To commemorate the take-down of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, 1000 symbolic dominoes were toppled along the Wall’s route on Monday.
It’s an appropriate metaphor. The staccato tumble recognizes the complex interplay of influences that tipped one-upon-another to create the final flattening.
Here are five books and one movie that shed some retrospective light, through two decades, on a cleaved city and the Wall itself. All of them reach beyond its brute symbolism to chronicle — imaginatively, memoiristically, and historically — deeper truths.
One of them — the film The Lives Of Others — brings us an East German spy who descends into a moral struggle when he spies a bit of his own very fragile, but still beating, conscience.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), John le Carré
Written in the deep freeze of the Cold War, with its climactic scene unfolding at the Wall itself, this is the novel that created a genre and murdered an illusion.
No one had ever seen a spy novel like this before. Le Carré dismantled convention by bodying forth a complex plot which challenged — and, some complained, equalized — the good vs. evil simplicity of the struggle against the Commies.
We were like them? Suddenly, the moral thumb on the scale was no longer the West’s prehensile ethical advantage. It’s an ambiguity that’s captured in this famous soliloquy delivered by the embittered British spook Alec Leamas to his girlfriend. (Ironically — no joke — I also found this on the CIA’s website.)
You can’t imagine James Bond saying this:
“What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, … [but] it so happens that they need him…. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.”
If it sounds like the same issues we’re dealing with now in the torture debate, that’s because they are.
Twelve Years (1981), Joel Agee
Joel, son of iconic writer, criticm and imbiber James Agee — who wrote A Death in the Family — had his own family complexities. When Joel was a small child, his mother bundled him and his brother up and fled the nest with an “Old Communist” named Bodo Uhse, ending up in East Germany, where they lived for the eponynous12 years of his title.
This softly lyrical memoir succeeds by exclusion; the stultifying bleakness of East Germany is pervasive, but much of the book is caught in the struggle between the governing ordinariness of Joel’s growing up and the grinding grimness of Communist life.
So this is — as the New York Times noted — on one hand an adolescent’s coming of age, complete with “stories of sexual misadventures, with masturbatory victories and humiliations with the opposite sex.” At the same time, Agee describes the houses of vanished Jews, and the aura of loss that “filtered down to my eight-year-old’s understanding…and took its place beside other facts about the evil past — mere facts, almost empty of tragic or moral meaning for me.”
With a more honest recognition of memory’s tricks than most memoirists concede, Agee writes that “whatever agency handles the punctilious business of storing up the past,” it’s a function that can “lapse into reverie” and become “more mindful of meaning than accuracy.”
Perhaps we’re seeing a bit of both in this week’s celebrations.
One Day A Year (2003), Christa Wolf
Although she was passed over by the Nobel committee for her dazzlingly obscure (at least by American standards) countrywoman Herta Muller, Christa Wolf looms large as East Germany’s most well-known writer.
As the New Yorker noted in its review of One Day a Year — which they called it “remarkable” — Wolf was “both a loyal supporter of her country and a fervent critic (watched by the Stasi and also, for a brief period early in her career, informing for it), and then became a bitter opponent of reunification.”
The book is based on a literary conceit first devised by Maxim Gorky in 1935, when he asked authors around the world to describe their actions on an ordinary day — he chose September 27th — in scrupulous writerly detail.
In 1960, the Russian newspaper Izvestia asked Wolf to continue the one-out-of-365 game; she agreed, and continued it for 41 years. It was a personal war against forgetting, and a method for viewing the self against the shifting scrim of the culture.
Wolf lived through tumultuous personal and historical times, so the cumulative arc is gripping, as are the juxtapositions of the lofty and demotic, culture and cooking, dashed utopias and recurring birthdays. As for the Wall, it doesn’t have to always be there to be always there.
And even though the device of using a single day to take the core biopsy of a year runs the risk of sinking into artifice, Wolf succeeds. The book writ large answers the writ-small question she poses in her introduction: “How does life come to be?”
