Divided Berlin Part 3: Domestic Visions of the City

We continue out exploration of Berlin’s film history with a look at domestic filmmaking in East and West Berlin during division.

Beyond the Trümmerfilme in West Berlin Filmmaking

Although the building of the Wall caused a spike in English-language filmmaking about the divided city in the 1960s, such activity was an anomaly rather than the norm within the West Berlin film industry. As was seen in part 1, film production in the western of half of Berlin massively suffered, as the city’s isolated status from the rest of West Germany limited the industry’s ability to attract and retain filmmaking talent.

This struggle was not helped in the early years of the domestic industry’s redevelopment by the preferences for so-called Heimat films within West Germany. Whilst the war-torn topography of Berlin may have provided an ideal backdrop for the Trümmerfilme, this style of filmmaking soon became unfashionable as German filmmakers turned to Heimat films as a way of providing the native population with the escapist films they desired as they looked to move on from the Second World War. Unlike the Trümmerfilme, Heimat films avoided the scarred cities in favour of more rural settings, which meant that Berlin played no major role in these films.

Equally, the engagement of the West German film industry with Berlin did not improve in the 1960s and 1970s as the Heimat films began to be challenged by the films of the New German Cinema. This group of young filmmakers, such as Alexander Kluge, Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, felt that Heimat films had failed to properly address the problematic Nazi past, and so looked to produce more challenging films, which both pushed the limits of the medium of cinema and explored the dark recent history of Germany. However, once again such filmmakers largely avoided Berlin and, instead, chose to make their films within the West German film hubs of Munich and Hamburg.

It was only after the Berlin senate founded the West Berlin Film Fund (see part 1) as a way of combatting the falling film production activity in West Berlin that the number of films made in and about Berlin began to increase. As a result, in the 1980s a number of domestic films were made which began to explore Berlin’s divided status, such as Der Mann auf der Mauer (The Man on the Wall, Reinhard Hauff, 1982), Westler (East of the Wall, Wieland Speck, 1985) and Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders, 1987).

These films offered a more wistful take on Berlin’s division than in the Cold War spy thrillers discussed in part 2, as they explored the impact which the Wall had on the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants. Yet, at the same time they supported the politicalised image of the city found in the English-language films, which favoured West Berlin as a positive, capitalist location in comparison to the communist East.

This can be seen in Der Himmel über Berlin which tells the story of an angel called Damiel (Bruno Ganz) who watches over the inhabitants of the city. The film is shot in black and white and shows Damiel moving freely about both East and West Berlin. However, despite this freedom Damiel wants to become part of everyday life in the city. Therefore, at the end of the film he chooses to become human, settling in West Berlin. It is at this point that the film changes from black and white into colour, a shift from a melancholic to more positive tone which indicates that, despite losing his privileged position, Damiel is correct in choosing to settle in the western half of the divided city.

An Alternative View of the Divided City

The overriding image of Berlin found in West German cinema during division may have been that of a location dominated by the Wall, but the founding of the West Berlin Film Fund also saw a group of films emerge which depicted a different version of West Berlin, such as Christiane F (Uli Edel, 1981) and Taxi zum Klo (Taxi to the John, Frank Ripploh, 1980).

During the 1970s and 1980s, West Berlin came to be known worldwide as a location which was home to a ‘cool’ youth culture, a view which was supported by the decision of musicians such as David Bowie to settle in the city. Christiane F explores this alternative lifestyle through a character who embraces this scene, but gets caught up in a world of prostitution and drug use, a view of the city which added a tainted element to the ‘cool’ image of West Berlin in cinema.

Such a version of life in West Berlin is also at the centre of Taxi zum Klo, which tells the story of Frank (Frank Ripploh), who works as a teacher by day but lives a hedonistic life within West Berlin’s fashionable gay party scene at night. Much like in Christiane F, these ‘cool’ elements of life in the city are offset with graphic scenes of drug use and sex, which further helps to propagate a version of the city as a pleasure-seeking location with a problematic dark side.

