Monday, August 15, 2011

Berlin 2011

A Trabi - photograph by Thomas Hoepker
I visited Berlin last week. I stayed there for seven days. This was my second time in town. First time was back then, a couple years after the fall of the Wall, and the start of reunification. It was 1992, I reckon. I don't remember much from that first trip, other than the Brandenburger Tor and Checkpoint Charlie, as well the immense construction works at the Potsdamer Platz. And some leftover standing plates of the Wall here and there.

This time I experienced a lot more. I visited most of the usual suspect venues, and actually explored for the first time an entire district, the Mitte. This should be, in many ways, the most important part of the city, boasting the largest number of known buildings and monuments. I stayed at Friedrichstrasse, one block south its intersection with Unter den Linden. For anyone who's been in that area, this is pretty damn central. Walking distance to most known places any tourist in Berlin usually talks about. The other important detail: the hotel I stayed, and most of the venues I been to, are in the former East Berlin, with a few right over where the Wall was, in West Berlin. I therefore witnessed very explicitly the ability of present day Germans to turn financial means and funding into positive assets and investments that help progress the nation and improve every citizen's life. In fact, this is the second time Germans rebuild their nation in recent memory. First time was right after WW-II with the help of the Marshal Plan; second time followed the tearing down of the Wall and the reunification of Germany 20 years ago. Looking at the result of the German resilience and ability to re-emerge stronger as a nation from similar situations in the past, I can't but feel ironic about Margaret Thatcher, who said to Gorbachev that she loved Germany so much she'd still prefer to maintain two of them. Who can't be 'afraid' of the Germans, indeed? If you observe thoroughly the result of the reconstruction of Berlin, from the end of WW-II to this day, you'll understand Maggie's statement better than anything. But this was not only the result of German persistence, skill, work ethics and hard labor. It was also the result of the post reunification democratic regime that made this possible. It was the glory of free entrepreneurship and democracy. With central government being a facilitator and an enabler, not an oppressor in the name of a failed ideology (like Nazi's and Communists, for that matter).


I have never before felt so ambivalent in my life as in that trip. There's a disturbing perception of  'shadows' and 'traces' of fear and some persistent sadness hanging above everything you experience, wherever you go. At least I felt this way. Despite their impressive presence, and the awe which most renovated and rebuilt historical buildings make you feel, as well as the newly risen and often modern and fabulous architectural marvels in every corner of the city, still, you feel quite depressed thinking about what many of these buildings and their inhabitants have been like, seen and suffered in the last 100 years. First under the Nazi monstrosities, followed by the oppressive communist regime of the DDR, eventually leading to the Reunification in 1989. Names of streets, photographs of buildings then and now, museums with objects and artifacts about both 'socialist' oppressions (Nationalistic and Communist), all have their little tragic story to tell you. You walk down a street, you observe a building that happens to be quite like the way it used to as its renovation still needs to catch-up (the worst were done first), or you just read a street name, or you find yourself on a large square like Bebelplatz, and you suddenly cease to see today's scenes deploying in front of your eyes with all their voices, colors, tastes and smells, and it all becomes sepia, monochrome, and colors are no more to see, and you are surrounded by shadows of obscure dark or uniformed regime agents, and you see them yelling at, chasing and pushing helpless citizens for doing nothing particularly suspicious other than simply being at the wrong place the wrong time. And then you feel like dark heaven fell upon you! You somehow forget all the goodies money and hard labor created, and the welfare they offered you to enjoy. "It's right here where 'it' happened indeed", you sigh. It's no lie. It's right here! Oranienburg Strasse and Bebelplatz. Kristallnacht. Attack of the New Synagogue. Burning of all books considered anti-regime. Prosecuting of gypsies and Jews as belonging to an inferior race. And there are thousands more places to remind you of similar events of the past, all over the city. From both oppressive regimes. The Nazi's and Honnecker's DDR. Not to forget the 18 year old East Berlin kid who got shot and was left to bleed to death in no-man's land when he tried to cross over the Wall to the West.

Although I felt quite uneasy visiting the new Synagogue, the DDR Museum, and the Mauer Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, I got mostly depressed from my visit at the recently created building at the back of the German Historic Museum, a three level wing that was architected by Pei, famous for his entrance pyramid work at the Louvre in Paris. In fact, currently running expositions presented in the three levels of that building were about the work oppressive totalitarian regimes do (and continue to do wherever they still exist) to suppress fundamental freedoms of their citizens in order to protect the ruling class of a small high ranking elite. I believe it was Churchill who once said democracy was not the best possible form of government, but unfortunately he didn't know any better. The three expo's at Pei's wing of the Historic museum seemed to me the best justification of Churchill's argument.