The Wall Jumper (1984), Peter Schneider
There is one central character in this intense and woefully overlooked 139-page novel, which Ian McEwan called “wonderful” and “an important publishing event.” It is the Berlin Wall itself.
Schneider describes the Wall with obsessive and wry detail, noting that “Underground in the sewers, the border is secured by electrified fences, which grant free passage only to the excretions of both parts of the city.”
Schneider sees the Berlin Wall as far more than a physical barrier. For his characters it is a psychological divide, an emotional palimpsest, an existential tease. They include an escapee to the West who’s struggling to adapt, exhausted East Berliners coping with and mocking a grotesque system, and the West German narrator who often crosses into the East and observes, “I really don’t see the Wall any more…time doesn’t heal wounds, it kills the sensation of pain.”
They are all Wall-jumpers, but the champion is Kabe, who gives the novel its title, an antic figure who has jumped the Wall 15 times simply for the very act: “Sometimes it’s so quiet in the apartment and so gray and cloudy outside and nothing’s happening and I think to myself: Hey, let’s go and jump the Wall again.”
As the world celebrates the demise of the Wall, and reporters flock to the city to take its pulse, Schneider’s sturdy words stand the test of time: “It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.”
The Lives of Others (2006), Written and Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
This was a stunning debut. Aesthetically, its mainspring plotting, intense but restrained performances, and calibration of suspense showed a surprising maturity. Politically, it rang big gongs.
The film’s nucleus is a cat-and-mouse game of investigation and concealment involving Gerd Weisler, a Stasi agent who possesses a soft core of humanity, and the playwright Georg Dreyman, whose live-in girlfriend is the erotic obsession of Weisler’s boss.
Eventually, Weisler gets demoted to bottom-rung envelope-opener, because his boss believes he disrupted the surveillance of Dreyman.
As the movie moves with solemnity to its denouement, the Wall comes down and the characters’ fates are quickly reversed. Dreyman becomes a successful writer, while Weisler is reduced to distributing advertising leaflets.
Attempting to put the past to rest, Dreyman quarries the Stasi files and learns the history of his surveillance and the role of Weisler — code-named HGH XX/7 — in protecting him.
In a moving conclusion, Weisler buys Dreyman’s book, opens it, and discovers the dedication: “To HGW XX/7, with gratitude.” The clerk asks if he wishes the book to be giftwrapped, to which Weisler replies — with a pitch-perfect double-entendre: “No, it’s for me.”
Von Donnersmarck brilliantly captures the flabby corruption at the nucleus of East Germany’s totalitarian hold, a reality which doesn’t mitigate its oppressive pall. But this isn’t a polemic; like any legitimate work of art, elements of The Lives of Others transcend easy ideological interpretations.
So even though many saw it as an anti-Communist screed — William F. Buckly wrote in his column that after he saw it “I turned to my companion and said, ‘I think that this is the best movie I ever saw.'” — some argued that it was, well, soft on Communism.
And Anna Funder, who wrote the book Stasiland, argued that the movie exaggerated Weisler’s ability to act independently as he sabotages his own investigation for moral purposes.
The last word, I think, should go to von Donnersmarck, who helpfully wrote in his director’s notes, “More than anything else, The Lives of Others is a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path.”
1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (2009), Mary Elise Sarotte
Since Reading the Headlines has a sneaking suspicion that you’re not going to power through a dozen books on 1989, we recommend Mary Elise Sarotte’s as the single best volume to dive into. Foreign Affairs agrees, calling it “…the classic overview of this period.”
Just published last month, this history is impeccably researched — encompassing previously unavailable sources — and incorporates interviews with the key players. It’s also suspenseful in a way that outcome-aware historical analysis can be at its best.
Sarotte believes that while the collapse of Communism was a done deal, the outcome was by no means clear, and she crisply captures the interlocking roles of Gorbachev, Bush, NATO and especially Helmut Kohl in the final outcome.
Nor does she overlook the historical movers we call accident and luck.