Beyond the Wall
Berlin is a city in a hurry to forget its past, says TIMERI N. MURARI.
Berlin ... different images, different times.
I'D never been to Berlin but I had fixed images of the city in my mind. I had imagined Berlin entirely from films. The most powerful image was of a dark, shadowy, dangerous city. In "The Third Man", Berlin was darkly lit and lay in ruins, while Orsan Welles, throwing his shadow across a ruined street, made his fortune out of black market penicillin.
Berlin was also a frenetic, sexual city in "Cabaret", the film adapted from Christopher Isherwood's "I am a Camera". He showed us the decadence of a city living on the edge of destruction. Despair prevailed in every character. Despair too, with danger, surfaced in the Berlin of "The Spy Who came in from the Cold". In that film too, the Berlin I saw was a grim city, divided into east and west by a wall topped with barbed wire. In the glare of searchlights, gun-toting guards patrolled the Wall with fierce dogs to prevent people from escaping that huge communist prison called East Berlin. The city did not change much even for "Funeral in Berlin". It still looked grey and monotonous, populated by a race of sullen people who were ready to double cross or kill you at the drop of a code word.
In some ways, through film, I grew to become familiar with the city. I recognised the huge Mercedes Benz symbol turning atop a building, the iron bridge that crossed from east to west, the wide streets and the shell marked buildings. On a cold winter morning, looking down on Berlin, I saw little that was familiar.
My first impression was that of a city of apartment dwellers. I saw no houses with gardens. It was not quite a Manhattan, also a city of apartment dwellers, but you can spot the townhouses crunched below that formidable skyline. In Berlin I noticed also the many silver splashes of water, some lakes, and other ribbons of rivers or canals winding through the landscape. It was a city too of parks that encircled/divided the city. I was disappointed immediately. I didn't want to discard my images, I had grown fond of them and ran them through my mind like old film. I had also specially come for the Berlin Film festival and thought at least they could make the city look like it should in my images.
A friend had found us a room in a small hotel off Kurfurstendamm (K-damm for short). It was a "downtown" as one can get it Berlin. The K-damm is a very wide avenue, not unlike the Champs d'Elysees, and popular with those who have platinum American Express cards. Gucci, Versace, Dior, Piaget, only the most expensive boutiques lined the K-damm. The ravages of war are visible only in that next to an old gracious buildings, a modern one, like a new tooth, has been slotted into where the bombed one once stood. The city is full of such mismatching architecture, as there has been no effort to preserve the past.
John Clark, a tall, lean Englishman who had made Berlin his home, came around to take us to register for the festival. He had a formidable knowledge of the city and its history. I wanted to see the Wall, was my first request. I knew tourists had chipped away souvenirs but I was sure a large chunk of it had to remain as a reminder to the Berliners of their divided past.
"There's no Wall remaining," he said. "It's gone."
He did point out where it once ran through the city. We were looking down from the U-bahn, near the zoological gardens. The U-bahn is the efficient subway system that runs through what was West Berlin. Like the U-bahn, the Wall would cut through Berlin, and John could only point from memory where it had been visible once. It is the best way to travel and a day pass costs only 8DM which is also useable on the buses.
Berlin is a city in a hurry to forget its past. The skyline is dotted with towering cranes, hovering like hawks. Great swatches of old Berlin have been demolished to make way for the new Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie is now only a little hut in the middle of a busy road and tourists snapping away at this last memory surround it. I suppose like me, they too came with their images, only to find this squalid little memento left for them. The Berlin film festival is held in the gleaming new buildings in Postdam plaza. Whatever was here once has long gone. It is all glass and steel now. The new Reichstag, designed by an Englishman, still looks out on many building sites. Part of a bus tour takes you past embassy row and the new red sandstone Indian embassy. The American embassy is still to be built, as there is a conflict about security. The Americans want a road re-routed and the Berlin Corporation is reluctant to comply. Berlin is once more the capital and they are determined to make it unrecognisable to the old, maligned Berlin.
Little bits of the past remain. You can tell when you are in East Berlin only because the trams still run through those streets. West Berlin also had trams once but the factory making and repairing trams back then was in East Berlin, so West Berlin scrapped its trams and dug up the tram tracks. There is also a huge bunker, left over from World War II. They have been trying to demolish it but it's so well built that they cannot. Drills don't work. They could use explosive but shops and flats surround it and they doubt whether even that would work, as it had withstood allied bombings. It stands like a crude, sore thumb, much to Berlin's embarrassment. The Brandenburg gate still stands but, when I was there, it was being restored and was covered with cloth.
Strangely enough, the past has been meticulously preserved in one corner of East Berlin. The Pergamon museum, a solid, brooding building of East German architecture, houses the 2,500-year-old Gates of Babylon. The Babylon Empire existed between 1200 and 537 B.C.! It is a magnificent effort at preserving such a distant past. The Pergamon also houses a Roman temple, complete with steps. The carvings of the Roman gods and heroes, though damaged, are still recognisable. It is a city that loves its music and opera too; it is the home of the famous Berlin Symphony Orchestra, now led by Sir Simon Rattle.
On our last day, John took us out for lunch into one of the great parks within the city. Potsdam is a village in a city on the shores of a great lake. At one time, boats with armed soldiers cruised the east portion of the lake to prevent swimmers crossing to the west. On this afternoon, rowers placidly crossed the waters or fished. The city was bathed in sunlight and, disappointingly to me, had lost its character. It looked so new and untarnished by its past. Maybe I had only imagined those old films. Whatever its disappointments, I can vouch Berlin to be an honest city. My wife lost her wallet with its credit cards and cash in it. Whoever found it put it in an envelope and dropped it the mailbox. It arrived three weeks later, with not a note, coin, or card missing.
Timeri N. Murari is a novelist, filmmaker and playwright. You can visit him at www.timerimurari.com
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