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East Berlin, the Movie

A cinematic history of the city from Berlin Express to The Debt

2011: The Debt

In John Madden’s The Debt, a trio of Mossad agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas) secretly takes up residence in 1960s East Berlin in order to track down a Nazi war criminal dubbed the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen). While the film was actually shot in England and Hungary, the spirit of East Berlin during the Cold War was essential to the story. Production designer Jim Clay worked hard to make sure Berlin and its wall “is not the iconic Berlin Wall that everyone came to know, but instead the block-and-concrete that was rather hastily thrown up during the period in the 1960s in which this part of the story is set.” In The Debt and other films, East Berlin remains an iconic location, a place whose changing meaning over time has served as a barometer for measuring the international political climate. And films, from those created after World War II up to The Debt, have continually reconstructed the place, both as a real historical location and as a powerful imaginative landscape. 

1948: Berlin Express

Jacques Tourneur’s thriller Berlin Express holds the honor of being the first Hollywood production shot in postwar Berlin. The film begins with the murder of a prominent German diplomat on a train bound for Berlin. The victim had shared his cabin with an American agricultural expert, a Russian soldier, a French secretary, an English schoolteacher and a German businessman – in short, representatives of all the nations responsible for the management of Berlin at that time. But it soon turns out that the murder victim was actually a decoy for the German peacemaker, and the real man, Dr. Heinrich Bernhardt, is still on his way to Berlin. While the movie was a conventional spy caper, its image of war-torn Berlin and Frankfurt were shocking and new to American audiences. Berlin Express' producer Bert Granet was a bit more pragmatic about the film’s look: “We could never have made the picture if we'd had to duplicate the ruin and devastation of Germany. I figure we got about $65 billion worth of free sets."

1948: A Foreign Affair

Billy Wilder, who’d spent his early years in pre-war Berlin, wanted to be one of the first directors to make a film there after the war. Always witty, but never sentimental, Wilder with his writing partner Charles Brackett created a biting farce about an American army captain (played by John Lund) who has to hide his exploitative relationship with a Berlin singer (Marlene Dietrich) when a prim congresswoman (Jean Arthur) comes to Berlin to clean up corruption. While most of scenes were shot in Hollywood and Munich, Wilder went to war-torn Berlin for the exterior shots, some in what would become East Berlin. When Brackett and Wilder submitted their script to the studios, they noted: “The city looked like a great hunk of burned Gorgonzola cheese on which rats had been gnawing. The rats were gone and the ants had taken over, putting some neatness into the ruins, piling the crumbs of destruction into tiny piles." Wilder later used his footage of devastation for satirical purposes, playing, for example, “Isn’t It Romantic” over the image of a bombed-out landscape. The U.S. government, however, lost its sense of humor after seeing A Foreign Affair, denouncing it for making “our occupation forces appear undisciplined and ill-behaved.” The Motion Picture Export Association of America banned the film from being shown in Germany, stating, “Berlin’s Trials and Tribulations are not the stuff of cheap comedy.” It was finally shown on German TV in 1977, and then in theaters in 1991, when it became a box-office hit.

1950: The Big Lift

For some, the Cold War technically began on June 23, 1948, when the Soviet Union, which controlled East Germany, cut off power and water to West Berlin. By August, U.S. Forces initiated a massive airlift of supplies into West Berlin, a historical moment memorialized in George Seaton’s military melodrama The Big Lift. In the film, Montgomery Clift plays a pilot bringing supplies into Berlin who’s saddled with an operations sergeant whose hatred of Germans, born from his experience as a POW during the war, nearly derails the project. At the same time, the brutal reality facing Berliners is brought home when Clift falls for a local Fraulein. From the start, the filmmakers wanted almost documentary accuracy in their portrayal of this historic event. As the film noted in the opening credits: “This picture was made in occupied Germany. All scenes were photographed in the exact locale associated with the story, including episodes in the American, French, British and Russian sectors of Berlin.” The film’s studio, 20th Century-Fox, was also happy to receive production credits for shooting in Germany. But filming on location in East Berlin proved easier on paper than it was in real life. In the scenes shot within the Russian sector, government officials set up speakers blasting pro-Soviet propaganda whenever the cameras were about to roll. In the end, all the dialogue for these scenes had to be added in post-production.

