Berlinale Highlight #3 – Berlin, ‘City of Ghosts’

Unfortunately, we remember and understand a city through the prism of the small number of people we met and experiences we had while there. This is even more problematic when our visit is so short. Maybe that’s why we take so many pictures and buy trinkets for our shelves before we leave a new place – we’re aware of how little we experienced but nonetheless afraid of forgetting it.

Such was my situation while in Berlin during the Talent Campus. While I had grand plans of visiting all the landmarks and museums, the reality is that we had very little time with the panel sessions during the day and films in the evening. But with all the walking in between, I did get a chance to experience a little bit of Berlin’s urban space.

Walking down the streets of this metropolis is a highlight because it resonated with my current studies in national memory and collective amnesia. I was able to explore these emotions through physical forms on public display and less as abstract concepts in my head or as flickering images in the movie theater.

Specifically, I had a chance to visit the Holocaust Memorial close to Poltzdamer Platz. According to the designer, deconstructivist architect Peter Eisenman, the 2,711 concrete slabs you see were ‘designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.’

As you can see from the pictures, you’re meant to walk through it, and as you do the slabs become taller and taller – by the time you’re in the middle they’re towering almost three feet over your head – and you can’t see Berlin anymore. It was also very haunting in February with the snow on top melting and small streams of water flowing down the sides.

To put the immersive experience of the monument eloquently, I’ll borrow more of Eisenman’s words on his intent on tying emotion to space & form:

“I think it (the Holocaust) was something that defies representation; I think you cannot represent it. And what I’ve tried to do is say if you go to Auschwitz, if you go there, it’s horrific: you’re reminded of all these images et cetera. But you can re-assimilate your internal mechanisms to say, OK, that was then and here we are now.”

“What I tried to do in Berlin was to do something that couldn’t necessarily be as easily re-assimilated. It has no imagery. In other words, it was not about imagery, it was not about marking, it was not about a cemetery. The fact that it could look like a cemetery is possible. It could also look like a field of corn. I was thinking about a field of corn I was lost in in Iowa when I did it. I was trying to do something that had no center, had no edge, had no meaning, that was dumb: D-U-M-B. And there’s nothing in the city that’s dumb. And therefore it was silent, it didn’t speak.”

“I believe that when you walk into this place, it’s not going to matter whether you are a Jew or a non-Jew, a German or a victim: you’re going to feel something. And what I’m interested in is that experience of feeling something. Not necessarily anything to do with the Holocaust, but to feel something different than everyday experience. That was what I was trying to do. It’s not about guilt, it’s not about paying back, it’s not about identification, it’s not about any of those things; it’s about being. And I’m interested, in a sense, in the question of being and how we open up being to very different experiences. “

The interesting thing about this monument, and Germany’s approach to remembering the Holocaust in general, is that the intent is not to somehow heal the wound and close that moment in history. Quite the opposite – public art in this case is being used to keep the wound open and memory alive.

This idea of creating something to illicit trauma and confusion –  not necessarily the details of a specific event, but rather a fog of emotion that should never be forgotten – is very interesting but not without it’s critics. For instance the German novelist Martin Walser has decried the “exploitation of our disgrace for present purposes.” He criticized the “monumentalization”, and “ceaseless presentation of our shame.” “Take all the towns in the world”, said Walser. “Check whether in any of these towns there is a memorial of national ignominy. I have never seen such. The Holocaust is not an appropriate subject of a memorial and such memorials should not be constructed…”

But personally the concept of using public space as a canvas for national memory, specifically national crimes, admirable and one that allows the city and country a healthy dialogue between the past, present and future –

Always in the process of becoming, places are fluid mosaics and moments of memory and metaphor, scene and experience, dream and matter that create and mediate social spaces and temporalities. Through place-making, people mark social spaces as haunted—thresholds through which they can return to a past, make contact with loss and desire, contain unwanted presences, even confront lingering injustices.(1)

Tell me if you agree or disagree but personally what is more dangerous is when a public space is used as a weapon against memory, as a way to revise or obliterate history, in an attempt to move on or not own up to what a nation and it’s citizens have experienced.

(1) If you liked the quote and this short post then check out the following PDF journal article for more – ‘EMPLACING MEMORY THROUGH THE CITY: THE NEW BERLIN’

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