The young filmmaker tries to cross back from East to West Berlin with forbidden goods
(Part of the novel Friends & Enemies included in a different form in published version)
I reached the Friedrichstrasse crossing point just before midnight.
I was well-oiled with cheap East Berlin beer and schnapps, but not drunk. My friend Lothar – DDR museum worker, passive dissident and surface conformist – had given me something, though he had not said what, to take across to West Berlin and I had to be on my guard.
There was no queue.
The guard checked my battered blue British passport with its imperious request to allow the bearer to proceed without let or hindrance and stamped an empty page. I returned it to my coat, donated my unspent East Marks to the orphaned children of North Vietnam and walked towards the remotely controlled doors that accessed the S-Bahn trains to West Berlin.
But they did not open and, as I stood waiting for them to do so, a voice behind me shouted: “You! Come back!” And then more than one voice, “Zurueck, bitte! Zurueck!”
I turned and saw two guards approaching. They asked me to remove my coat – an old trench coat loaned to me by Lothar to ward off the late November snow that had started falling as I left his flat, and, presumably, to hide the goods, which, Lothar had said, it was better I know nothing about.
The older guard took the coat, while the other, a rotund youth with acne, led me back across the hallway to a room beside the passport desk.
“Please sit!” he said, indicating a chair in front of a scuffed, Formica-topped table.
I sat and surveyed the cream coloured walls stained with nicotine and, in my imagination, the faded blood of previous detainees.
After a minute or two, another guard entered. He was tall, blonde-haired and judging from the insignia on his uniform, an officer.
He stood for a moment and then perched on the edge of the table opposite my chair
“Good evening!’ he said in perfect English.
“Good evening,” I replied, disconcerted by the fact that my first line of defence – ‘I don’t speak German’ – had been undermined.
“As you were walking way,” the officer continued, “my guards noticed something moving in the back of your coat.”
“Yes. I think you know what I mean.”
“I have no idea,” I said, shaking my head.
“Then,” snapped the officer, unrolling a sheet of card in his hand, “what is this?”
I stared in amazement at the image in front of him: Lothar’s favourite collage; the one that had hung on the wall above his bed in the Prenzlauerberg apartment – a gem of humorous subversion and light-hearted satire.
I rubbed my eyes and shook my head, feigning ignorance and innocence.
“Never seen it before.” I paused and tried a polite English smile. “Not bad. Where did you find it?”
“In the lining of the coat,” snapped the officer, unimpressed by the smile or my misplaced flattery of a subversive piece of art. “Are you telling me, you did not know it was there?”
“No idea,” I said, dropping the smile but upping the level of Michael Caine nonchalance in my voice.
“I find that hard to believe. Where did you get it? ”
I thought fast.
I must not involve Lothar, if I did he would lose his job at the museum and most probably be charged with subversion.
“At a shop,” I said, improvising a beginning without middle or end in sight.
“You bought this picture, this piece of counter-revolutionary propaganda in a shop? I don’t think so. No one would want to sell you something like that.”
“Not the collage, the jacket.”
“And the picture was inside it?”
“Without your knowledge?”
The officer stared at the image and then at me.
Sweat formed on my forehead, perhaps from the heat, perhaps – in the interrogator’s eyes – from the effort of lying.
“And where was this shop?”
“In the centre… near the television tower.”
“There are many shops near the television tower. Which one?”
The officer stood up and paced around the room. The youth with acne left and I felt panic pinch the pit of my stomach and tighten the edges of my brain. Could they arrest me? Hold me indefinitely? There were no official diplomatic relations between the GDR and Britain, artists on the DAAD programme had been reminded of this in a circular from the British Council: ‘All visits to East Berlin undertaken at own risk.’
My heart palpitated, the sweating intensified.
“I can’t remember.”
“Convenient,” laughed the officer, going to the door. “Well, I have time. So please, over the next five minutes, try and improve your memory!”
He left the room.
I stared at the picture on the table and despite the feeling of anxiety chuckled.
