|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.
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.
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 Amazon.de), 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|