When we think of Berlin it‘s hard not to think of the Berlin wall, built in 1961 by the then German Democratic Republic to divide the city into two areas and to cut off the GDR sector from the western world. And yet, as ironic as it might seem, the Berlin Wall didn‘t enclose the portion of Berlin governed by the GDR at all. The people of East Berlin did not become the political and geographic island we think of. It was those on the other side of the wall, in West Berlin who found themselves one morning suddenly enclosed and engulfed by a hostile and unfamiliar foe.
As much as this wall shocked and appalled the world, the concept of division, control, isolation by a wall wasn‘t quite as new an idea to Berliners as outsiders might think. In fact, the one hundred years between 1860 and 1960 saw the first time Berlin had even been without a wall—ever. From the 13th century on, the city had been surrounded by fortifications and walls. The demolition of the Berlin Fortress in 1741 and its wall (Berlin’s first wall), saw the construction of the Berlin Customs Wall (Berlin’s second wall), a wall surrounding Berlin and functioning to control everything going in and coming out, be it immigrants in a feudal land, a land not yet formed into a state of nationhood, or coffee, spices, money or other goods. The Brandenburg Gate, now one of the most recognised landmarks of Berlin, was only one of 20 gates allowing controlled access in and out. Rivers and canals entering or leaving the city were furnished with underwater barriers to prevent smugglers and uncontrolled entry to—or exit from—Berlin. Not even the various railway lines managed to breach it and stopped short of the wall as if around a brooding spiders web. Demolished only 11 years before the German Empire’s 1871 declaration of nationhood (and over a century after Paris, London and Madrid removed theirs) the wall has now all but vanished. Only a small reminder is still visible in the form of a short section of the wall, left for posterity and a stern reminder of 600 years of mistrust.
But with the demolishing of the Berlin Customs Wall, the city of Berlin started to thrive and become world famous as a petri dish for the arts, a safe haven for the misfit, the musician, painter, poet. The opening of the GDR Berlin Wall in 1989 (Berlin’s third wall), and subsequent pulling down of it in 1990, created a new artistic surge both east/west and from the rest of Germany—and soon thereafter the rest of the world—into Berlin. Previously abandoned, dilapidated buildings, warehouses and apartment buildings, were quickly filling up as live-in art studios, turning into squats for the down and out thinkers and artists. Berlin had become a beehive of culture, subculture and superculture.
As this last wall fell, however, new and ominous social walls were thrown up. People started to identify each other, even themselves, as ‘‘wessies“ from the west, and “ossies“ from the east. There were green-goers (those who only crossed pedestrian crossings with green lights) and red-goers (those who dared to live on the wild side and cross on red). Long-term residents in Berlin became “Berliners“, those born in Berlin were now “Real Berliners“ and those born here of parents born here became “Wash-safe Berliners“. Yet when art and culture was the issue, a Berliner was a Berliner and all were in the same crazy and amazing soup together.
One last wall remained:
As any stage performer knows, be they an actor, stand-up comedian, musician, or dancer, they are surrounded by four walls when they perform. Three of these being solid, hard, obvious. The “fourth wall“, as actors call it, is the invisible wall, the most dangerous wall of all, the wall which runs left to right, right to left, across the edge of the stage between the performer and the audience. Mostly treated like a pane of bulletproof glass, impregnable from either side, the performer seeks to convey art across this impassible forcefield to the audience in the hope the audience catches the freshness, the life, the spontaneity of events on stage. A very daring and gifted performer is able to reach out across this wall, breaking its surface tension like a pine needle falling into a still lake. But even then, once crossed, the audience becomes a part of the performance, an unpredictable and possibly volatile—perhaps even hostile—player in the performance. Few performers are not daunted by the idea of reaching through the wall, while most would prefer to cower behind the safety of its invisible protection, a protection for both the artist and the audience.
And yet, in rare instances, whole ensembles, whole productions, not only reach out across the fourth wall, but draw the audience directly into the action emotionally and even physically too and sometimes with the most surprising of performance programme choices. During Holy Week this year, for example, Berliners experienced this very precarious tightrope walked with confidence, this final protective wall ripped down, in a performance of J. S. Bach‘s John‘s Passion at the Heilig-Kreuz church in fashionable Kreuzberg. In a performance with the vocal ensemble Cantus Domus (director, Ralf Sochaczwesky) and the capella vitals berlin baroque orchestra, (leader, Almut Schlicker) not only was the audience invited to join in singing the chorals, the hymns included in Bach‘s work, but they were seated in the middle of the performance space with the orchestra and choir around them, with soloists appearing on balconies, on overhead walkways or in their midst; with smaller break-off groups of musicians such as viola d‘amore and lute, viola da gamba alone, or a small micro ensemble of theorbo, flute, bassoon and oboe da caccia, dispersing from the main orchestra and reassembling in various other parts of the church, drawing the attention of the participating audience into different emotional, musical and even physical directions.
Solo singers moved among the audience not only singing but pausing with motion and gesture. Even the ensemble‘s director, Ralf Sochaczwesky, was drawn into the action and walked—stockingfooted—into the audience to touch, and move with, solo singers in a semi-staged, carefully directed visual addition to the musical work. This was probably as elating for the audience as it was terrifying for the musicians. To be so close to the audience for whom you are performing is a very precarious place to be, to come under such close scrutiny. And then, the exposing, the denuding of the normal relationship of the musician to the audience, the stripping of the division between Bach and Berliner. How would an audience react? Would they feel imposed upon? And how would such an initiative from a director go down? Certainly, such ventures into the unknown expose the production to all manner of possible criticism; perhaps a sacred work should remain sacred and not be brought down to the level of the audience. Or perhaps including the audience, as this was certainly doing on a number of levels, was to make Bach‘s work all the more dignified. How effective this wall-ripping was can only be known by those who ran through the wall together, hand in hand, the audience and the players, a city divided and united by walls.
And yet, at the end of this, as at the end of so many other performances in Berlin, of operas, theatre pieces, pop concerts, art exhibitions, dance performances, Berliners left on their merry way home to their apartments, their flatshares or their squats. This fourth wall—this final wall—once moved for a few hours, doesn‘t exist outside and hasn‘t been breached out there at all. More united, more one in heart only while the glow of being in Berlin, of belonging to Berlin and its artists, still warms the embers, the Berliner reverts ultimately, equally divided, equally “Berliner“.