The Symbol of an Age: Berlin and the Wall
Few attempts to escape over the Berlin wall were ever recorded on film. No one trying to flee gave advanced notice with the intention of being filmed. Moreover, many escape attempts took place under the cover of darkness, which made filming impossible in any case. The necessary illumination of the scene would only have endangered those trying to make it across the border. Authentic film material documenting an actual escape, not just a reconstrued one, is a rarity. Generally, the existence of such footage is due only to the camera teams that untiringly paced the border and developed an amazing sense for sites that might be used in an attempt to flee. They observed people, their despair, and their wrestling with themselves when an opportunity to escape offered itself on the spur of the moment. Particularly in the initial weeks after East Berlin was sealed off, cameras managed to record at least a few seconds of events that symbolically captured the inhumane drama of the city's division: the young soldier fighting with himself, hesitating, and finally climbing over the fence and into the western part of the city; the old man peering down, hesitating, and then jumping out of the window of a building whose very facade forms part of the sector boundary.
A few film sequences also document the preparation of an escape, but they date only from later years. One example is the tunnel planned and dug from the west side into East Berlin, the filming of which was commissioned by NBC. Such operations were exceptions, however.
The film material, which is kept today in various archives, was usually made without a sound track or commentary. It lives solely from the quick rhythm of the images, from the portraits of people, from their gestures and miens, from the anxiety and hope expressed in their faces. And it presents the special situation of the divided city as a focal point and stage of the East-West conflict set in the middle of the GDR. Not until having watched these scenes does one begin to sense how important it was for the Berliners to receive support and assistance from the West. They responded with deep gratitude to the visits of American presidents and politicians, who were repeatedly able to articulate the emotional situation of the Berliners.
The most penetrating insight of all was that communicated by John F. Kennedy in 1963 from the balcony of the Schoeneberg town hall in West Berlin: "AII free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner'." By linking the fate of the Berliners with that of the entire democratic western world, Kennedy gave them the feeling of security they sought. Berlin became a symbol of the thirst for freedom in this century. Down to Ronald Reagan's famous speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, no American politician went without taking up and reexpressing Kennedy's declaration.
The Symbol of an Age: Berlin and the Wall is a film about humans confronted by the inhumanity of the Berlin wall, about successful and abortive escapes. These images, some of which are dramatic, are lent an American perspective by the accompanying original sound tracks of the speeches that important American politicians have given in Berlin. Dramatizing the scenes and speeches in this manner brings out the significance of the American involvement on Berlin's behalf and underscores the close tie between Berlin and the United States of America.
The film opens with excerpts from the speech that President Reagan delivered in 1987. They are complemented by aerial views of the Berlin wall dating from late summer 1989, just a few weeks before the wall fell in the wake of the shift in East German policies. There follows a retrospective sequence of material from the first days of the wall's existence and the years thereafter. This film footage clearly documents the brutal resolve of the East German government to block any chance of escape. The barbed wire unrolled at the outset was replaced by a stone wall nearly twelve feet (3.6) high, the windows through which people had jumped to the western side were bricked up, and escape with the help of a ladder or tunnel was soon made impossible by the creation of a wide strip along the eastern side of the border. All that remained was the recourse to human cunning born of despair.
The film concludes by returning to Reagan's 1987 speech and its now famous call: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" No one could have guessed then that the wall would indeed fall within two years. But even if one could not know, one could still hope!