Such a reputation for Berlin had been largely missing from cinema screens up until this point during division. Therefore, within these West Berlin films of the 1980s there was a re-emergence of an image of Berlin which, much like in the city’s Weimar heyday, illustrated that there was a thriving pleasure-seeking scene within West Berlin, which was enjoying a more anarchistic and debauched way of life than was found in the Cold War visions of the divided city.

Crucially, the problematic lifestyles of Christiane and Frank also correlate to the transient way of life seen in earlier moments of Berlin cinema. In fact, these West Berlin films drew for the first time a direct link between the hedonism of Berlin’s youth culture and the figure of the drifter, who was roaming the city in search of meaning. This development can be explained by the fact that the conditions found in West Berlin during the time of division created an incubatory situation, where young people could delay facing the realities of the adult world.

This can be seen in Taxi zum Klo, as Frank fails to accept the responsibilities of his teaching job and continues to live a life of hedonism. However, this decision leads to a drug-fuelled breakdown, a downturn which is inescapably tied to the city. The urban space of West Berlin plays a major role in Frank’s way of life, as he is regularly seen travelling across the city for casual sex in public toilets and parks. Indeed, his doctors warn him that there will be fatal consequences if he continues to pursue such endeavours. Thus, the figure of the drifter was now at the centre of the city’s problematic, pleasure-seeking youth culture.

DEFA’s Vision of East Berlin

As was also discussed in part 1, whilst the film industry in the western half of divided Berlin struggled to compete in the fragmented landscape of West Germany, East Berlin was the centre of the East German film industry, due to the presence Babelsberg on the outskirts of the city. Such a privileged position also fed through into the representation of the city in film, as East Berlin was the focus for many films produced by DEFA, the state run film production company, throughout the years of division.

However, as was also argued previously, the political control which the state held over DEFA’s production output meant that the quality and style of films produced was inconsistent, depending on whether East German filmmakers were enjoying a period of liberal or tight state control. The East German government recognised that they needed to allow the film industry to produce Gegenwartsfilme (contemporary issue films) films which explored the reality of East Berlin at the time, but they were also conscious that such contemporary portrayals could have the power to be subversive and undermine the communist regime.

Hence, it is important to note that all of the most famous and well regarded films made about East Berlin during division, such as Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser (Berlin – Schönhauser Corner, Gerhard Klein, 1957), Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven, Konrad Wolf, 1964), Die Legende von Paul und Paula (The Legend of Paul and Paula, Heiner Carow, 1973) and Solo Sunny (Konrad Wolf and Wolfgang Kohlhaase, 1980), were made during periods where the state was exercising a more liberal approach to censorship, which allowed these films to explore East Berlin more critically and informatively.

An early example of this delicate situation can be seen in Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser, which tells the story of a rebellious group of East German youths, who are struggling to come to terms with life in the divided city. The film is set in Prenzlauer Berg and, unlike the depiction of East Berlin in the Cold War English-language films discussed in part 2, the opening shots of the streets around this part of the city show a location which has overcome the destruction seen in the Trümmerfilme and become a bustling part of East Berlin.

However, this positive portrayal of the city’s urban space is contrasted with the problems that the film’s young characters experience with figures of authority, as they struggle against the expectations placed upon them by society. As a result of such pressure, several of the film’s characters flee to West Berlin, in the case of the film’s main protagonist Dieter (Ekkehard Schall) to avoid criminal charges, whilst his friend Karl-Heinz (Harry Engel) believes that he will be better off within a capitalist society. Such a bold exploration of the hopes and frustrations of East Berlin’s youth is in stark contrast to what might be expected from a state controlled film industry, as Klein made the most of the liberal attitude of the censors at that moment to deliver a film which did not shy away from the real problems of East Germany, as the country looked to establish itself as an independent nation.