The first floor displayed an expo of photographs the Historic museum assembled in the last 20 years about contemporary history and life, and the second floor was used for an expo under the title Order and Annihilation (Ordnung und Vernichtung), about the role of the Police in Nazi Germany. I felt extremely uneasy with the exhibits of the latter expo, especially the setup to photograph and profile victims (see picture on the right), and a device used to measure facial and skull characteristics of victims to decide upon their racial origins (photograph hereunder, on the left). You normally read about these things and you may have seen pictures, but here you see them in real, you can touch them and you can't help thinking with horror about the victims upon whom these instruments of terror have been used. You see real pictures of real victims (not actors in some Spielberg film), a filing cabinet of a system with full reports about their origins and activities, you touch their files, and read the details with the inevitable conclusion in large print at the back. Deceased in 1943. Deceased in 1944. Deceased in 1939. Followed usually by a name of some infamous concentration camp. Auschwitz. Buchenwald. Und so weiter! Most of them were simple hard working individuals, trying to make a living for their family and children, and, who knows, perhaps catch a glimpse of happiness in their lives. You imagine with horror yourself sitting in the chair of those victims, and you suddenly 'see' the coldblooded faces of your oppressors leaning above you, measuring your skull and the length of your nose, the distance between your eyes, the size of your ears, and then you see them decide that you are part of what they consider an under-race, a subject for annihilation, to simply 'preserve' the purity of their 'own', the blue eyed blond(e)s of the Third Reich. So they said. In your mind, you become another victim and you never before feel deeper the meaning of JFK's words 'Ich bin (ein) Berliner'.

At the ground floor there was a photography expo by two famous German photojournalists, Thomas Hoepker and Daniel Biskup, under the title Über Leben. I must admit, had I only seen Hoepker's photographs and nothing else at all during this trip, that would still be worthwhile being here. He is an autodidact photojournalist who for many years operated under the Magnum Agency. In the fifties and sixties he has created some monumental pictures of the life of individuals under the DDR regime and their struggle to survive in everyday life. These pictures, brought together in a book he recently published under the title DDR-Ansichten (you could order this in, are so full of realism and truth, and human pain and resilience, that they actually make you feel like I felt seeing the instruments of horror in the second floor expo. The one about Order and Annihilation.

A few days earlier, I had visited the DDR museum at the Spree, opposite the Berlin Cathedral. I can't say I was impressed much. It was fine, but not exceptional. It failed to create an emotion in me. It all looked like a cinematic setup. I felt a whole lot closer to what East Berliners experienced and thought under the DDR by looking at Thomas Hoepker's photographs at the Historic Museum. A whole lot closer, trust me. Honest! Many of those pictures were life-size prints, and as you closed-up on the faces captured, you soon became one of them. This is great photography. It's not the artistic or composition, or even the technical elements that make up the greatness of a picture. It's the message it conveys. The emotion. The question marks it plants in your thoughts. It's the catching of the moment that paints a thousand pictures and feelings inside you. It's the irony, the humor, the bitterness, the anxiety, the feeling of unfairness and injustice. You look at Hoepker's photographs and feel like shouting out loud: Why? Why did all this have to happen? Think of the tragic cynicism of a "people's" regime that did that to individual citizens in the name of the collective welfare of the 'people'. The People's Revolutionary Army. People's Democratic Police. A People's Central Party Committee and Central Government! Established at the top as an electionless regime for life. Like the Vatican. God's ambassadors for ever and ever! But who are these so called  'people'? Where are they? How do they look?  What color and size? What do they eat to survive? Do they work? What clothes do they wear? Do they smile? Have they ever laughed? Are they happy? Or sad? Do they reproduce? Or do they just wait stoically to perish? Is there any difference between the 'party' people and Hoepker's people? Be damn sure there is. Like day and night!

photograph by Thomas Hoepker
I have been obsessed for days by one of Hoepker's photographs (shown here, left) with an old man staring from a distance a net with oranges for sale on a table, in Leipzig. This man's face... can write volumes long of the truth of living a life under a failed, stubborn, oppressive DDR regime that constantly pretended that all was fine, and kept its subjects for long dark years under its iron fist of state policemen and party apparatchiks. Hoepker, a simple person indeed, humble as no-one I know (as he appeared to me in a televised interview they were showing in the expo) simply claims "I'm not an artist, I am an image maker". He's more than humble. I saw many more so-called artists, self-proclaimed in many cases, like one I know well in this country (how pretentious, OMG) who can't achieve even one percent of the impact on human emotion a man, an artist indeed, like Hoepker has provoked in me. His framing is ingenious. Compared to him, Bresson is simply average. Like I said, it's worth going to Berlin to just see this expo. True story!

No comments: