Last month, the city fathers of Berlin announced their inspired choice of memorial to mark the forthcoming 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On Nov 9, more than 1,000 giant polystyrene dominoes will be toppled along the former route of the concrete barrier that once split the German capital in two.
"We want to knock over the wall once again," said Berlin's mayor, Klaus Wowereit. "This wall of disgrace that divided the city, that brought so much distress to the city, to the families, to the individuals affected." This symbolic re-enactment of that historic day in November 1989, which signalled the end of the Communist DDR and the entire Eastern Bloc, is just one highlight in a packed schedule of anniversary events in Berlin. The city will also host dozens of concerts, art exhibitions, street carnivals and cultural festivals to commemorate the reunification of Germany following four decades of Cold War hostilities.
Berlin has always famously been a magnet for artists, not just from Germany but across the world. Since the fall of the wall, this influx has grown enormously, lured by the city's abnormally low rents and increasingly cool reputation. As cities such as London, Paris and New York have become too expensive for struggling artists, the German capital has swelled with exiled musicians, aspiring authors and low-budget filmmakers.
But art that deals directly with Berlin's divided political past has proved surprisingly elusive during the 20 years since reunification. Older Germans, it seemed, wanted to forget their painful past while youngsters found the wall era increasingly irrelevant to their lives. It took more than a decade before this prickly subject found a sympathetic new audience with films such as Wolfgang Becker's affectionate 2003 comedy Good Bye Lenin! and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's 2006 Oscar winner The Lives of Others.
Previous attempts to depict post-wall Berlin on film, such as Wim Wenders' 1993 drama, Faraway, So Close!, met with a lukewarm reception. It was too soon, the legendary German director claims, and still too raw. "Nobody in the West understood that the West did not exist any more," says Wenders. "We thought the East had stopped existing, and only years later realised that the West had died with the East, because the East had been the definition of the West. And that took a long time."
Many Berliners argue that those old divisions remain a touchy subject today, but the city's cultural celebrations are already underway regardless. A newly opened art gallery in the old East, the DDR Kunst Museum, is currently showing the largest ever collection of paintings and sculptures from the former East Germany. A more official exhibition on the same theme, entitled German Art in the Cold War, opens in Berlin in October - just ahead of the anniversary party.
In February, the annual Berlin Film Festival ran a programme of lost Eastern Bloc classics while the city's prestigious arts complex Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) launched a nine-month programme of anniversary-themed events. They include video installations, photography exhibitions, discussions, book readings and even a recreation of a rave party circa 1989. When warmer weather arrives in May, an outdoor exhibition commemorating events surrounding the wall's collapse will open in Alexanderplatz, the vast concrete plaza that was once East Berlin's showcase municipal hub. Later in the same month there will be a three-day festival and academic forum titled The Revolution of 1989, co-hosted by the German Historical Museum.
Many more artistic events are set to follow throughout summer and autumn, building to a crescendo in November. The Brandenburg Gate, once the iconic symbol of divided Berlin, and the city's gleaming new O2 World arena have already been earmarked to host MTV's Europe Music Awards on Nov 5. "The inaugural MTV Europe Music Awards took place in Berlin in 1994," says MTV's senior vice president, Richard Godfrey, "and we are proud to be invited to return as part of the city's 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall."
Four days later, on the official anniversary of the fall of the wall, the Brandenburg Gate will be the site of another huge street party, including the mass domino toppling. Ironically, a day after this symbolic act of destruction, a newly restored section of the wall will be unveiled on the other side of the city. Dubbed the East Side Gallery, this 1.3km-long concrete artwork was first daubed with more than 100 brightly coloured murals in the chaotic months following the DDR's collapse. The gallery is now being revamped thanks to a 2.2 million (Dh10.6 million) grant from the European Union, various government agencies and the German state lottery.
