On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall
by Tina Friedrich
Besides a huge commercial center, Potsdamer Platz has by 2009 also become Berlin’s center of moving images – and an icon of the versatile image of Berlin. A symbol of the rise of Berlin around 1900, the square had completely lost its significance during the Cold War – there was literally nothing there. Ever since the new millennium, the city has successfully striven to revive some of the old square’s glamour and importance: by bringing the film industry to the best developed and busiest place in town.
Berlin, 1961. In the middle of the night the borders dividing the Soviet sector from the other – western – part of the city were closed. In some areas the security zone was broad enough to cover a whole square. At Potsdamer Platz, that night sealed its fate for the coming 30 years. What had once been the lively center of a rising city became the dead end of two halves of Berlin, trapped in history.
Berlin, 2009. Potsdamer Platz is anything but dead. Coming up the escalator, one feels displaced to New York, where skyscrapers, blinding lights and people rushing by are perfectly normal. “The Potsdamer Platz is one of the two most important joints in the city,” says Volker Hassemer, cultural senator of Berlin from 1983-1989 and senator for urban development from 1991-1996. “I wouldn’t say it is the center, but it definitely is a link where energies are bundled. This has been the tradition of the Potsdamer Platz and that is what it is finally getting back to. It was our task as politicians to achieve this after 1989.” The Bahntower – a high office building occupied by the national German railway company – welcomes the late visitor fully illuminated. In front of the Price Waterhouse Building, yet another glistening tower, an Austrian Christmas market constitutes a strange contrast to the highly modernized area. Following the lights and stream of people strolling along the tree-lined Potsdamer Straße, a gigantic roof construction appears in the distance: the Sony Center, today the most impressive symbol of the modern urban development.
After the Fall of the Wall, Hassemer was instrumental in rebuilding and reviving Potsdamer Platz. “For us in the senate, it was clear that it must not be a political area, as the governmental institutions were located elsewhere. No ministry, no administration department, that was essential, also from the urban planning perspective.” Besides office towers and the Sony Center, he arranged for a cultural element in the new urban planning. “Film and cinema proved to be a wonderful resource, because it is such an integrative form of art and the Berliners like it very much. A broad spectrum of movies attracts a wide range of people. That is why it proved to be the best idea for a square which needs to and is able to deal with a large audience.”
The Filmhaus, integrated into one side of the Sony Center, hosts an arthouse cinema, a filmmuseum, a film library and the Berlin School of Film and Television (dffb). From the outside it looks spectacular, while inside it is an peaceful oasis amidst the bustling daily business of the Center. The large glass front and backside of the entrance area enables visitors to take a look inside without entering the building. At the same time, people sitting in the Sony Center’s courtyard get a glimpse of the outside world, which makes the Filmhaus a gigantic window to and from the Sony Center. Its glamour seems unintended, as if it had just happened to be a symbol for visual culture.
The founding history goes a long way. Volker Hassemer and Wieland Speck, head of the Panorama section of the Berlinale, the prestigious Berlin international filmfestival, have both been closely connected to the history of origins of the Filmhaus. “It has always been an idea to build a house for film but to find the right location was difficult,” recalls Hassemer. “When I became cultural senator in 1983, I discovered the ruins of the old hotel Esplanade and was immediately drawn to it. It was a cold, foggy day and I took the project’s partners to the place. They were freezing and didn’t like it as it was so close to the Wall. But I immediately felt that this was the right spot to install the new filmhouse.” Speck remembers the significance of the project: “It was an initiative of several artists, who wanted to create a similar institution as the filmhouse in Hamburg. Berlin might have a big movie scene but it does not have a vibrant film community. Therefore it was remarkable that those filmmakers actually gathered around a table. Soon, the ambitious Freunde der deutschen Kinemathek joined the circle.” Due to financial problems, the project got delayed. In 1988 the final draft of Herman Hertzberger, a Dutch architect, was approved – and never built.
The fall of the Wall changed the circumstances. Potsdamer Platz should become the commercial and social center of the new Berlin. “At the time I wasn’t part of the government, so I when I heard that the place should be sold to Sony, I decided to negotiate with them as a regular parlamentarian. The film house had to be built, and we managed to make this a condition in the sales contract.” says Hassemer. Not only did Kinemathek and dffb secure themselves a place within the new building but also the Cinema Arsenal. “This little cinema in the basement of the Filmhaus has become a wonderful underground, art-house cinema and is very valuable for the Berlinale,” says Speck. The international filmfestival has been founded in 1951 and has always tried to react to social and political developments. One of these reactions was the establishment of the Panorama section, dedicated to independent, less known and experimental films and directors. An art-house cinema like the Arsenal suits that concept. “It is a place where you can experience the whole multi-dimensional power of film.” adds Hassemer.
Berlin has always been susceptible to the potential of film. In the 1920s, it was Germany’s cinematic hotspot with the most important production companies settled in Berlin. Back then, glamour was happening in the bustling streets around Kurfürstendamm and Tiergarten, while the area around Potsdamer Platz was best known to be the largest traffic zone in Europe. While cut off from the West during the Cold War (see box), attractive events returned with the moving of the Berlinale into offices on the square in the beginning of 2000. The prestigious film festival brought back the glamour the city so urgently wished for.
“Modern life was centered around Potsdamer Straße and Leipziger Platz, the first European traffic light was installed on location, the quarter was bursting with activity. During the Cold War, all one could see at Potsdamer Platz was the Wall and nothing but. Berlin used this to create yet another possibility to take a look – this time spectators did not watch a movie but the other side of the Wall: the city had built a viewing platform for citizens and tourists. Where the Sony Center is today, one could buy souvenirs three decades ago. For the time being, that was the only attraction. When the Wall fell in 1989, Potsdamer Platz moved from the periphery to the center of a re-united Berlin. The area was divided into four parts and sold to different companies. Huge construction works started shortly after that. Everything was done to erase the remnants of a shameful past and to make Potsdamer Platz look like the new, modern, rising star that the city wanted it to be.”
“When the Berlinale took place for the first time in 1951, a revival of the glamour of the 1920s began. During times of political unrest in the 1970s, the focus was more on political and social developments than on having the most famous guests. Glamour was not the most important issue. This finally changed after 1989. Today, we have 70% international audience at the Berlinale’s opening nights,” says Wieland Speck. He admits that the location adds to the attraction of the festival. “Nevertheless, it is pragmatism that led us here. The area isn’t necessarily one of creative energy and ambient Berlin city life, but it offers the most attractive infrastructure. We are here to fill the artless halls and streets with Berlin life.” Two weeks every year the Potsdamer Platz is crowded with cineastes, visitors and journalists.
The Berlinale’s move is seen controversial according to Speck and Hassemer and clearly shows the significance of the place when it comes to creating an image of Berlin. “It was an ad-hoc decision of the politicians,” says Speck bitterly, “They were fathomlessly afraid of accidentally having built a ghost town. So they decided to place the Berlinale there to get the glamour and media attention they needed. We wasted two years on negotiations.” Hassemer of course has a different point of view. “It was not only important for the area but also for the Berlinale to be situated in an international environment. For the festival it worked out from the start. The infrastructure was much better there, too.”
Successful urban planning has a lot to do with accessability. Hassemer was “strongly convinced that cinema and film were best placed at Potsdamer Platz.” Even if the commercial character of the area might not appeal to all members of the Berlinale team, it has definitely contributed to its international, glamourous appearance. After one decade, Berliners and movie stars alike know where to find the cinematic hot spot of Berlin.