I have never seen the Berlin Wall but I was born behind it in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, a few years before its fall in 1989. In the aftermath of the fall of communism, the Berlin Wall, although physically destroyed, couldn’t have been more present and real. Its legacy shaped my life and the life of a new post-wall generation. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Barbican’s Architecture on Film series featured two films, Berlinmurer (2008) and Rabbit à la Berlin (2009), as part of the Borders and Boundaries season this month. While the two films offer very different narratives, they share a similar purpose: to tell unusual stories originating from the Berlin Wall or somehow triggered by it, which help us reimagine the Wall and track its various micro and macro effects on society.
Berlinmurer is a 24 minute film by the Norwegian artist Lars Laumann, telling the story of romance and marriage between Eija-Riita, a Swedish woman, and her German husband. This is where your classic Hollywood love story ends. In the first minutes of the film, the low, deep voice of the narrator, Eija-Riita herself, declares that she is objectum-sexual. ‘Objectum-sexuality is simply to be emotionally and sexually attracted to objects, things – we believe that all objects are living and having a soul, this is also called animism,’ Eija-Riita explains as she meticulously portrays her life of living and communicating with objects. These objects are models of her German husband who is the actual, physical, 27 miles long Berlin Wall which divided the Eastern Bloc from the West for 28 years.
The film is structured around three main elements: photographs, video footage and Eija-Riita’s voice narrating in English her love story with the Berlin Wall. Most photographs show Eija-Riita posing next to the Wall, young, joyful and radiating pride in her powerful husband, Berlin-Maurer. On several pictures, her body leans playfully against the Wall, expressing an explicit physical connection. The photographs are combined with footage from Eija-Riita’s house in Sweden and a small museum where she keeps models of her husband. Nearly half-way through the film, I was feeling increasingly uneasy. Would Eija-Riita comment on her husband’s ‘purpose’ at all? Can one separate the politics which give birth to an object from the object itself? In my head, I was trying to figure out the audience’s reactions to Eija-Riita’s deep, loving voice expressing affection for the deadly Wall. In a few minutes, the awaited answer came. ‘The Berlin Wall symbolises communism and oppression to many people but not me. I’m not interested in politics.’ Within a span of only a few sentences, Eija-Riita fully depoliticized the Wall in a confident and unambiguous way.
In the last part of the film, Eija-Riita shares her shock and personal tragedy over the fall of the Wall. ‘It’s wrong Germany is united again,’ she says. The film ends with a surprising Hollywood twist, showing footage from the famous performance of David Hasselhoff singing ‘Looking for Freedom’ by the German composer Jack White in front of hundreds of pro-German reunification activists at the Berlin Wall on New Year’s Eve 1989. The film comes to an end with Eija-Riita blaming and accusing Hasselhoff, ‘Shame on you David Hasselhoff! You are nothing!’, while the exhilarating music went on filling the cinema with a sense of a celebration.
Minutes after Berlinmurer, the screening of Rabbit à la Berlin began. A close-up shot of a rabbit’s head appeared on the screen and a loud, frenetic buzz of insects brought an overwhelming sense of nature and life to the cinema. In the next couple of scenes, more rabbits emerged on screen, multiplying in front of the audience. Rabbit à la Berlin is an Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Bartek Konopka, which tells the story of thousands of wild rabbits which lived in the so-called ‘death zone’ of the Berlin Wall. In its final form, the Berlin Wall consisted of inner and outer concrete walls separated by a ‘death zone’ filled with watchtowers, mines and barbed wire. Rabbit à la Berlin documents the life of the rabbits trapped between these two walls for 28 years, using it as a micro-model to portray the struggles of a life within a surveyed, totalitarian system.
The film is a story of radical intervention and transformation told via a large amount of documentary material and interviews. The construction of the Berlin Wall dramatically changed the rabbits’ natural environment, forcing them to adapt to a new way of living within a strip of land which was under constant, heavy surveillance. The rabbits went through several major transformations, from flourishing in a seemingly safe environment to a state of complete passivity and apathy due to isolation and inability to influence their surroundings. After years of apparent safety between the two walls, the rabbits became targets of the guards who started annihilating them. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 meant freedom and yet another challenging phase as the rabbits struggled to adapt to the complexities of a life within an open, free system.
The screening ended and I could hear the buzz of voices in the cinema, eagerly discussing the two movies. Within this sea of loud and unintelligible murmuring, there were two words which I could hear distinctly: love and rabbits. In the mind of many who lived behind the Berlin Wall, the legacy and memory of the Wall hasn’t stopped growing with its multiple effects still transforming lives. I felt that I had rediscovered the Wall once again, this time in a slightly more unusual way: through love and rabbits.