"We are all lotto winners," laughs Thierry Noir, one of the principle artists behind the East Side Gallery. The French-born Noir moved to Berlin in 1982 and began painting the western side of the wall long before its collapse. His colourful figures and graphics have since become part of the city's cultural fabric, and in 1997 he opened his own gallery (www.galerie-noir.de). Wenders filmed Noir painting a section of the wall in his 1987 classic Wings of Desire, and U2 later commissioned him to customise six boxy East German Trabant cars for their Berlin-themed Achtung Baby album and Zooropa tour.
The troubled history of the East Side Gallery speaks volumes about Berlin's ambivalent attitude towards its post-wall cultural treasures. Several artists who painted its striking murals later spent years in court fighting for legal ownership of their work. Meanwhile, the gallery crumbled into disrepair and fell victim to random vandalism. The current restoration scheme was only finalised late last year, spurred by the approaching 20-year celebrations.
A key problem, Noir argues, is that most young Berliners have little interest in the political or cultural legacy of the Cold War era. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by the city's Free University found that a majority of German schoolchildren do not even know when or why the Wall was built. Half of teenagers in the old East Germany did not even think of the former DDR as a dictatorship. "I think they are bored about all this," says Noir. "Remember when you were 20 or 25 years old, and you heard all those old Second World War stories? I can remember when my parents talked about the war, I was thinking: oh no, not again. It's the same thing, I think."
Another factor behind the anniversary celebrations is the chilly financial climate. Even before Germany fell into its current recession, Berlin's city government was broke, with huge debts and unemployment running close to 20 per cent in some parts of the former DDR. Surveys suggest a quarter of all eastern Germans think life is worse now than it was under communism in 1989, while westerners continue to resent the huge taxes they pay to subsidise their poorer neighbours. After 20 years, relations between the two Germanys are not exactly those of friends reunited but more like a grudging ceasefire.
While Berlin's political elite struggle to find a way of balancing all these competing sensitivities in their anniversary festivities, some of the city's cultural landmarks face possible demolition to make way for new shopping malls and office blocks. Currently battling for survival is Tacheles, a former East Berlin department store that was taken over by an anarchic collective of artists during the post-wall free-for-all. The building is now a much-loved arts complex incorporating galleries, bars, cinemas and an open-air sculpture park.
Unfortunately, the Tacheles site has also blossomed into prime real estate since German reunification. The property company that owns it recently went into receivership, and the charitable foundation running the complex is now struggling to raise more than 3.5 million (Dh17 million) to protect it from compulsory auction. A bitter legal battle seems increasingly likely, which may just sour November's anniversary cheer.
With Berlin's artistic underground under threat, dissenting voices have inevitably been raised against the official cultural events marking the wall's 20th anniversary. The city's English-language magazine ExBerliner is currently running a Save Berlin campaign (www.exberliner.net) aimed at protecting the capital's grungy, edgy identity from creeping gentrification. The brain behind the campaign is Dan Borden, an exiled New Yorker who fears Berlin is facing the same kind of profit-driven urban regeneration that has transformed Manhattan.
"Berlin is unique," Borden argues. "It has this edgy quality, but they want to sand down the rough edges and smooth out the bumps. My point is, when the government is trying to do that, you need someone at the other end who is generating more of these rough edges." The Save Berlin campaigners are inviting Berliners to submit artworks, grand schemes and "urban interventions" to help prevent the city from becoming what they call a "sanitised Euro-capital". These will form the basis of an exhibition in November, a kind of irreverent rival to the official 20th anniversary celebrations.
"Germans are very ambivalent about those events and that whole history," says Borden. "But we think of ourselves as an antidote, we're not looking back so much as looking forward to the next 20 years. Berlin is a place where a thousand brilliant ideas are born every night. We're asking these creative people, who have come here from all over the world, to give us these ideas and we will give them a home. Everyone has great, crazy ideas. Let's at least give them a public airing."
East versus West, past versus future, art versus commerce, mainstream versus underground; even today, 20 years after the fall of the wall, it seems Berlin is still a divided city.