Divided Berlin Part 2: City of Spies

In this second part of our look at Berlin cinema during the time of division we explore the growth of spy films set in the city.

The post-war concept of Berlin as a city in ruins did not last long. The films of the 1940s and early 1950s captured Berlin at a unique moment of devastation, but as the city’s inhabitants came to terms with the end of the War and looked to rebuild their lives, a renovated urban space began to emerge in Berlin films. Yet, despite the disappearance of the city’s ruins, perceptions of Berlin as an abnormal location prevailed.

The political developments which followed the power-sharing deal that the allies had agreed towards Berlin at the end of the War meant that the city now occupied a crucial strategic position as the last frontier of western European, American-sponsored, capitalism, in the face of communist Eastern Europe. Therefore, Berlin became increasingly known as a focal point of the Cold War, with the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 solidifying such perceptions. Through this, the city gained a physical symbol to accompany its reputation as a location where the communist East and capitalist West precariously existed alongside each other, grudgingly locked in political stalemate.

Whilst the impact which division had on domestic films set in Berlin will be explored in part 3, the building of the Wall gave a crucial new impetus to English-language filmmaking in Berlin. As the 1950s progressed, fewer Hollywood films had used Berlin as the location for their narratives, but the East German government’s decision to erect the Wall made Berlin an interesting and fruitful location for such films once more, be they made by the Hollywood studios or an English-American co-production.

The Wall radically changed the depiction of Berlin on screen, as the political tensions of the Cold War were now more overtly depicted. This manifested itself in these Cold War films’ version of Berlin as a city full of spies, with the political situation in the city used as the setting for several thrillers which pitted capitalists directly against communist. Therefore, the idea of the city as a hotbed of global espionage came to define perceptions of Berlin found within English-language cinema during the time of division, as characters who were aligned to intelligence agencies in America (The Quiller Memorandum, Michael Anderson, 1966), the UK (The Spy who Came in from the Cold, Martin Ritt, 1965), Russia (A Dandy in Aspic, Anthony Mann, 1968), East Germany (Torn Curtain, Alfred Hitchcock, 1966) and Israel (Funeral in Berlin, Guy Hamilton, 1966), to name just a few, dominated these films’ narratives.

Furthermore, although the filmmaking spike seen in the 1960s was not maintained, there remained a flow of English-language films made in Berlin until the fall of the Wall in 1989. Within these films, the concept of Berlin as a city of spies remained strong, as the presence of Cold War-influenced tales within the cinematic output of West Berlin in the 1980s, in films such as Octopussy (John Glen, 1983) and Judgement in Berlin (Leo Penn, 1988), attests.

This more stringently divided treatment of Berlin was seen in the manner in which the urban space of the city was constructed in these films. Whilst the post-war films had treated the urban space of the city equally, depicting the Russian and American sectors in much the same way, a stark contrast was now drawn between the two different cities which existed on either side of the divide.

Therefore the claim that the ruins which had defined post-war Berlin had disappeared from cinematic constructions of the city needs to be qualified. Whilst this was certainly true for the view of West Berlin found in these English-language films, the same cannot be said for these films’ engagement with the eastern half of the city.

In reality the 1960s saw much of the centre of East Berlin undergo a major rebuilding programme to turn this part of the city into a modern location, a building project which saw the construction of the Fernsehturm. Yet, such redevelopment was not found in English-language films’ engagement with East Berlin. Instead, the urban space of this part of the city was shown to still be dominated by derelict buildings left ruined by the War.

This is evident in Torn Curtain, which tells the story of an American scientist, Professor Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), who defects to East Germany with his fiancée Sarah (Julie Andrews), in order to steal secrets about the East’s missile programme. Upon their arrival in East Berlin the couple are taken to meet a Government minister, but the view from this high-ranking official’s office is not of modern East Germany. Instead, it is of ruins, an image which is reminiscent of the view out of the window of the businessman Brückner’s office found in the Trümmerfilm Die Mörder sind unter uns. The minister is shown to govern a communist wasteland, as the film, much like many of the Cold War English-language films made in Berlin, casts the urban space of East Berlin as underdeveloped and rundown.

Furthermore, by aligning the East German official with the murderous Nazi character of Brückner from this earlier film, Torn Curtain also taints the East German regime with the negative connotations left behind by the legacy of Hitler. Much like in the Hollywood Trümmerfilme, the native German population of the city are unable to escape their previous incarnation as Nazis. Such a depiction of East Germany is also seen in the opening to Funeral in Berlin, as the titles appear in a gothic font which closely resembles one used by the Nazis, over images of the ruins of East Berlin. As the titles progress, the camera focuses in a group working near to the Wall, amongst which are a number of East German guards.

Significantly, whilst the western spies of these Cold War films are covert operatives who wear plain clothes, the East German officers in Funeral in Berlin are in uniform, a costume choice which closely aligns these characters with the view of the Nazi solider in uniform found in Second World War films. Such a viewpoint is common across these Cold War films, as East Berlin is not only shown to have struggled to overcome the physical legacy of the Second World War, but also those Germans who live behind the Wall are cast as a continuation of the city’s Nazi past.

This negative coding of East Berlin is further enhanced by the way in which the urban space of West Berlin is constructed. In comparison to the view of East Berlin as a location in ruins, the western part of the divided city is shown to have developed into a modern, bustling city. This is epitomised through the focus these Cold War films develop on the area around the Kurfürstendamm and, in particular, the Europa-Center, a complex of offices, restaurants and shops which was completed in 1965 and is shown to be a beacon of modern capitalism, built in the contemporary style and topped by a revolving Mercedes badge.

Not only is the building a favourite hangout for West Berlin’s ‘coolest’ inhabitants, such as the photographer Caroline (Mia Farrow) in A Dandy in Aspic, but in The Quiller Memorandum the upper floors of the building act as the base for MI5. Hence, whilst the East German Government is left to survey the ruins of East Berlin in Torn Curtain, the British spies of The Quiller Memorandum look out over the modern, renovated centre of West Berlin. The division of Berlin during the Cold War was shown in these English-language films to not just be ideological. The differing topographies on the two sides of the Wall were also constructed as radically different urban spaces.

This post is adapted from my PhD thesis which is available in full at etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/10758/



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