July 26th, 2016
Revisiting the Berlin Wall
In the 1960s, East German border troops photographed the entire length of the Berlin Wall, but the film was never developed. Fifty years later, a new book brings a secret archive to light.
By Lisa Andergassen
Black-and-white panoramas portraying ragged dugouts, hunched-up on hillsides, half-buried under pale sand and shaggy plants, or hastily erected, with roofs covered up by pine branches. In the background, vaguely perceptible fences and wooden stakes. Towers, stretching upward like deerstands on stilts, or listing closer to the ground, dumpy and rectangular, made of concrete. In all of them: the Berlin Wall, fragmented, sitting unspectacularly in No-Mans Land, or cutting through Berlin’s urban landscape.
Taken by members of the East German border patrol between 1965 and 1966, these photographs were meant to be destroyed after they had served a banal function: to track down the weak spots in the wall. The wall itself was supposed to be picture-less. Photographing the wall was strictly forbidden and convictions carried a charge of two years in prison, turning the wall into an abstract object for GDR citizens outside of Berlin. But for reasons unknown (or perhaps pure sloppiness), the film was left undeveloped and forgotten in the federal archives of the GDR and later in those of united Germany—remnants of a compulsive regime, which translated its totalitarian claims into relentless documentation.
In 1995, while working in the Intermediate Military Archives for a research project on Berlin’s Gleimstrasse, photographer Arwed Messmer and writer Annett Gröschner stumbled upon the rolls of film, piled in an unremarkable box. It was an accidental but not entirely coincidental discovery. Both artists are archive veterans, frequently de- and re-contextualizing historical documents in their works. Messmer addresses the role of the photographic medium as an accomplice of power, while enabling an approach that leaves open avenues of mystery. (In his 2014 book Reenactment MfS, he displays chilling pictures from the Stasi archives without any accompanying text, only revealing their source in a small booklet enclosed as an appendix.) In Taking Stock of Power: An Other View of the Berlin Wall, published by Hatje Cantz and accompanied by an exhibition currently on view at Haus am Kleistpark in Berlin, Messmer and Gröschner restore the material from the Intermediate Military Archives, complete with maps and texts based on files and protocols.
The bright red, hand-bound ten pound book comes in two volumes. The first is overflowing with digitally arranged panoramas of the entire length of the wall—156 kilometers cast in concrete and barbed wire. The pictures are accompanied by meticulous captions and excerpts of statements yelled over the wall, and recorded by the East German border patrol, which bear witness to encounters between East and West Germans: “A woman shouts out of the 8th story of an apartment tower in the Märkisches Viertel: ‘Do you want beer?’” Stories of arrests are boiled down into single exchanges. (“When he locked his Trabant car, he asked: ‘If I drive off now, will you shoot?’”) By showing the entire range of the often monotonous pictures, Messmer gives a sense of the wall’s colossal scale, as it bisected desolate landscapes as well as recognizable parts of central Berlin.
The second volume dissects selections of single images into typologies that recall the works of German conceptual photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher: fortifications (such as towers and dugouts); abandoned ladders and bikes; tunnels; border patrol members; and things, like chaotic piles of gloves, backpacks, cigarettes and shoes, or lunch-ensembles with thermo bottles and untouched sandwiches. These images, taken by photographic amateurs, have a strange appeal. Frontally directed flashlights emphasize random objects that happened to be in the foreground, transforming evidentiary photographs of tunnels—carved in the ground to bypass the wall—into weird-looking earthen holes, inhabited by bizarre creatures with cable-like tentacles.
As the title suggests, Taking Stock of Power enables an “other view” of the so-called “Antifascist Protection Wall.” The photographs have historical merit as impeccable and rare documentation of the wall. But Messmer and Gröschner release them from the bureaucratic conditions of their production. Freeing up the material without effacing its origins, Messmer and Gröschner’s project is a discrete but deeply political gesture. Taking Stock of Power returns to the public an archive denied under the GDR regime and resists any strict interpretation. The wall may be gone, but its stories continue to emerge.
Lisa Andergassen is an academic researcher, writer, and editor based in Berlin.
Taking Stock of Power: An Other View of the Berlin Wall is on view at Haus am Kleistpark in Berlin through August 21, 2016.