Wall: A World Divided, The (DVD Review)20 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Stasi, which is shorthand for East Germany’s Ministry for State Security during the Cold War era, obviously captured the imaginations of Oscar voters three years ago when The Lives of Others (which dealt with the subject) pulled a foreign-language upset win over Pan’s Labyrinth. And this was despite the latter winning three of the evening’s awards in other categories.
It’s not that Others wasn’t a great movie, but the degree to which political hacks based in East Berlin snooped on fellow citizens remains a profound shocker with built-in dramatic punch. One such victim (shocked, indeed) describes what he discovered about his own files at roughly the midway point in this past June’s PBS documentary, written and directed by Eric Stange. Then a youngster or at most an adolescent, he was consigned to being blackballed for life (starting with “no university for you”) over the discovery of posters for the Woodstock Festival on the walls of his room.
Of course, it took a while for East Germany’s in-house spy mechanism to get oiled and operational, so this hour-long remembrance “begins at the beginning,” as Ward Bond says in The Quiet Man. Starting point is naturally the crazy-quilt division of Germany following World War II, when Berlin — situated as it was deeply into the newly formed East Germany — was split into East-West halves of its own. The Berlin Wall finally appeared almost literally overnight in 1961 due to East Berlin’s PR problem: Between 1945 and the Wall’s construction, 2-and-a-half-million skedaddled out of that half of the city. Aside from the insult and political loss of face, this figure represented a large chunk of the labor supply.
Once the Wall goes up in this telling of the story, the stories are remarkable. Family members on opposite sides could wave to — but not visit — each other. (For decades.) The front door to your home might be in West Berlin with its insides and back door in the East — resulting in the government bricking up your front door. One interviewed West Berliner tunneled under a street to get his family out of East Berlin but had to fatally shoot an armed guard on the other side who tried to stop him. And moving from that direction, if you did get over the Wall from East Berlin, which eventually stretched 96 miles, what did you find? Well, not a freedom, which was still 60-90 yards away. In an in-between no-man’s land were searchlights, watchtowers and a wired fence that set off alarms — all the standard stuff out of World War II prison camp movies. At the end was a second wall (high) constructed of slick, smooth material, which made it an impossible to grip.
As far back as JFK’s often-excerpted (as here) 1963 Berlin speech, a U.S. president noted the irony of a country having to wall in its people. Much later, of course, Ronald Reagan, publicly implored his Soviet equivalent Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” in a speech probably even more famous. Though the documentary is at it best when relating the day-to-day experiences of normal individuals who had to live through this period, it has no shortage of famed leaders and statesmen on hand. Freshly interviewed are Gorbachev, Bush senior (who was president when the Wall fell), former Secretary of State James Baker and former Chancellor of West Germany (and later of a reunited country) Helmut Kohl, who had the short-term misfortune to have the Wall finally fall when he was dead tired from official duties elsewhere.
Even at its worst, East Germany eventually elected to respect the sanctity of churches, which became hotbeds of activism which over a period of many years nurtured conditions that led to that globe-turning moment in 1989 when hoards of East Germans began walking by border guards … and kept going. Gorbachev’s reforms elsewhere had set up a climate where this might conceivably happen someday — but then a bureaucrat misinterpreted something and gave the green light at a press conference (we see the footage) leading to an exodus that was too huge to halt.
It was one of the biggest political stories of the 20th-century, one that interviewed newsman Daniel Schoor, (who died two months ago) feared could be a harbinger for how World War III could start when he witnessed a U.S/U.S.S.R. border confrontation when he was a CBS Berlin correspondent. Incredibly, Billy Wilder got one of his funniest movies out of this unfunny subject (1961’s One Two Three). To this day, it positively amazes me that Wilder’s producers (the Mirisch Brothers) bankrolled the project when the film could have so easily blown up in their faces with the rest of the world and become unreleaseable. I guess this is the kind of confidence you can instill when your two previous pictures have been Some Like It Hot and The Apartment.