Updated: Nov 8
When the city becomes a movie’s biggest character
By Liam Heitmann-Ryce
In the Berlin of old, citizens fared well to remember that rooms had ears. Before the fall of the Wall in November 1989, the Communist regime of East Germany relied on hundreds of thousands of spies and two-faced friends to feed them tip-offs pertaining to any suspected dissident behaviour. At its height, the Stasi (Ministerium für Staatsicherheit, or “secret state police”) was believed to have held files on over 6,000,000 East German citizens – over a third of its population.
Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, former Stasi prison. Photo: pxfuel
Berlin was a city of whisperers and tiptoers, where few could dream of defection to the West without having their plans intercepted by a network of informants. The mood of paranoia that pervaded much of Berlin life during the post-war decades extended to its Soviet architecture, too – enormous concrete slabs littered with windows, where city-dwellers could be observed from a thousand different rooms on either side.
While this jarring new aesthetic was far from comforting for many Berlin residents, it was an inadvertent goldmine for filmmakers on the hunt for a place to set their espionage thrillers or gloomy horror flicks.
While there are so many great examples of Berlin cinema – looking at you, Good Bye Lenin! – here are two films that really set the mood with their formerly Soviet surroundings.
The Bourne Supremacy (Berlin-Mitte)
In a plot where evading government detection is the name of the game, it was unsurprising that director Paul Greengrass chose to set 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy in the city where eyes and ears could once be found in every street and around every corner. This being an America-friendly blockbuster, it relies on the city’s most recognisable iconography: much of the action takes place in Berlin’s more touristy Mitte district.
Featuring a disorientating foot-chase across Friedrichstraße train station and an especially threatening on-the-move interrogation that culminates in an Alexanderplatz basement, the film’s desaturated colour palette sits comfortably within its chosen setting. And of course it’s set in winter, so the low grey skies influence much of the film’s literal atmosphere of murky pasts and seedy coverups.
Polish director Andrzej Żuławski’s cult 1981 horror film Possession follows a fairly odd premise – an international spy returns home to his wife in West Berlin, who declares she wants a divorce and refuses to explain why. Yet the film borrows largely from its setting to build a cold, uneasy mood before descending more deeply into excesses of violence and body horror.
While the pointed location of the couple’s apartment beside the Wall serves as a metaphor for marital separation like nothing else, the film’s grainy texture is rinsed in a profoundly grey filter of dark skies and faded pastels. As actress Isabelle Adjani says in the excellent documentary The Other Side of the Wall: The Making of “Possession”, the whole film was shot in Kreuzberg. “The windows opened to the Wall,” she recalls; “we were just five metres away from it,” with the barbed wire and border guards visible from almost any angle.
In a performance that won her the César Award for Best Actress, the film is best remembered for a gruesome scene that takes place in an U-Bahn station – seriously not to be seen by underage viewers! It’s pretty graphic stuff, but an amazing slice of cinema nevertheless.
Fun fact: the scene was shot at 5 am in the Platz der Luftbrücke station, situated at the southernmost border of Kreuzberg, right next to the abandoned Tempelhof airport. Today the old runway area is used as a public park, and Berliners use its 386 hectares for roller-skating, dog-walking, and – as I discovered during my own visit last year – there are even some public vegetable gardens!
Tempelhofer Feld. Photo: Liam Heitmann-Ryce
Some cities just emanate a feeling, they just have such a distinctive, tangible vibe. Melbourne is a place that makes you want to sit on the lawn and discuss latte art. Krakow makes you stand on a bridge and watch the world clatter past.
Berlin feels like you’ve stepped into a time vortex, where everything is so obviously real, so definitely made of so many materials and leftover bits of stuff. Berlin feels simultaneously historical and contemporary, and it will always look great through the lens of a camera.