Mauerflug is essentially a series of filmed fly-bys over the Berlin Wall by helicopter as it was slowly being dismantled during the cool spring of 1990, and during the winter of 1990-1991.
What’s unique about the fairly decent video footage is how fast the wall was being torn down by early 1990, and one senses the filmmakers realized little would remain of the barrier within a few years, hence a need to capture stages of the dismantling, as well as footage of the border areas before economic ties between the eastern and western halves yielded physical changes in suburban and urban areas – new homes, highways, and the virtual ‘filling in’ of former wall terrain with greenery, homes, and businesses.
Much in the way the victors of WWII eradicated remnants and symbols of the Nazi regime, the East German communists similarly destroyed certain symbolic references to Prussian power, as was the case with the Berlin Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace), which was razed to the ground and eventually replaced with the Palast der Republik in 1976.
More significant was the isolation of a western pocket of Berlin that was only accessible to West Germans by car (through military checkpoints) or by plane (flying over the East and landing in a West Berlin airport). From the reverse angle, easterners also had to deal with a long wall preventing them from escaping to the west, as well as military checkpoints designed to control east-west traffic.
The wall grew from cemented blocks and stretches of barbed wire in 1961 to a strip of land dubbed “the Death Strip.” Flanked by tall concrete walls with a curved top made to prevent grasping or hooking on with a sharp object, the midsection of the strip had a central road/column passage for army patrols, an observation line with a corridor of light poles, as well as concrete barriers to stop cars, a signal fence, and watch towers with armed East German guards.
In spite of some highly publicized escapes – by tunnel, sewers, air, bashing through the wall by truck, or packing people into modified cars – the wall was extremely successful in keeping easterners in place, and it evolved into a hated symbol of communist repression in the western media, so when the GDR (German Democratic Republic) voted for reunification with West Germany in 1990, the physical wall was finished.
Psychological walls were among the next aspects East and West Germans had to address, which included westerners realizing there were in fact easterners proud of their identity as a people who overcame postwar hardships primarily without the aid of the west. Over the past twenty years, certain aspects of the East have effectively disappeared, and for some easterners, that includes simple things like food brands, buildings, venues, and whole environments that have been transplanted with commercial developments by large multinational corporations. Even today, when one reads somecomments by some former East Germans, there’s nostalgia not for communism, but for traces of the physical world of their childhood.
There is a museum in Berlin (the DDR Museum) that provides samples of life behind the iron curtain (or concrete wall), and undoubtedly local and national media captured the physical processes as two halves of a great city were fused together again, but Mauerflug, at least for foreigners, provides a touristic glimpse into the two worlds still separated by physical barriers.
One could travel through newly created transfer points where large sections of the wall were ripped out, but where the wall still remained, one can see how the GDR’s wall carved and snaked its way through all kinds of terrain and neighbourhoods.
Flying Over East Berlin
The first segment in Mauerflug covers the southern wall as it wiggled its way through Potsdam to Berlin during the spring of 1990. The filmmakers have provided a short and concise historical preamble of the postwar events that led to the wall’s implementation until Nov. 9th, 1989, when East Germans could travel to the West after a 19 year ban.
Using a MR-8 helicopter, the camera crew flew 50m above the wall region, photographing sections from the eastern side. Each of the DVD’s four segments (see Extras, above) uses captions to identify streets and locales, but the first includes a narrator (available in English, German, French, Spanish, and Italian) who provides deeper info on what’s being shown, including transfer points, blocked bridges, waterways, and famous buildings.
Because the video was filmed in cooler seasons, the areas are largely devoid of foliage, making things look far grimmer and sometimes desolate. What’s readily apparently from the first minutes of footage are the medium and large scale construction sites underway at key junctures. Bridges being opened up, pedestrian routes erected at certain junctures, and massive border crossing stations such as Drewitz are less clogged, now that checkpoints weren't concerned with routing out potential escapees.
Many of the border homes are pre-war, and several of the larger homes, particularly the mansions at Griebnitzsee where famous UFA stars lived, look worn and in need of major repairs. In later segments, such as “Flight Across East Berlin,” one sees whole neighbourhoods where the roofs of old residential buildings have crumbled, if not tumbled into a courtyard.
Part of the decay may be exaggerated from recent restoration efforts, as evidenced by several buildings fronted by scaffolding and construction vehicles, but there’s a visual bleakness to residential areas that’s unsettling.
At times it is a bit confusing to tell what border is being revealed, although a key to orientation is the lack of any wall graffiti, which was unique to the West side. As the helicopter delves into more densely populated sections, one also notices the tall apartment buildings in the West which allowed many to see far and wide – something often lacking on the East side. Moreover, whereas land becomes desolate as one nears the eastern side of wall, the West just built up areas to their limits, maximizing land use, and perhaps a means of quietly thumbing their nose at border guards who had to watch the fruits of capitalism grow so close.
Among the more intriguing East German areas captured on film are Schonefeld airport (the biggest in the GDR), various official border crossings, and slices of the old Berlin apartment complexes that stood at a tall and slender at four and six stories, and whose sleek lines were occasionally divided by empty pockets left from formerly war-damaged sections (as in Berlin-Kreuzberg).
There’s also a still-present Checkpoint Charlie crossing, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag before the massive overhaul and erection of the brilliant glass and steel dome, and the Palast der Republik (see in “Flight Across Berlin”) prior to being closed and gutted due to asbestos poisoning, and torn down in 2008.
(Of course, the irony is that the Palast, meant to be a permanent fixture by the GDR, may end up being replaced by a rebuilding of the original Berlin City Palace, provided the private consortium is able to raise the enormous funds.)
Other unique locates and buildings in the DVD’s other segments include glimpses of dirty Schloss Babelsberg, Heiliger See, a blackened and weedy Marmorpalais, Schloss Cecilienhof, Schloss Sanssouci, various city gates, and Lindenstrasse and its environs – the last group providing samples of the vernacular urban architectural from the twenties and older.
“Flight Across Berlin” also shows sections of the museum island and stunning architectural wonders – cathedrals, government buildings like the radiant Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall), areas such as Nikolaiviertel – that survived within the East.
The helicopter also goes past the huge East Berlin TV tower, the giant railway station of Berlin Alexanderplatz, as well as Alexanderplatz itself. These areas have been significantly upgraded by new street-level trams, corporate signage, and western commercial enterprises, and the fly-bys preserve the look prior to the recent physical modifications made to extant buildings so as to blend the older East German buildings with more current western style.
In the first video segment, one also sees a storage yard of cut up, numbered wall sections set for future auctions due to their historical value and brilliant graffiti. Closer views of the wall being dismantled can be found in “Impressions from the Wall,” where specially equipped machines cut through, lift, and move segments for stacking on flatbed trucks. One sees a watch tower being blown up, and driving through the Drewitz crossing in winter after its decommissioning. (The footage goes on to show the Drewitz roofing being torn up for scrap.)
Perhaps the most intriguing moment occurs at the end, where the wall is being removed meters from the front steps of a house in Kleinmachnow. When the job is done, in place of two walls flanking a wasteland are new neighbours.
One only wonders what their first exchange was like.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan