November 18, 2010

Two Sides of the Berlin Wall

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It’s been 21 years since the Berlin Wall fell, and it is apt that Cornell Cinema would choose to screen this double feature, consisting of two documentaries screened back-to-back, on the Wall just one week after the 21st anniversary of its destruction. The first, The Invisible Frame, is a quiet, atmospheric piece that chronicles British actress Tilda Swinton’s cycling journey around the perimeters of where the Berlin Wall once stood, 20 years after she embarked on a similar journey around the then-existing Berlin Wall. The second documentary, Rabbit a la Berlin, is a more conventionally-styled feature that deals with an aspect of the Berlin Wall’s existence that might not have been known to many people: For most of its existence, the grassland space in between the two perimeters of the Wall was home to thousands of rabbits. Together, both pieces present a refreshingly unconventional insight into life during and after the Berlin Wall; a welcome change from all those tired old History Channel Cold War features always shown on TV.

The Invisible Frame is a pensive look into everyday life after the fall and subsequent tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Swinton dons slip-ons and sunglasses, gets on a bike, and circumnavigates the 160 kilometer perimeter where the Wall once stood, echoing the same journey she made in 1989, which was documented in the feature Cycling the Frame. This peaceful, reflective journey, accompanied by a haunting, atmospheric soundtrack, sees Swinton biking across urban landscapes and placid summertime scenery, braving rain and sun, laughing with and talking to fellow travelers and Berlin townspeople, and meditating solitarily in golden fields. Swinton’s understated, sporadic commentary informs her thoughts and reflections about how the now-absent Berlin Wall, the invisible frame of the title, still exerts a deep and indelible impression on the history and physical space of Berlin and its environs. She often peppers her observations with long quotes from poets and authors such as Yeats and Stevenson, complementing the placid beauty of the surroundings in which she frolics.

Swinton plays both the world-weary wise woman and starry-eyed tourist. On one hand, she channels the national feeling concerning the Wall — that it, even in its absence, remains as great a symbol of exclusion as when it still stood, because no amount of physical healing of the landscape can divest the place of its historical significance. On the other hand, Swinton takes refuge in a more cheerful, childlike side of her personality; whooping like a child to make echoes when cycling through tunnels, or humming cheery tunes while luxuriating on grassy fields — exactly how you’d expect a carefree backpacker to behave.

Rabbit a la Berlin is not nearly as Zen, providing a more substantive and assertive documentary style on an otherwise frivolous topic — rabbits living in the interstices between the Wall separating West and East Berlin. The documentary is nothing less than a seminal grand history of the lives of these Berliner rabbits, but what is transparent here is how the entire feature is a thinly-disguised allegory of the lives of East Germans living under the oppressive shadow of the GDR. The rabbits, displaced by the wholesale destruction of Berlin after the war, find themselves trapped by happenstance in the huge meadow in between the Berlin Wall. Fenced in, they are also fenced out: Predators cannot catch them, and initially the East Berlin administration, headed by an animal lover, prohibits the soldiers from killing them, keeping and caring for them as if maintaining a giant rabbit zoo. Eventually, the rabbits, with no natural predators to harry them and their welfare taken care of by the government, multiply so rapidly that tens of thousands of them live in the meadow. Soon, some of them attempt to dig their burrows underneath the wall and seek new places to live. The administration, alarmed and angered by this new development, executes drastic measures — it culls the rabbit population by authorizing soldiers to kill rabbits and seeding the grass with poison. If the story sounds familiar, it should — the rabbits, trapped in their comfortable prison, are analogues to the East Germans who are walled off from capitalism for their own “protection,”  and when they try to escape, are brutally put down. When the Berlin Wall falls, the rabbits, finally free for the first time in four decades, flood Berlin in droves, where they are set upon by hunters and other predators, restoring the “natural” way of life that they abandoned when shut in. This somewhat more nebulous parallel with the “naturalness” of capitalism as opposed to the parsimonious egalitarianism of the “unnatural “ socialistic economy is more implied than stated, but the documentary itself is rife with such implicit comparisons, and it can be something of a fun and diverting activity to identify as many of them as possible – some are blandly obvious, others more subtle. The allegory, however, does not detract from this documentary being purely a story of rabbits, and like its companion feature The Invisible Frame, the picture abounds with a bucolic, pastoral feel that is perfectly complemented by the flute-based ditty that permeates the emotional interstices of the narrative.

The stories presented in these documentaries amount to an embrace of open-mindedness, and an exhortation that walls are by and large bad things. It is especially telling when The Invisible Frame ends by dedicating itself to the people of Palestine, where new avenues for social exclusion through the setting up of physical boundaries in places like the Golan Heights display a shocking unawareness of this lesson. The two documentaries are warnings against the whitewashing of historical memory and an injunction for us to use the lessons of the past to avoid making mistakes in the future.

Original Author: Colin Chan