- Something to do with the Wall
In 1961, the German Democratic Republic erected the Berlin Wall to prevent East Berliners from fleeing to freedom into West Berlin. In its time, the Wall was the latest incarnation of the Cold War, which pitted the Communist bloc against the “free world” following the Allied victory in World War II. It would go on to become one of the century’s most potent symbols of tyranny and oppression.
Twenty-five years later, in 1986, filmmaker Ross McElwee attended a film festival in Berlin to present his acclaimed new documentary Sherman’s March. The breakthrough film had just won the top award at Sundance, and [End Page 90] has since been characterized as a prime promulgator of one noted form of the “personal documentary” film, now typified by the work of Alan Berliner, Judith Helfand, Roberta Solomon, Doug Block and others. With Sherman’s March, North Carolinian McElwee had actually strayed from his original intention of documenting Southern sensibilities along the route of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s infamous “March to the Sea.” Abandoned by his girlfriend before shooting began, the film became, instead, a journey of self-discovery, through what some have called a wistful “camera as phallus” exploration of relationships with various women along the way. Something to Do with the Wall, his next film, also strayed far from its original intent, moved by forces both personal and historical.
During the festival, McElwee was so struck by the Wall that he returned, just a few months later, to film this Cold War icon. The trip would mark his first major collaboration—with his new girlfriend, fellow filmmaker Marilyn Levine—and would also become a journey that would force the pair to confront their preconceived notions about East-West tensions, as they documented the Wall’s 25th anniversary. McElwee and Levine returned to the United States with their footage, and took their time completing the film, as they tended to their marriage, the death of a parent, and the birth of a son, in addition to their academic duties. After all, they reasoned, the Wall wasn’t going anywhere, was it?
They finally finished the film three years later, but just days before the first print was to be struck, the Wall did go somewhere—into the dustbin of history. How do you re-fashion a film whose basic premise is literally being torn down? In McElwee’s case, the answer was to pack up his family and return to the “scene of the crime,” trying to find his original interviewees and adding some provocative new ones, then quickly return to the editing suite. The task was so daunting that a joke circulated around the documentary community: Question: Who were the only three people to be sadden by dismantling of the Berlin Wall? Answer: Ross McElwee, Marilyn Levine, and (East German leader) Erich Honeker.
The first part of the film chronicles, in a series of brief portraits, life near the wall a few years before it crumbled. Many of the vignettes are cartoonish: a Berliner offers snarky criticisms of Americans, evangelists from the American South tell Communists that “Jesus Loves You,” US businessmen laugh about the depredations on the other side of the wall, and hooligan protesters pester long suffering East German police, just because they can. But there is plenty of wheat - characters with more depth – among the chaff. The more thoughtful interviews include a small boy and his father living in a camper near the Wall, a husband-and-wife team of radio-show hosts who left East Berlin before the Wall went up, and a man ruminating on the separation the Wall has wrought on his family. A magazine photographer and a protest artist or two make appearances, as does a very ordinary fellow—a former POW in the United States—whose apartment overlooks the Wall and who [End Page 91] wants to practice his English. Especially compelling is an elderly American peace activist who presciently challenged onlookers to...