Berlin, Check Point Charlie, and Giant-Puppet Theatre
[Montréal, Québec, Canada 16°C] Since my first visit to (East and West) Berlin in 1985, the city has never fully escaped my imagination. I remember walking up one of the platforms on the Western side of the wall near Potsdamer Platz to peer over the reinforced concrete barrier to get a glimpse behind the Iron Curtain. I remember at the time, how dangerous it felt to take a glimpse inside of what looked like a prison, heavily guarded by armed soldiers from nearby watch towers. I remember later urinating on the wall as a symbolic gesture of defiance towards a regime that would build such a wall to prevent its population from escaping oppression.
I arrived in West Berlin in the backseat of a small car of Berliners returning from West Germany. I hitched a ride with them across East Germany on a highway most East Germans were not permitted to use and past exits to East Germain towns we were not allowed to visit. I was surprised that a non-Germain citizen would be allowed to hitch hike through the DDR to get to Berlin.
Back in 1985, Westerners were allowed to visit East Berlin by passing through Check Point Charlie with a visa for the day (it was forbidden to stay overnight). At the checkpoint, I exchanged the mandatory 40 Deutch Marks for 40 DDR Marks that had no value in the West. I tried spending it all during my visit but I returned back around 8pm having spent less than 30. It was a Sunday and most shops were closed. I bought snacks and later had a couple of bottles of beer in a local pub. If the same circumstances faced me today, I would spend all of the remaining currency buy buying a round of beer for the locals in the small bar in the hope of initiating an exchange.
I remember after crossing into the East how the city changed into a sepia tone that overcame everything. It was as though a fine ferous dust of had permanently settled onto the place for decades, filtering out any other colour from the city’s palette. During my afternoon in East Berlin, I initially focused on the wall, following it as it rammed into apartment buildings then out the other side. All the windows facing west in these buildings connected to the wall were bricked up.
For many, looking back at the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a nostalgic return to a moment that altered the path of world history. For Germans who remember what it was like before reunification, it’s a reminder of family division, Stasi (Staatsicherheitsdienst or ‘state security service’) repression, or even a guaranteed job and affordable housing.
For others—particularly neoliberal advocates from North America—the fall of the Berlin Wall was a confirmation of Capitalism winning over Communism. The ideological win later celebrated by George H.W. Bush in his September 11, 1990 “Toward a New World Order” speech to a joint session of Congress.
For me, the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall is also an event filled with reverie because I returned to Berlin for a second time in August 1990. The excitement was still palpable by shops still filled with East Europeans. People were carting stacks of televisions, VHS players and other electronic goods on trolleys, presumably to bring them back home with them as Capitalist trophies from their hunt for ‘modernity’ in West Berlin.
I remember approaching Brandenburg Gate through Tiergarten Park along 17th June street with the sound of tapping growing louder as I got closer to where the wall still stood. The dismantling of the wall was in full swing by dozens and dozens of people sculpting pieces of concrete from the surface of the wall to sell to tourists like me and anyone else wanting a souvenir. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking under Brandenburg Gate towards Unter den Linten in East Berlin. The hair on the back of my neck stood up sending shivers down my spine. Even though nine months had past since November 9, 1989, its significance had not escaped me.
I returned again in early 2007 and barely recognized the place. The line between East and West had blurred significantly but not entirely. What I like most about Berlin, is that it has managed to hold onto its punk spirit that it developed after becoming an enclave behind the Iron Curain after the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Of all the celebrations that commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, my favourite was The Berlin Reunion by Royal de Luxe ‘Lilliputians’. It was a four-day outdoor puppet theatre performance from October 1-4, 2009. It started with the sprouting of a giant anchor in Parizer Platz, facing Brandenburg Gate and a foaming geyser in the Schlossplatz. On October 2 the Little Giantess (a huge puppet) awoke near the geyser and began the search for her 9.5-metre-high giant uncle, the deep sea diver who rose out of the Spree river the following morning.
They reunited later on the 2nd day of the theatre performance at Brandenburg Gate before spending the night and walking the city together the following day before leaving by boat to close the performance.
A great photo reportage of the performance offers the entire storyline of the reunification performance. Below is a video of part of the performance taken by Berlin resident, Nina.