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Berlin Replayed: Cinema and Urban Nostalgia in the Postwall Era by Brigitta B. Wagner

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A Book Review by Tony Williams.

This book falls into the now familiar category of Cityscape Studies but focuses on representations of Berlin from the period of Walter Ruttmann’s well-known documentary Berlin – Symphony of a Great City (1927) to more recent depictions of a landscape that has been drastically affected and changed by various historical and political movements. Published by the prestigious University of Minnesota Press (that also publishes the dense theoretical works of authors such as Tom Conley) the reader must expect the presence of challenging prose, sometimes obtuse theoretical language, and the expectation of an academic version of Laura Mulvey’s well-known non-pleasure concept from her well-known theoretical essay. In other words, this is not an easy read. However, should the reader persevere through its contents some rewarding insights may accrue but ones necessitated by viewing or reviewing several of the films discussed, such as Wings of Desire (1987), Run Lola Run (1998), and Good Bye, Lenin! (2003).

Such a process aids in exploring Wagner’s goal in paying “attention to culturally and historically specific geographies and locations and an awareness of how moving image media construct and circulate representations of place and urban space” (5) as well as examining “clusters of historically related films that, together, portray complicated and sometimes contradictory versions of urban space” (6). This thesis statement leads to an examination of selected films such as the above-mentioned group in various chapters as well as some neglected ones, like pre-Wall East and West ideological cartographic youth films such as Eine Berliner Romanze (DEFA, 1956), Berlin – Ecke Shoenhauser (DEFA, 1957), Die Halbstarken (FRG, 1956, which received a Western release under the title of Teenage Wolfpack, starring the young Horst Buchholz, who eventually became one of The Magnificent Seven), and Endstation Liebe (1958). These films comprise the second chapter “Generation 1950s A Place for Us” that follows the author’s introduction and the first chapter “Remake Berlin Symphonies and the Myth of the Weltstadt.” Both this chapter and chapter four, “Orientation Geographical Didacticism and the X-Films of New Berlin,” are the most rewarding in this book as they focus on films and their relationship to a changing geographical city landscape especially as the latter focuses on placing Run Lola Run and Good Bye, Lenin! within a relevant cultural and geographical construction. Viewing Lola and returning to this chapter proved extremely informative.

The third chapter, “Virtuality Cinema, Archive, and the Interactive Map of Potsdamer Platz,” focuses on both this landscape and Wings of Desire (1987). Now changed drastically from its initial presence in Wenders’s film, Potsdamer Platz forms a cartographic site for those ideological divisions between East and West that were still active at the time of the film’s production. It was a division that, Wenders admits – in the “Angel Among Us” documentary featurette on the 2003 MGM DVD of the film – he and others would never live to see in its unexpected end. As Wagner notes, “By the early 2000s the film had become ‘an architectural document of a city that no longer exists’, one that ‘with the passage of time’ was increasingly becoming a work of mourning’” (184). Comparing this former location with its present incarnation, Wagner notes the film’s mournful record of a lost place. “Nostalgia is not tempered but enhanced by this additional, unplanned spatial and tempered discrepancy.” However, in the DVD audio-commentary, Wenders recounts an interesting anecdote concerning why East Berlin encouragement to Wenders to film in this restricted area changed suddenly. Apparently, working without a complete screenplay, Wenders’s references to Angels, Invisibility, and easily penetrating the Wall proved too much for Party sensibilities. This would have made an interesting addition to the footnotes in Wagner’s book. Her observations could be applied to any future study of a changing cityscape anywhere as, for example, comparisons of the changing cityscape of Manchester in Val Guest’s Hell is a City (1960), the film version of a popular 1971-1972 Granada ITV series The Lovers (1973), the reconstructed 70s world of the UK TV series Life on Mars (2006-2007), and the current urban development that is tearing the heart out of a once familiar landscape as new architectural structures around the now unrecognizable Victoria Station readily show. Along with the other chapters and the concluding “Epilogue Berlin Returns, Again” forms the basis for similar possible future excavations of universally changing cityscapes.

This study belongs to a particular field of investigation published by a Press known for several obtusely written publications. Working through it presents a challenge for the reader unfamiliar with this field but it is not entirely unrewarding especially if one revisits the films and views them in certain specifically new directions. However in his contribution to “Angel Among Us” Wenders speaks about the beginning of Wings of Desire falling into the same specific cartographic exploration that Wagner covers in her book. However, he then began to see the project in a wider aesthetic and cultural manner in relation to the poetry of Rilke, whom Wagner never mentions in her book. Yet it was this added dimension that gave Wings of Desire its extra artistic significance rather than being just a cartographic record of locations. Similarly, Good Bye, Lenin! appeals not just due to its poignant depiction of a past era that had its positive as well as negative connotations but to wider realms of different audience perceptions, as well. While Run Lola Run presented spectators with new perceptions of the city, “Good Bye, Lenin! reconstructed the spaces of (East) Berlin’s recent past” (214).

By historicizing spaces of contemporary use, the film proffered an East Berlin that would resonate with those who had lived in the GDR as well as those who had no organic personal memory of the East German capital. With its iconic Television Tower (Fernsehturm), massive square, World Time Clock (Weltzeituhr), and train station (Alexanderplatz) East Berlin had not yet undergone its capitalist facelift and still evoked the dimensions of the GDR’s symbolic architectural and space-age ambitions, as run-down as these might have been. (216)

This film lends itself to a necessary close analysis uniting, historical, nostalgic, and cultural readings especially in its role of re-uniting again West and East German audiences in a way the more technically innovative Run Lola Run did not.

Within its parameters, Berlin Replayed is an accomplished study by a well-known film historian, curator, and filmmaker. However, one major factual error exists that needs correction in any future edition. Reginald Le Borg’s The Flanagan Boy (1953) was not an American film noir (112, 286) but a pre-Hammer horror British melodrama lacking the distinctive noir visual style. Featuring Tony Wright in the title role with a pre-Carry On Sidney James portraying the trainer as well as the film’s working-class moral conscience in this British version of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy it did feature fading Hollywood star Barbara Payton (who also appeared in the Terence Fisher 1953 Hammer Studios The Four Sided Triangle) appropriately cast as the bad American blonde female who seduces Tony Wright into murdering her rich husband (Frederick Valk). Cited in Gerhard Klein’s GDR Berlin – Ecke Schoenhauser this film would not only have been regarded as suitable for East German audiences with Payton poorly substituting for the more glamorous and seductive Hollywood image of Marilyn Monroe, but would also have been seen as providing an appropriate proletarian “moral tale” for the young hero seduced by West Berlin’s capitalist attractions as seen in Sidney’s triumphant look at the end when Payton is arrested for her crimes and misdemeanors. Contemporary implications involving the exhibition of a British B film such as The Flanagan Boy in East Berlin made by a former banker educated at the University of Vienna and the Sorbonne who directed the talentless Payton in two other Hollywood 1953 films Bad Blonde and The Great Jesse James Raid (perhaps believing in her acting abilities that few others did at the time?) would have provided an interesting diversion in this study had not Wagner confined herself to not “Sex and the City” but “Cartography and the City”. However, this reference could form the basis for future research by those always intrigued by going off topic and following fascinating and relevant diversions. Despite other more focused insights displayed within Berlin Replayed’s particular scholastic perspective, it is really the films that count and non-specialists in this area may appreciate the work much better than those within, if only to stimulate us again to view and review the selected films with whatever gains we take away from this study.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has recently authored James Jones: The Limits of Eternity, forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield, Inc.

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