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Stasi, Spionage und Showbusiness in Berlin 2019

students standing in front of the remains of the Berlin Wall

In the very wee hours of the morning, the Berlin trip departed from Wyke Sixth Form College for 4 very full days of history, culture, participation in the Berlinale film festival and German language!  17 students, largely from the German and Film departments and 2 staff enjoyed a veritable smorgasbord of activities throughout the week and fell into bed exhausted every night, after averaging 22,000 steps each day!

On the first day we ascended the Berliner Fernsehturm, the tallest building in Europe. In the 1960s, the GDR government arranged to have the TV Tower built at its current location, with the aim of demonstrating the strength and efficiency of the socialist system in mind.  Today the Tower defines the silhouette of Germany’s capital city – a symbol of the reunified Germany, just like the Brandenburg Gate. We also saw a very moving Japanese film called ’37 seconds,’ which followed the struggles of a 23 year-old woman with cerebral palsy as she navigates the world of work and sexual relations. A real eye-opener, providing food for thought for all.

The next day we all visited the highly informative DDR museum, a vast treasure trove of East German artefacts and memorabilia with real insights into life behind the iron curtain. A well-balanced experience, the museum described the underbelly of socialism – how the elite, whilst preaching equality for all, creamed off the luxury goods, had private healthcare and escaped to secret holiday destinations.  The students experienced life in a Stasi prison cell and the lack of creature comforts in the Plattenbauten (GDR concrete apartment blocks). On the other hand the interactive displays described a happy life under socialism – where nature was appreciated, sport was encouraged and a feeling of community was engendered.  Because of the shortage of basic goods and the lack of choice, materialistic consumption was not an issue and people enjoyed sharing with one another, camaraderie and building a life for the greater good.  After time for shopping and eating, which all thoroughly embraced, we headed over to the Zoo Palast for our second film screening, namely ‘Bulbul can sing,’ an Indian European premiere about 3 teenagers on the verge of adulthood.  The experience of first love puts them under the pressure of high expectations and strict moral codes of the villagers, resulting in tragic consequences.  Students gained a real insight into the cultural differences across the globe, especially when the director appeared live on stage to do Q&A.  We also found time to pay our respects to the victims of the terrorist attacks of 2016 when a truck drove through the Berlin Christmas market outside the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtnis-Kirche, a bombed church, deliberately left in its post-war ruined state to act as a daily reminder of the horrors of war.  In the evening, after a delicious curry, we had an audio tour of the Reichstag, the German houses of parliament which had previously been burnt down during Hitler’s reign and had been re-built with a glass dome by architect Norman Foster, enabling one to look down on the government when they are in session, the idea being that the people are ‘above’ the government. Germany’s aim was to create an open building where politics are ‘transparent’ and not hidden, unlike those of the Nazi era. On the return to the hotel, we happened upon a very lively German busker who was keen to indulge their requests – I shall never hear John Denver’s ‘Take me home, country roads’ again without reflecting on how our jolly bunch sang and danced along!

The third day saw us split into 2 groups, in which film students went to see an American teen film about the disappearance and subsequent death of a schoolgirl. The film bordered on experimental and was reported as being somewhat absurd, with the events driving the inhabitants into a nightmare of angst and suddenly revealing strange personal details about themselves. Students found it quite quirky yet sinister, however they appreciated the creativity of the director in her use of bizarre visuals.

The German and history contingent spent the morning meandering down the Bernauer Strasse, a famous ‘memorial street’ which was cleaved in half overnight as the Berlin Wall was constructed. Locals jumped out of their windows to avoid being trapped in the GDR, some being caught in blankets held outstretched by the West German fire brigade. Many of these horrifying escape attempts ended in death and the street tells the poignant stories of many individuals who did not escape unscathed, serving simultaneously as a museum and memorial. The tall visitor centre enabled us all to look at a preserved section of the Todesstreife (death strip) with its bleak watchtowers and barbed wire fencing.  In the afternoon we ventured to the East Side Gallery, the last remaining section of the Wall, 1.3km in length, upon which political / controversial art is exhibited.  Students really enjoyed interpreting the meaning of said art and graffiti, for instance where Honecker is kissing Brezhnev, in a supposedly fraternal gesture of friendship, although many view it as satirical.  Later we all reconvened to visit the Holocaust memorial and to reflect on the horrors and magnitude of the suffering of the Jews under the Nazi regime. The memorial consists of 2711 concrete pillars of varying heights erected on a slope, with the ground underneath undulating.  As you walk deeper into the memorial, the blocks become taller, shutting out the light and you easily become disoriented. Many students experienced uncertainty, a feeling of oppression, a sense of giddiness and felt that the smoothness of the concrete left no way of vertical escape. A moving plenary followed this.  We watched our penultimate film screening at the rather glamorous Haus der Kulturen der Welt which was ‘Guo Chun Tian’, a Chinese film about a teen smuggling iphones across the Hong Kong border, in a bid for independence and to raise money for a long-desired trip abroad. We experienced the ups and downs of the girl’s emotions and experiences and most enjoyed the insight into the people who commute daily between Mainland China and Hong Kong. The subsequent Q&A with the director and main stars was riveting and provided some great tips for budding filmmakers, such as our students!  We then sauntered to the fabulous Lindenbräu restaurant in the impressive Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz where we all gorged on some very tasty and satisfying Bavarian fare.

Our final day saw us heading to Checkpoint Charlie, a famous crossing point on the Berlin Wall and was accompanied by a trip to the Mauermuseum there: Haus am Checkpoint Charlie where gruesome stories and documents describe attempts to escape over, under or through the Berlin wall; many of which were near misses.  In the afternoon we split off again with the German students delving into the very strange world of global secret service organisations at the interactive Spionage Museum.  Upon discovering an early German enigma machine and other gadgets utilised by secret agents, I fear our students were a little too keen to join MI6! They rather overlooked the whole ‘risking your life’ element and assassinations by Bulgarian umbrella.  The film students were meanwhile watching a screening of ‘We are little zombies’, a tale of 4 orphaned Japanese children and their lives after the deaths of their parents, involving a good dose of tragedy, comedy and social criticism, as they start a rock band together.   Finally, after a hearty lunch and final chance to spend our remaining Euros in the Arkaden at Potsdamer Platz, we hefted our luggage back to Schoenefeld airport in readiness for our return flight to Manchester. We were back at Wyke at 0100 on Friday morning, exhausted but uplifted.

The trip participants were absolute an absolute pleasure to lead around Berlin. Punctual, organised, enthusiastic and at all times respectful – even waiters commented on their politeness and overall comportment.  They soaked up all the experiences offered to them, asked pertinent questions and were cautiously adventurous. Harvi and I thoroughly enjoyed our time with them – they were a delight, keenly trying out new foods and Berlin specialities.  Have any of you tried Currywurst, a Spezi, Kaiserschmarren, Gulasch mit Knödel und Rotkraut, a proper Turkish Döner or a KiBa? Go on. I dare you.

 

Heather Lorch

Teacher of German