The collage showed Karl Marx and Lothar – both bearded, both middle-aged – sitting at a table for two in an East Berlin bar drinking People’s beer with People’s schnapps chasers. On the wall above, portraits of Lenin, Stalin and the DDR’s first leader, Walter Ulbricht, stared down in stony silence and obvious disapproval. Beside them a blank fourth canvas indicated where Mr Marx should have been if he had not been having such a good time with the hoi polloi below: imprisoned in a frame, a grey-bearded, graven image painted to look as stern and impassive as the three successors who had co-opted and corrupted his name.
The door opened and the youth with acne entered, a cup of coffee in his hand.
“Thought you could use this,” he said.
Nice cop, hard cop routine, I thought, but the youth did not stay.
I took a sip of the hot but tasteless liquid and tried to think through the shop story.
But I didn’t know any clothes shops near the television tower.
My brain misted over and before I knew it, before I could step on the brake of adult self-control, I started crying. Crying like a small child who has lost its mother and doesn’t know how to get home. No, not crying – wailing.
The door swung open and the officer stood on the threshold.
“What is the matter, Mr Cruft?” he demanded.
I shook my head and continued to wail.
“Have we treated you so badly?”
Again I shook my head.
“Then where is your famous stiff upper lip?”
I shook my head for a third time.
The officer turned on his heels, slammed the door shut and disappeared.
I continued to bawl.
The exhaustion of a hard night’s drinking with Lothar, the long walk in the cold night air from Prenzlauerberg to Friedrichstrasse, persistent worries about my new film in West Berlin, and my girlfriend’s sudden defection to a Maoist had all combined to reduce me to an infantile state of self pity and despair.
If I could have got up and danced, if I could have shaken a leg, waved my arms and screamed ‘Star Fucker!” with Mick Jagger then dropped dead-tired into bed, the hopelessness I now felt might have sweated itself out and been flattened by the overriding need to sleep. But here I could not sleep and I could not dance, so I howled. The officer had been right: where was it – that symbol of British sangfroid and cold civility? Gone with the wind, gone to a graveyard every last bit of it. When will they ever learn? Boys cry too. They do. They do.
I looked up and through my tears saw a man in a suit with a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose.
“Mr Cruft,” said the man in a soft, heavily accented voice. “We are sorry you are so upset. On January 1st, 1974 – tomorrow as we speak – a new Four Power Agreement comes into effect regulating all matters related to Berlin. We hope this agreement will improve understanding between East and West and in the light of its imminent enactment and your obvious distress we have decided to overlook this unfortunate incident.”
He pointed to the collage on the table and without further comment tore it into little pieces and threw the resulting remnants into a waste paper basket beneath the table.
“You are free to go. Auf wiedersehen!”
The destruction of Lothar’s work led to a new bout of tears from me, but this time the guards were ready. They lifted me from my chair and walked me out of the room and across the hallway to the automatic doors where the youth with acne held out Lothar’s trench coat.
“Expect you could use this,” he half-whispered, a pimply smile on his round face.
I took the coat, but before I could say thank you the door released and the guards deposited me on the far side: somebody else’s baby, a wimp for the West to whip into order.
And by the time I had rattled over the wall past the burnt out ruins of the Reichstag and the floodlit modernism of the Academie der Kuenste to Zoo station – staring into the neon-lit night sky from my empty S-Bahn like a dropout on Valium or a hippie on lysergic acid – I had recovered. Thin skin healed over, emotions in custody, British upper lip stiff as a military crease. And when, after leaving the train and braving the snow covered streets, two West Berlin policemen stopped me near the Tiergarten, asked me for my passport and searched me – out of boredom or on the off chance of finding a red terrorist from the Baader Meinhof gang – I accepted the intervention as meekly as a lamb and as quietly as a mouse.
Governments were always obsessed with something, always on guard against subversion, always under threat. In East or West, there were always enemies, enemies within, enemies without; the skill of a good citizen lay in reading between the lines and recognising friends.