The pull of capitalism is also the main feature of Der geteilte Himmel, which, like Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser, explores the conflict many people felt before the erection of the Wall in deciding on whether to stay in the East or risk moving west. The film focuses on the struggle of Rita (Renate Blume), a young East German whose boyfriend Manfred (Eberhard Esche) stays in West Berlin following a business trip. Rita visits Manfred in the West, as she tries to decide whether to join him permanently.

Whilst the film does not condemn Manfred’s decision to defect, the film’s director, Konrad Wolf, does still offer a negative portrayal of West Berlin as an inhospitable, sterile place. The idea of West Berlin as a cold place is also seen in Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser, as Dieter struggles to adjust to life in West Germany. Therefore, the construction of Berlin’s urban space in these DEFA films mimics the propagandistic version of the city’s topography found in West Berlin filmmaking. It is just that, whilst in West Berlin film, East Berlin is shown to be a backwards and repressive location, in the DEFA films the opposite is true. The capitalist society of West Berlin is shown to be unsympathetic and dangerous, with the communism of East Berlin offering an imperfect, but far more understanding, way of life. This contrast can be seen in the fact that both Dieter in Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser and Rita in Der geteilte Himmel decide to settle in the East, despite the problems they have experienced there.

Unsurprisingly, the liberal attitude of the censors towards the ambiguous, if ultimately positive, portrayals of East Berlin found in these films did not last. As a result, as was mentioned in part 1, the censors banned an entire year’s production in 1965 because they felt that these Gegenwartsfilme had begun to take the critical elements found in films such as Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser too far. This caused a subtle change in approach from filmmakers as they moved away from Gegenwartsfilme and began to produce more Alltagsfilme which looked at individual, personal problems.

These films, such as Die Legende von Paul und Paula and Solo Sunny, avoided overt discussions of the divided city and instead focused on the personal desires and problems of their protagonists. In Die Legende von Paul und Paula single mother Paula (Angelica Domröse) longs to find true love, something which she believes she has discovered in Paul (Winfried Glatzeder), even though Paul is already married. Equally, the narrative of Solo Sunny illustrates the struggles of Berlin singer Sunny (Renate Krößner) as she attempts to become a solo artist.

Yet, this personal turn does not mean that these films did not further develop the cinematic reputation of East Berlin found in DEFA’s output. In fact, by avoiding overt political images of the divided city, these films were able to circumvent the censors and explore areas of life in East Berlin which still furthered the understanding of the city in film. Hence, Solo Sunny uses the problems experienced by Sunny to explore the conflict which existed in East German society between individual desires and state expectations.

This manifests itself in the film through the construction of Prenzlauer Berg, where Sunny Lives. Whilst in Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser this area of the city was shown to be a busy working class neighbourhood, where the rebellious young people at the centre of the film were in the minority, by the 1980s this has now changed. In Solo Sunny Prenzlauer Berg is shown to have developed into an artistic and intellectual haven, which is quickly becoming the heart of the growing opposition movement within East Germany.

Although Sunny’s bohemian life as a singer may not be as extreme as the pleasure seekers of West Berlin films made at a similar time, such as Christiane F and Taxi zum Klo, Solo Sunny still shows that the rebellious spirit which has been a feature of Berlin cinema since the Weimar period had not completely disappeared from East Berlin. Her transient life as a singer can be seen to mirror the figure of the young drifter featured in West Berlin films.

Consequently, despite the fact that East and West Berlin existed separately from each other in two different countries, behind the propaganda, the images and reputation developed for the city on screen in both the East and West throughout the period of division contained certain similarities. Whilst there was no denying that Berlin was a city living in the shadow of the Wall, Berlin society still clung on to the hedonistic alternative lifestyle which had been a feature of the city’s cinematic reputation since the Weimar period.

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

Further Reading

Regina Aggio, Filmstadt Berlin: 1895-2006 (2007)

Daniella Berghahn, Hollywood Behind the Wall: The Cinema of East Germany (2005)

Stephen Brockman, A Critical History of German Film (2010)


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