HELLO TO BERLIN, 1973 – Part One

A young English filmmaker approaches the divided city

(Part of an early draft of novel Friends & Enemies not included in published version)

After two hours, I reached the Berliner Ring, built by Hitler to encompass the expected expansion of the Third Reich’s capital over the next thousand years.

No signs for West Berlin, so I headed on towards the East German capital, Hauptstadt der DDR – East Berlin. Western cars disappeared, East German vehicles increased. Had I missed a turning in the twilight, my progress tolerated because of the military look of my khaki-coloured mini-van? Working for the Warsaw Pact, police had assumed – a Pole returning home, a Russian on R&R. But I wasn’t a Pole or a Russian, I was a British citizen, in a British car and it would soon be night. My British bravado turned to English angst. Should I stop and ask the way, make a U-Turn and head back to Helmstedt or keep going and hope Hitler’s Ring brought me back to the missed exit? My visa stated that there should be no deviation from the transit route, no stopping except at indicated service stations and no communication with military or civilian personnel; ‘in the event of breakdown pull off the road, stay in your car and await assistance’.

“Alright,” I said out loud, as a sign for a picnic spot loomed up in the darkness. “That is what I will do. Pull off the road and wait until somebody comes.”

I turned into the parking area, cut the motor and doused the lights.

In the gloom, I made out wooden tables, an advertising hoarding with no advertisement and a concrete litter bin. I sat in silence and then realised that silence meant no traffic. Perhaps no one stopped here, perhaps West Berlin had been sealed off and declared a no go area with all signs removed to confuse the enemy – perhaps World War Three had started. After all, in 1973, despite Vietnam, Berlin was still number one flashpoint in the Cold War and the Four Power Agreement aimed at regulating access to West Berlin was not due to be signed until next year. I had checked my history books, read my newspapers and done my research but failed to bring a radio. Not out of forgetfulness, but because I felt I should experience history firsthand without any intermediaries. Now I regretted the decision, realising how reliant people had become on radio and television: ‘Here is the news:  death will arrive on a missile from the East (or West) in four minutes. Bang!

I turned to the luggage area. Guitar cases, camera cases, tripods, books and LPs piled high to the roof. One emergency stop and you’ll be headless, my sister had said when waving me off. But I am a budding filmmaker and occasional musician and need the tools of my trades. I pulled a Coke can from a box of film journals. At least I had something to drink – as well as a packet of Smith’s Crisps, a banana and five fruit gums. I’d survive.

I left my car and walked to the litter bin. Empty apart from a cardboard container with a half-eaten Bratwurst inside. Not a popular spot, I deduced, and stepping behind the bin opened my flies and urinated into the undergrowth. My mind fixed on a new film idea: car parks up in picnic area, dusk turns to night, suspense grows in the audience’s mind; sound of owls hooting, footsteps approaching, voices whispering and then… Nothing happens. Nothing happens, for half an hour – or even an hour, if I could afford the film stock. People progress from passive expectation of a story to active awareness of the act of viewing and the intermittent sound effects. Oh, the joys of formalist film-making – no narrative to get snarled up in, just…

Suddenly I jumped – heart palpitating, palms sweating, pupils dilating. Sound of motor mower approaching – no lights, but noise increasing. Not in my imagined film, but in the picnic area where I stood. I zipped up my flies, ran to the van and locked myself in.

A car pulled up. A Trabant. I had read about the two-stroke cars developed when the West walked off with Volkswagen, but never seen one in close up…

Entschuldigung!”

I jumped again and – in line with the rigour expected of a formalist film viewer – tried to concentrate on the here and now, on the act of being rather than the fact of being scared. But the here and now of my van in the middle of nowhere was not as conducive to present awareness as the National Film Theatre at a screening of Michael Snow’s Region Centrale.

I closed my eyes and opened them again.

A bearded man in an anorak was banging on my window with one hand and waving a can of Heinz baked beans in the other. More Warhol than Snow, I thought.

Wechseln? Polnische Vodka?’” the man shouted.

Beans for Vodka? I pulled open my window. The man peered in, destroying the viewer/screen dichotomy and involving me in the story.

Ich habe americanische Bohnen. Sie haben polnische Vodka. Wechseln, ja?”

Nein,” I said and reverted to English. “Not Polish. No vodka. British and lost.”

Nicht Polnisch?’ said the man, moving to the rear of the van to examine the number plate and my brand new ‘GB’ sticker.

 “Gross Brittanien!’ he yelled into the night, and then returned to the window and repeated, with emphasis on the first word, “Gross Brittanien. Wie Gross-Deutschland.’

“Not quite the same as ‘Greater Germany’,” I replied, deciding to use German after all. “Hitler’s concept of a Greater Germany was…”

“Like that of your Queen Victoria – Victoria’s Greater Britain, Adolph’s Greater Germany, two of a kind. Only Victoria had more of the world than Adolph. Nicht wahr? And that is why the German people went to war for the Kaiser, lost and voted for Adolph and why I now live in the German Democratic Republic. Wars and tyrannies of the twentieth century have all been caused by greed, ‘Gross-ness’ and the glib tongues of Anglo-Saxons. Nicht wahr?”

A point worth considering I had to admit, for, even if Victoria herself had been more German than British, it was British ministers and British soldiers who built the Empire, colonised half the world’s people’s and settled ‘empty’ lands at the expense of indigenous inhabitants.

“You may be right,” I mumbled, happy to appease a man who – in the land of Bertolt Brecht – seemed more Good Soldier Schweyk than frustrated Fuehrer.

But politics was not the issue.

“No vodka? Maybe cigarettes? Marlboro, Kent, Lucky Strike…?”

I reached into the back of the van and produced a carton of Benson and Hedges bought on the ferry from Dover to Ostende. I removed the packaging and handed over three packs of twenty. The man passed through the baked beans.

“No, please!” I said. “I’m vegetarian” – and then realising my mistake, added – “but don’t eat American beans.”

“I insist,” said the man. “For a friend, if not for you. For Queen Victoria!”

He laughed. I laughed.

“If you’re sure…”

“Of course! But now I depart before the Vopo’s catch me…”

“Vopo’s?”

“Volkspolizei – People’s Police. Harmless, but diligent.”

The man darted back to his Trabant. I leant out of the window.

“Can you tell me the way to West Berlin?”

A chuckle in the darkness.

“That is what all corrupt elements in our republic ask. Nicht wahr?”

The mower coughed into life and, for a moment, I thought the man would leave, but instead he reversed his car until the driver’s window stood level with mine.

“West Berlin? Yes, I will show you the way. But remember: gloss in the West, substance in the East. Scratch the surface and you will see.”

“And your name? Perhaps I can look you up?’

“We will meet if we are meant to. Auf wiedersehen!”

The Trabant jolted on to the deserted Ring. I followed and five miles down the road saw a sign with black letters on a yellow background indicating the exit for West Berlin. Easily missed and dwarfed by a sign above it signalling that other Berlin to the East.

I waved and swung off to the right.

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