984 for the kind of political, social, and cultural control on display that is nothing if not Orwellian. The film, Das Leben der Anderen (the English title is an exact translation) is about betrayal and obscene violations of privacy by communist bureaucrats who are mainly interested in advancing their own miserable careers. The action begins when the Cold War is still operative in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). 

It ends five years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the GDR. In fact, there are two concluding epilogues that trace the lives of two of the principal characters in the new German state, one a writer and playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), the other, Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), the Stasi agent assigned to shadow him looking for incriminating “evidence.”

The director was born in Cologne, Germany in 1973 and would have been about fifteen years old when the two German states were reunified. In an interview with the political film journal Cinéaste, von Donnersmarck explained that he had grown up in West Berlin but he remembered the Stasi humiliations his family suffered when they crossed into East Germany to visit relatives.

Taken from: Welsh, James M. "The Lives of Others." Magill's Cinema Annual 2008: A Survey of the Films of 2007, edited by Hilary White, 27th ed., Gale, 2008, pp. 246-248. 

Margaret Atwood, 'The Handmaid's Tale'

 

Margaret Atwood in Stockholm in June 2015 (Wikimedia Commons)Atwood started writing The Handmaid’s Tale in 1984 while living in West Berlin on a grant that provided funding to filmmakers, writers and musicians to live and work in the West German district occupied by the allies.

“At that time it was a very dark, empty city, by which I mean there were a lot of vacant apartments,” says Atwood. “People didn't want to live there, because it was surrounded by the wall. They brought in foreign artists to be there just so people wouldn't feel so cut off.”

She says living through the Cold War in divided Berlin was instructive to the mood she created for Gilead in the book.

 

“We also visited East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland at that time,” says Atwood. “It informed the atmosphere but not the content if you can see what I mean. The experience of having people change the subject, being fearful of talking to you, not knowing who they can trust, all of that was there.”

Taken from Field, Shivaune: "Author Margaret Atwood On Why 'The Handmaid's Tale' Resonates In 2018, Forbes, 31 July 2018. Read the full article here.

Peter Schneider, 'The Wall Jumper'

 

Peter Schneider, author of "The Wall Jumper," lucidly translated by Leigh Hafrey, is described on its title page as a novel. If it is a novel, it is a novel that is trying very hard not to look like one. It purports to be an account by a West Berlin writer, an anonymous ''I'' whom it is impossible not to identify with Peter Schneider, of his attempt to write a novel about the Berlin Wall; of his relationship with and vision of the divided city in which he has lived for 20 years; and of his friendships with three East Berliners, two of whom, Robert and Lena, now live in the West, while the third, Pommerer, is still in the East. It is a book about invisible walls as well as visible ones. "It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads," Mr. Schneider writes, "than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see."

[…] Perhaps the best things in the book are Mr. Schneider's many acute insights into the life of the city. On the cramped atmosphere of Berlin, an island in a sea of land: "Berliners drive like murderers. They seem in the center of the city to be seized by the need for movement that West German drivers work out on their highways and turnpikes." On city maps, he points out that Western maps indicate the wall only by a delicate pink dotted band. And "on a city map in East Berlin, the world ends at the Wall . . . untenanted geography sets in."

Taken from: Rushdie, Salman: "Tales of Two Berlins", New York Times, 22 January 1984. Read the full article here.

"99 Luftballons" (Nena)


[This track] tells the story of a computer malfunction that inaccurately identifies a cluster of floating balloons as a military threat. One side issues a red alert and scrambles its weapons systems. "The war machine springs to life" and turns cities into dust. This song is one of the very few that played out the apocalyptic vision so common in literary and cinematic genres of that same time period.

Foy, Joseph J.: Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics through Popular Culture (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), pp.204.

Nena auf einem Bild mit den knalligen Ballons. Photogaph (c) Kristian Schuller & Bild."99 Luftballons" reached #1 in West Germany in 1983. In 1984, the original German version also peaked at #2 on the American Billboard Hot 100 chart and the English-language version topped the UK Singles Chart. The German version topped the Australian charts for five weeks and the New Zealand charts for one week.

Nena recorded "99 Red Balloons" [the English language version] despite their dissatisfaction with the lyrics, which they expressed in numerous magazine interviews in 1984. They, as with many of their fans, felt that the English rendition was not true to the meaning of its German original.

 

 

 

The song came during a period of escalating rhetoric and strategic maneuvering between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. In particular, its international chart success followed the United States deployment of Pershing II missiles in West Germany in January 1984 (in response to the Soviet deployment of new SS-20 nuclear missiles), which prompted protests across western Europe.

Read the full article here.

Photograph (c) Kristian Schuller, originally in Bild, 07.06.2018

"A Great Day for Freedom" (Pink Floyd)

 

Pink Floyd, 1971 (Wikimedia Commons)

GW: Although the album clearly makes a personal statement, it also contains some specific political statements. On "A Great Day for Freedom," for instance, you address the great hopes triggered by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the disappointment that followed in Europe.

GILMOUR: Yeah. Well, it's kind of tragic what has happened to the eastern parts of Europe. There was a wonderful moment of optimism when the Wall came down--the release of Eastern Europe from the non-democratic side of the socialist system. But what they have now doesn't seem to be much better. Again, I'm fairly pessimistic about it all. I sort of wish and live in hope, but tend to think that history moves at a much slower pace then we think it does. I feel that real change takes a long, long time. We see the superficial changes that people think are enormous. But they pass, and several years down the road you find yourself back at the same place you were 20 years before, thinking, My God, all of this happened and nothing happened.

Di Perna, Alan; Kitts, Jeff; Tolinski Brad: Guitar World Presents Pink Floyd (Hal Leonard Corporation, 2002).

"Heroes" (David Bowie) and "Nikita" (Elton John)

 

Davd Bowie, 1975 (Wikimedia Commons)"Heroes" was written and recorded in the summer of 1977 in West Berlin’s Hansa Studios, which overlooked the Berlin Wall and its watchtowers. Bowie had decamped to the city from LA after cocaine addiction and a failing marriage had nearly destroyed him. “It was literally like being reborn,” he told BBC 6Music in 2005. He released the first album of his Berlin trilogy, Low, a week after his 30th birthday in January 1977; his next album, also called “Heroes”, followed nine months later. Its title track had begun life as an instrumental, based on a dynamic, rhythmic riff by Bowie’s regular guitarist, Carlos Alomar, embellished by analogue synthesiser oscillations from Brian Eno (who has a co-writing credit) and a two-note guitar line created by feedback by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Its title has quotation marks around it because Bowie was not interested in triumphalism — we could be “‘heroes’”, he sang, but “just for one day”.
 

 

This lyric directly spoke to a situation that inspired the song. Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti had a new lover he would meet clandestinely by the city border, and the original third verse of “‘Heroes’” summons the passion and madness of their actions: “Standing by the wall/And the guns shot above our heads/And we kissed, as though nothing could fall”. 

Read the full article

Elton John's "Nikita" tells of love unconsummated because the Soviet Union placed artificial barriers to separate the peoples of its satellite countries from direct contact with the West. The Berlin Wall that divided the east and west sides of the city became symbolic of what Winston Churchill called the "Iron Curtain". Elton John's song simultaneously sounds a note of both hope and despair. He sings "Oh Nikita, you will never know anything about my home." But in a later verse, he imagines another possibility: "And if there comes a time guns and gates no longer hold you in and if you're free to make a choice, just look toward the west and find a friend."

Foy, Joseph J.: Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics through Popular Culture (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), pp.204.

