You can have New York, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo. For my money, the most storied, eclectic, poetic, haunted, interesting, textured, complicated, lyrical, misunderstood and cinematic city on the planet is Berlin. Perhaps partial because I spent four years of my childhood there, living within the Wall in what was West Berlin, I’ll admit I fell under the city’s spell, but even now, 20+ years later, the city stays with me and I have never, in all my travels, been able to find another place to replicate so many of its unique character traits.
Before I travel back this summer to the city that I hold so close to my heart, I found it appropriate to seek out some recent films set in Berlin for my own mini Berlin Film Festival. There are some extraordinary films out there set in this amazing city, and I chose 5 amazingly distinct films—5 unique Berlin stories. Each one offers a unique glimpse into the soul of a disturbed and passionate city desperate for healing, understanding and connection. I highly recommend a viewing and a visit.
DER HIMMEL UBER BERLIN (“Wings of Desire”) (1987)
Director: Wim Wenders.
Berlin is a complicated city. It is modern, eclectic, edgy, yet historical and classic—a true paradox. At the same time that it continues to redefine itself, it also constantly tries to heal itself, to escape itself, forgive and forget itself. It is a haunted place, an often dour and depressing place, filled with the ruins of history, both emotional and physical. Spiritually, though, Berlin never gives up, or gives in, and that is where the true paradox lies. Here, in this place where so much has laid to waste, there is and always will be beauty. That is why Berlin is poetry. And that is why Wings of Desire is the perfect Berlin movie.
Wings of Desire is Wim Wenders’ lyrical poem to West Berlin. Made in 1987, before the fall of the Wall, it is set in West Berlin and is about an angel who observes West Berliners as they move about their lives. He walks the streets, unseen, floating above the city, listening to their thoughts as they ride the subway, walk to work, read a book, or fall asleep. Most of the film is set to a voiceover narrative of people’s thoughts mixed in with poetry (by Rainer Maria Rilke), which makes for a ethereal feeling—greatly aided by the black-and-white cinematography—which shouldn’t surprise you, coming from the director Wenders, known for his offbeat, independent style. But this film is surprisingly lyrical and fluid, as it brings you into the world of angel Damiel, played by the wonderful Bruno Ganz, who looks longingly at his human subjects and wonders what it would be like to feel, touch and be a part of their world. When he finds himself enamored with a circus performer, he particularly wants to become earth-bound in order to get closer to her, and there is a sweetness about it, a delicacy that breaks your heart. This film moves at a pace American audiences are not used to, and that is part of its wonder. The lyrical poetry of Wings of Desire is about the grace of being human, in all its vulnerabilities, fears and longings. The fragility of mortality is not lost in a setting like West Berlin, as Wenders features the Wall in several scenes. What better place to comment on the meaning of humanity.
Tender, touching, haunting and poetic, Wings of Desire is an ode to the city which reflects its same search for meaning and peace—a search that may never be fulfilled, but whose hope is eternal.
DER TUNNEL (“The Tunnel”) (2001)
Director: Roland Suso Richter.
Berlin has many legacies, but perhaps its most enduring one is that of a divided city, and its most infamous symbol is the Wall. Erected in 1961 to separate East from West by the communist regime to keep its citizens from fleeing to freedom, the Berlin Wall was a concrete barrier between nations, between ideals, between ways of life, but it also physically separated wives from husbands, fathers from sons, brothers from sisters and lovers from one another. If you happened to be on the wrong side when it went up—and it did go up quickly— you were stuck. Literally. For the characters in The Tunnel, this is just not a fate they can accept. Being separated from loved ones is bad enough, but living in a state that keeps you forcibly behind a wall is almost a fate worse than death. Escape became the only option, as it was for hundreds of East Berliners who attempted to cross in the early days of the barricade, and they tried any way over, under, even through the early constructs of the Wall—some successful, some not. The Tunnel tells the true story of the most famous escape ever made from East to West Berlin, through a hand-dug tunnel the length of a football field which carried 30 people to freedom, led by famous East German champion swimmer Harry Melchior, here played by Heino Ferch. The movie itself is a pretty straightforward narrative, but the setting is incomparable, and, as high as the stakes are, you can’t help but get sucked in emotionally with the characters’ passions, motives and desires. There’s so much to lose (once you leave, you can never go back), so much to gain (well, freedom), and so much at stake if you get caught (those are real soldiers with real guns guarding that wall). Even Hollywood can’t make this stuff up.
DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN (“The Lives of Others”) (2006)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
We call it Big Brother. George Orwell envisioned it in his book 1984. People called him a visionary. Sadly, he was off by a decade or so. Orwell’s vision of pervasive government surveillance, of state-sanctioned spying into every detail of our lives, controlling, seeing and manipulating, had already existed in East Germany in the 1970s and 80s, during the height of the Cold War, the height of the East German Communist regime. The Stasi was the Ministry for State Security—the state police—but what they really were were spies against the East German people, seeking out perpetrators against the government, anyone who might look, sound or think out of step with the East German propaganda machine. Headquartered in East Berlin, the Stasi were quite active in the city once teeming with artists and poets and musicians, needing to quell any anti-state antagonism that may arise from such activities such as free thought, artistic expression or poetic freedom. The Lives of Others focuses on one Stasi agent, played with a chilling emptiness by Ulrich Muehe, and his assignment to spy on a playwright (Sebastian Koch) marked as questionable by his superior, whose motives are as much in doubt as the accused’s guilt. As events unfold, however, it becomes more than a cat-and-mouse game as there are twists and turns you don’t see coming, betrayals and loyalties from unexpected places, and, mostly, a portrait of a time and place that not only turns your stomach, but breaks your heart. Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film in 2007.
ANONYMA – EINE FRAU IN BERLIN (“A Woman in Berlin”) (2008)
Director: Max Farberbock.
For all of Berlin’s contradictions, its constant is its unified desire to move forward, further and further from its bleak, dark and painful past. Films like A Woman in Berlin, however, make it hard. Based on the controversial memoir written anonymously by a woman who tells her true story of living through the Soviet invasion and occupation of Berlin during the final months of the war in 1945, A Woman in Berlin is a brutal vision of war from a perspective not often seen: the German woman. And it is not a pretty tale. As often as the German military has been demonized in history, and on film—justifiably so—what of the conundrum of the German people? This film tackles what one critic calls “the Pandora’s box of German suffering during World War II.” While the ordinary citizens of Germany certainly were not directly responsible for Hitler’s political and military agendas and actions, and most of them never took up arms or fired a single shot, where was their culpability for Hitler’s power and the support and confidence he had to have in order to embark on the path of terror that led to and sustained World War II? Can the German civilians ever truly be called innocent?
But to what extent do they deserve to suffer? For the Russian army that invades Berlin in April, 1945, finding only women, children and old, frail men inhabiting the bombed out ruins of buildings in A Woman in Berlin, compassion is the last emotion they feel. It’s more like rage, bitterness and a desire for vengeance. Instead of seeing unarmed women, children and old men who are hungry, tired and scared, they see only Germans. The same Germans who murdered their families, slaughtered their towns, raped their wives, and who they have been fighting bitterly on the battlefield and have now finally beaten back to the doorstep of their own Reichstag. This is their moment of victory and they are going to claim it. War is hell and to the victor go the spoils. And the spoils of war over the Germans are the German women. So the Russians claim the German women whenever and wherever they want. It is a legacy and a part of German history that is so shameful that the author was forced to publish her memoir anonymously as a self-protective measure (the lead character doesn’t even have a name in the film). The movie is surprisingly blameless in tone and paints with a broad brush, managing to stay relatively sentiment-free and emotionally distant in a film tackling such difficult subjects. Perhaps this distance is needed, but it makes for viewing of a painful subject even more difficult to sit through. The film is overly long and indulgent, but its impact is undeniable. The brutality and the frequency of the rapes are obviously difficult to watch, but this entire movie is difficult to watch, as it is a perspective of war that forces us to examine a side of war not often seen: the vengeance of victory. And for Berlin, it is another chapter in its deep, dark history—but definitely not one that defines it.
LOLA RENNT (“Run Lola Run”) (1998)
Director: Tom Tykwer.
Revisiting one of my all-time favorite movies, I was reminded of why Run Lola Run sits on my DVD shelf. The first time I ever saw this film, I knew I had to own it, because it is the kind of film you cannot see just once. It is one of the most inventive, original, addictive and fevered rides you’ll take—and one I highly recommend. Set in a reunified Berlin, Run Lola Run is the story of Lola, played by the amazing Franka Potente, who is saddled with the task of raising a boatload of cash for her desperately-in-trouble boyfriend (the pathetically wonderful Moritz Bleibtreu) in 20 minutes or gangsters will kill him. Director Tom Tykwer utilizes nifty bits of narrative techniques here, as we see the same plot unravel in three different ways, each tweaked just slightly by a single choice Lola makes. The result? A frenetic, fast-paced, pulsing ode to love, choices, time and trance music. Winner of the Audience Award at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, Run Lola Run is a visually vibrant and powerful story of love, passion and what we would do for the one we love. Tykwer’s use of color and sound are absolutely brilliant, as the soundtrack, pulsing and booming, carry us along in Lola’s world, and keep us just as amped as she is—and just as breathless. But why I love this movie is that it’s so much more than a glorified music video. It has real themes—themes of love, yes, but also of choices—reminding us that every choice we make, even the littlest one, can affect everything we do. But the theme of how time affects us is the theme most deeply felt in Run Lola Run. Time is like another character in the film and it impacts everyone and everything. There is no escaping time—no matter how fast you run. Run Lola Run is the quintessential post-Wall Berlin movie: fast-moving, energetic, young, hopeful, with just a hint of desperation and fear for the future. Berlin, ich liebe dich.