1961: One, Two, Three

Billy Wilder had made A Foreign Affair right after the war, and he returned over a decade later to capture the new Berlin in his 1961 farce One, Two, Three. Although in many ways he was returning to his past in making this film, since he’d first seen the farce he would use as the basis for One, Two, Three Ferenc Molnár’s play The President (titled Eins, Zwei, Drei in German) – when he was in Berlin in 1929. The script by Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond updated the class tensions of the original to a family feud between a Berlin-based Coca-Cola executive (James Cagney) and his daughter, who falls for an East German communist (Horst Buchholz). While some critics thought war-torn Berlin an inappropriate locale for a comedy like A Foreign Affair, Wilder’s decision to shoot a comedy in 1961 Berlin was just bad timing. During production, East Germany started work on the Berlin Wall, shutting down many of the film’s production locations. Horst Buchholz explained in the Billy Wilder biography Nobody’s Perfect, “When we did One, Two, Three, we were going to shoot it, of course, in Berlin. But the damned Wall went up, and we still needed two or three days at the Brandenburg Gate. So, they built the Brandenburg Gate on the Bavaria grounds outside Munich. They built it out of papier-mâché, but in the original size.” But even worse, the political tension created by the Berlin Wall removed even the possibility of humor. As Wilder later commented about the movie’s poor box-office: “The communists started shooting people who wanted to get in and out of East Berlin, and it all ceased to be funny.”

1962: Escape from East Berlin

A ripped-from-the-headlines story, this drama based on an actual escape that happened on January 15, 1962 was rushed into production by MGM. Erwin Becker, a chauffeur from the East German Parliament, led 28 people, including his girlfriend, to the West by tunneling under the newly constructed Berlin Wall. German-born, U.S.-based director Robert Siodmak was hired to direct. Siodmak, who’d made some of Hollywood’s best film noirs, wasn’t all that interested in the political angle of Escape from East Berlin. Some critics, like Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, applauded the film’s psychological weight, noting, how the “Berlin locales [were] effectively realistic.” He added that “Mr. Siodmak has a way of imbuing a physical action with meaningful symbolic overtones that give his little thriller a depth.” Many Europeans, however, couldn’t see past Escape from East Berlin’s obvious propagandistic appeal. Both the left and the right condemned its simplicity to such a degree that Secretary of State Dean Rusk had to go on damage control by pushing NBC to cancel a special broadcast of the movie. Siodmak, who was never a fan of the movie’s polemical tone, noted that it was “an insignificant film produced by MGM and destined for middle-class America…[where] it was a success."

1965: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

By the mid-1960s, East Berlin had become the center of espionage and Cold War tension, as illustrated by Martin Ritt’s masterful The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Based on novelist John Le Carré’s Cold War thriller, which became an unexpected bestseller in 1963, it tells the story of a burnt-out British intelligence agent, Alec Leamas, who agrees to defect to the East in order to ferret out a possible mole. In typical Le Carré fashion, the simple mission hides a series of crosses and double crosses masterminded from deep within the British secret service. Director Martin Ritt, inspired by the novel’s hard-hitting, un-007 approach to Cold War espionage, got the rights for novel early on. After several casting misfires, Richard Burton was hired to play Leamas, but not before the filmmakers toned down his larger-than-life persona to fit the character and the dour Berlin landscape. Ritt quipped, “We worked hard to scale down his extraordinary voice, his cocky bearing, his romantic aura.” The Spy Who Came In From The Cold proved to be both a commercial and critical success, and was, according to New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, “so sharply staged and directed that it looks like a documentary film….It looks as though Mr. Ritt has slipped in with a hand-held camera and started recording the movements of a British secret agent at the Berlin wall.”

1966: Funeral in Berlin

Guy Hamilton’s 1966 Funeral in Berlin, adapted from Len Deighton’s 1964 bestseller, was the second in a series of Harry Palmer films. Starting in 1965 with his appearance in The Ipcress File, Harry Palmer (played by Michael Caine) was set to be a sort of working-class, no-nonsense James Bond. In Funeral In Berlin, Palmer is sent to assist in the defection of a famous Soviet general, but soon the plot is swirling with Mossad agents, Nazi war criminals, and double crosses. To promote the film, Paramount created a short documentary, Man at the Wall, with Michael Caine narrating his experience shooting in Berlin: “I must have gone to the wall during the time that I was there about 25 times. It’s an awful thing, but somehow it’s fascinating. You find yourself walking about in atmosphere of ghosts. It is sort of a white-knuckle city; you find yourself with your hands clenched even when you are ordering breakfast. There’s a feeling of violence at any time.”

