Open City Documentary Festival

Focus: Jürgen Böttcher’s The Wall: The Nature of The Wall

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We are screening Jürgen Böttcher’s The Wall (Die Mauer) The Wall on June 12th, as part of the London Festival of Architecture 2019.  Andrew Northrop contextualises the film in this exclusive essay. Tickets for the screening are on sale now.

We experience certain political events in ways that are defined by news media, with some ultimately becoming more prevalent than others – both culturally and in Western educational curricula. The collapse of the Berlin Wall is an event that holds a distinct visual language: it’s the graffiti-covered slabs of concrete that we all collectively know as a visual icon; a strand of DNA in the history of tourist photos. But that visual prevalence arguably does a detriment to the importance of its dissolution because we refer to ‘the Berlin Wall’ as an object rather than a course of events, largely due to a commercialisation of the graffiti that adorns its remaining slabs.

The nature of the wall restricting the freedom of movement of German Democratic Republic citizens for several decades–featuring guard towers and an area nicknamed “the death strip” that contributed to many deaths–is a harsh light turned down in favour of a tourist trap. The wall itself as a visual entity has almost become a humanised being that softens the blow of its political history. In Jürgen Böttcher’s The Wall (Die Mauer) (1990), the future role of the wall as a commodifiable art object is foreshadowed. Böttcher interviews some of the children who reap the financial rewards of chipping large blocks off the wall and selling them on.

Moments like these, which feature in Böttcher’s film heavily, illustrate how complicated the wall as an entity is, and its relationship to the citizens near it. The children smile as they tell the team behind the camera how much they can make from the two clusters in their hands, too young and innocent to understand the ethical questions that they are being asked, but full of spirit. At that time, many different people congregated for various purposes near the wall. Though the sheer amount of land it occupied was formerly a site for oppression and disconnect, that same area became an area to gather in hope for the future, and that feeling was of interest to Böttcher.

The spirit of documentary subjects is something that burns bright throughout Böttcher’s filmography, often aided by his collaborations with strong cinematographers, his love of the Italian neo-realists and his background as a painter, giving the feeling that we, the viewer, are actually embedded within the conversation taking place. Often focusing on workers, students and artists in various state-funded documentaries in the former German Democratic Republic, some of Böttcher’s work would be banned by the country’s officials. His first narrative feature film Born in ’45 (1966) was the main casualty and seemingly discouraged Böttcher from pursuing that creative path again, contributing to an under-awareness of his work outside the bubble of the GDR where he would continue to work on documentaries for the DEFA Studio for Documentary Films.

The Wall, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the following reunification of Germany would be a turning point in the director’s career, with the fate of the state-reliant DEFA studios up in the air until they were dissolved and had their assets sold in 1992. For Böttcher, whose immediate impulse was to go out and film the events, the collapse of the wall was an opportunity to reach out and assess the spirit of Berlin in that moment, but it was also, ironically, a significant contributor to the end of his main employer, making Die Mauer the last film in his most active period.

The Wall is also a film that often looks out as opposed to in. Largely reliant on state interests for his earlier documentary work, Böttcher’s films mainly assessed the experiences of individuals living within the GDR, and life outside the country would only seep into those documentaries through certain pop culture engagements – such as teenagers dancing to rock n’ roll music on their summer vacations in Barefoot and Without a Hat (1964).

But in The Wall, the event that Böttcher and his team are capturing has the attention of the news media from abroad. The presence of Böttcher and his crew is something that the news crews seem to be attempting to hide their confusion at, as one presenter asks why they are filming behind bated breath. It’s seemingly a breakdown of their expected schema that someone would be interested in their presence over the event they are there to report on, but, as with many of Böttcher’s documentaries, his interest in the craft behind occupational roles is once again a shining aspect of his work, no matter how at odds it might seem when paired alongside conventional expectations of how we portray developing political news. A newsreader practicing his lines and trying to secure the perfect take charmingly deconstructs that person’s hierarchy as a disseminator of that news.

In another moment, Böttcher’s crew are welcomed into an enthusiastic party of Italian students who convey their hope and appreciation for each other as the year of 1989 draws to a close. Though the party is proximate to the wall itself, the group never mention it directly, but the influence of its dissolution is strongly implied as contributing to their joy.

In a way, the successful agenda of The Wall is that it is just observing and growing in form as a document of events, collating the spirit of those embroiled in that stretch of land. As a result, the sounds of people’s tools chipping at concrete and the whirr of a projector–as it seeps someone’s archival images into the surface of the wall–become prominent components of the film’s audible register, reiterating that the event is surrounded by so many different moments beyond the immediately loud and newsworthy ones.

In an archival sense, Böttcher’s approach creates a wider field of view of the events. He doesn’t just film the feverous moments where the destruction of the wall begins surrounded by spectators; he films afterwards, capturing what that image looks like following the initial noteworthiness. It highlights the ongoing processes, with the more mundane practice of clearing rubble reminding the viewer that the Berlin Wall was not knocked down in one day. In the film’s closing moments; the cleared pieces of the wall sit amidst trees in the area they have been relocated to, treated like still life by Böttcher’s camera.

The aforementioned projector–presumably operated by a member of the public–projects films depicting various events at the Brandenburg Gate, drawing parallels between the fascism of Hitler’s regime and the oppressive actions of the GDR. It also underscores the educational role of archival footage and cinema itself, something that is perhaps further charged by Böttcher’s own experiences of censorship. But what the projections symbolise most is an open forum; someone felt the need to project them in direct response to the events, and the muted glow of that decision is revisited several times in the film.

Furthermore, those projections highlight how wide and expansive the history of the wall stretches, especially with the Brandenburg Gate being its primarily entryway. Böttcher’s film covers a specific time period, but the wall stretches its limbs so much further. In that regard, it would be unruly to suggest that there could ever be a definitive film on the Berlin Wall given that there are so many factors tied to it and its demise. But we don’t always need a definitive document. We instead require multiple that gauge different perspectives, and Böttcher’s somewhat unorthodox documentary observes the events following its fall with a grace and patience that few others were employing at that time.