Klaus Pohl

 

The German playwright who addressed the post-Wende and post-unification situation in his works most prolifically is Klaus Pohl. With differing dramatic strategies and styles as well as with varying perspectives and subject focus, Pohl has treated his current German "condition" in three plays: Karate-Billi kehrt zuruck and Die schone Fremde, both initially published and performed in 1991, and Wartesaal Deutschland StimmenReich from 1995. The first play, Karate-Billi, is set in small East German town shortly after the surprising and abrupt end of the GDR, and focuses on the dislocations which those swift changes brought with them. The second piece, Die schone Fremde, also set shortly after the Wende in a small German town, this one in the West, concentrates on the prejudices and latent, as well as not-so-latent, racist, xenophobic, and neo-Nazi attitudes which infect even citizens regarded as upstanding and come to the fore especially when they have or have had too much to drink. The third and later play, Wartesaal Deutschland ... used some of the interviews he had conducted and observations he had made on his travels throughout Germany, East and West, selected, concentrated, and reworked for the stage. The play consists of 32 monologues delivered by a wide range of Germans from both parts of the newly unified but still very disparate country, but those 32 scenes were subsequently reduced to 20 for the premiere which Pohl directed himself in Berlin.

Costabile-Heming, Carol Anne; Halverson, Rachel J.; Foell, Kristie A.: Textual Responses to German Unification: Processing Historical and Social Change in Literature and Film (Walter de Gruyter, 2013), pp. 179.

"Over There" (Mark Ravenhill, 2009)

 

Mark Ravenhill, The IndependentWhen the dramatist Mark Ravenhill was invited to write a play for the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin, for a season on “Collapsing Ideologies”... 
He spent a year steeped in books on German history and emerged wiser but daunted.

“I thought, ‘How do you make a play out of that?’” he admits. “It’s such a huge subject. In the year I spent thinking about it, I did map out in my head various epic sagas covering centuries. But when it came to the crunch, I decided that the way I wanted to write about it was through twin brothers. In a way, I always think, the bigger the subject, let’s see how small the cast can be.”

[…] Ravenhill was surprised by the responses of people he interviewed for the new play. He had expected them to find his questions dated.


“I said, ‘I’m terribly sorry to ask about all this, it’s probably really old news to you, you’ve probably talked yourself out about reunification.’ And they said, ‘Actually, no. We’re only really starting to talk about it now.’ Because it all happened so fast, there wasn’t really a lot of debate and discussion. And now people are stopping and saying, ‘What actually went on and did we make the right decisions?’ So I realised when I did the interviews that it’s actually a really live topic in Germany.”

In those meetings, Ravenhill also encountered a degree of anger among some East Germans and a desire to acknowledge some aspects of life in the GDR. (Ostalgie, nostalgia for certain elements of that past, is a hugely controversial phenomenon in Germany.)

“I had gone into it naively, thinking that it was a meeting of two different societies and cultures and in some way a dialogue between them. And then, reading about it and interviewing people, it was essentially a subsuming of East Germany into West Germany. I hadn’t quite appreciated to what extent that happened. I came out of it feeling quite critical about the process of unification and understanding that there was a lot of anger among the East Germans about what happened …There is hardly anyone in East Germany who would say that the Stasi was a good idea but one of the things they say was good was that young people grew up with a greater sense of being part of a shared society.”

Ravenhill, Mark, and Sarah Hemming. "Split decision." Life & Arts. Financial Times, 31 Jan. 2009, p. 12. Financial Times Historical Archive.

Read the full article here on Gale Primary Sources.

Reviving the classics to reflect a new society

 

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (Wikimedia Commons)In the former GDR the classics were used as a coded language to convey subversive truth to the audience. This has bred a particularly perceptive audience who pick up on nuances more fortunate societies can afford to ignore. Last autumn in Schwerin … I saw a spare but telling production of Lessing's Nathan der Weise (1778) - a plea for racial tolerance that remained unheard earlier this century, and is tragically topical in the new Germany.... And in West Berlin's Schiller Theater, a splendid production of Lessing's Minna von Barnhelm by Katharina Thalbach … [who] brings out the play's neglected anti-war and anti-"Prussian" elements.

Shakespeare will not remain unchallenged for much longer in the East, although he apparently remains a strong influence: Volker Braun's Bohemia by the Sea - an allusion to The Winter's Tale - is shortly to be premiered at the West Berlin Schiller Theater … and Lothar Trolle, a writer much influenced by Greek mythology, is giving us his view of events in present-day Berlin in Hermes in the City.... 

Couling, Della. "Another brick at the Wall." Independent, 29 Jan. 1992. Read the article here.