1966: Torn Curtain

For years, Alfred Hitchcock had been fascinated with the defection of Brits Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess to the Soviet Union, wondering what people close to them must have felt. He’d suggested the idea to a number of writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, before convincing the Irish novelist Brian Moore to pen Torn Curtain. Universal quickly roped in Paul Newman and Julie Andrews to star in this suspense story about an American scientist who publicly defects to the East, and the woman who follows him to East Germany without really understanding what he’s doing. In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, biographer Patrick McGilligan describes how the filmmaker wanted to draw a clear graphic difference between the West and the East. Production designer Robert Boyle explained that when the film moves to East Germany, he was “to go gray everywhere—gray and beige—so we have a mood, a depressed mood, a sinister mood, in the general tones of all the sets.” In the end, almost none of this ambiance came from the actual place. While Hitchcock had sent a unit to capture Berlin for rear projection, he ended up using nearly none of the footage they captured. Instead he doubled locations, using University of Southern California for Karl Marx University and a San Fernando Valley airport for East Berlin’s Schönefeld Flughafen.

1985: Westler

Wieland Speck’s Westler (a.k.a East of the Wall) brought a new dimension to stories about East Berlin. Writer-director Speck was working for the Berlin International Film Festival when he created the story of a romance that occurs between two men, one living in East Berlin, the other in the West. To capture the reality of the East, Speck used a Super 8 camera to film East Berlin.

2003: Good Bye, Lenin!

In 2003, 14 years after the Berlin Wall came down, enough time had passed for Berlin to move from tragedy to farce. In Wolfgang Becker’s comedy Good Bye, Lenin!, East Berliner Alex Kerner’s (Daniel Brühl) mother, an ardent socialist, has a stroke, slipping into a coma right before the Wall comes down. When she awakens weeks later, Germany has been reunited. Fearing the sight of a new Germany might prove too much for her, Alex creates a elaborate ruse to maintain the idea that Germany is still split. If the film’s main character frantically attempts to preserve the past, the filmmakers found themselves equally scrambling. As the director Wolfgang Becker told BBC Movies, “the original locations in Berlin changed very fast after the fall of the Wall, and although we only had to take them back ten years, there's a big difference. There weren't any satellite dishes in East Berlin; there were no telephone booths; and, of course, there were only cars built up to 1989.”

2004: The Bourne Supremacy

After the Wall came down, Berlin started to reflect a new, post-Soviet geography, a world that is neither here, nor there. It is a world, much like the titular hero of Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy, which is struggling to find its identity in the new world order. At the film’s start, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has retired to India, only to find that the intelligence world won’t let him alone. In order to save his life, he must track down the agents who are out to kill him. The only problem is the geo-political landscape has changed since his Cold War spy days. As Stephen Holden notes in his New York Times review, “From its beaches of Goa to Berlin's clotted skyline to Moscow in the snow, its city lights glowing, it imparts a glamorized sense of tourism under duress.”  For Greengrass, the locales of the new Berlin and Moscow are essential to his stories. As he told The Guardian, “One of the things about the Bourne films I have always loved is that, although they're mainstream commercial Saturday-night popcorn movies, there's something about the story and character that enables you to get to the paranoia that drives the world today and express it in mainstream way."

2006: The Lives of Others

As some films were coming to terms with the new Berlin, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the director of the Academy Award-winning drama The Lives of Others, was returning to 1984 to illustrate the horrors of East Germany. The main plot of his 2006 movie revolves around a Communist true-believer who’s assigned to spy on a popular playwright for the Stasi, only to slowly realize the complex web of corruption that has spread all around him. Only after the wall came down was the full history of Stasi’s spying on East German citizens brought out in the open. For many in the film, the story was more than history lesson. The actor Ulrich Mühe, who ironically plays a Stasi agent in the film, discovered that his wife had been reporting him to the police for years.

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