This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event remembered as a symbol of German reunification and a success story for youth-driven revolution everywhere. For nearly 30 years, the wall had been a divisive presence on both sides; the Communist authorities on the Eastern side justified its construction as an Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, while West Berlin’s mayor Willy Brandt called it the “Wall of Shame.”
The Wall’s foreboding presence also extended into the realm of cinema, both in Germany and around the world. Here are five great movies inspired by the Iron Curtain and its subsequent fall.
Funeral in Berlin
The five-film espionage series centering on secret agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is required viewing for students of the Cold War, especially the initial theatrical trilogy released in the 1960s. The second film, Funeral in Berlin (1966), is a smart and all-around solid spy flick, but it’s also worthwhile for its on-location shots of Berlin, which had been a divided city for only five years at the time of filming. The stark contrast between the modern West and the stunted East, separated by the famous Checkpoint Charlie, are fascinating to watch in action—especially over the shoulder of the resourceful and enigmatic Harry Palmer.
Good Bye, Lenin!
Set during the first year of German reunification, Good Bye, Lenin! (2004) follows the story of Alex (Daniel Brühl) and his staunchly Communist mother (Katrin Sass), who has just awoken from a coma. Alex tries to keep her in good health by pretending that the Berlin Wall still stands, and the elaborate steps he takes to recreate East Berlin are ingenious and hilarious, illustrating what normal life had been under Communism down to details such as everyday television and groceries. Ultimately a story about love, Good Bye, Lenin! is a touching coming-of-age film set during a time when Berlin was regaining its bearings.
The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others (2006) revolves around a captain of the secret police, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, pictured above), as he keeps 24-hour surveillance on a celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Dreyman is writing a play denouncing the Communist government, but something unexpected happens: Instead of informing on the playwright, Capt. Wiesler begins to protect him—namely, by systematically logging a different play into his reports, one so innocuous that it won’t raise the suspicions of his fellow Stasi officers. The Lives of Others is a deeply moving film about the triumph of humanity and empathy even under the coldest, most invasive situations. It also accurately depicts the totalitarianism practiced by the East German state, as well as its aftermath.
The fall of the Iron Curtain symbolized a new start and a new direction for people on both sides of its East-West border. Herr Lehmann (2003) follows a West Berliner, bartender Frank Lehmann (Christian Ulmen), as he drifts through life with his drinking buddies, artist friends and casual girlfriend, until the real world catches up to him and everything starts to fall apart—including the wall itself. A charming nostalgia piece for the slacker generation, Herr Lehmann is a movie about finding your way, or at least realizing that a “way” is something to look for.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Cult hit Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) is as much about the Berlin Wall as it is about a transgender rock star touring the United States in an attempt to expose a fellow rock star that stole her music. Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) was born Hansel Schmidt in East Berlin, a restless boy with a wild imagination, until a chance romantic encounter with an American GI, a botched sex change operation and a move to the Midwest leaves her feeling rejected and broken. In her charged, lovelorn lyrics, Hedwig express themes of division and the search for cohesion in life: I was born on the other side / Of a town ripped in two / I made it over the great divide / Now I’m comin’ for you. Hedwig is a sincere story about the struggle to redefine the whole after a traumatic break, a universal theme that Berlin has become the real-world symbol for.
Photo courtesy of Everett