Berlin's Film Museum brings not only a new look at German cinema, it contributes to a reconceptualization of its home, the Potsdamer Platz.
Arts life: Berlin
Berlin's Film Museum is situated in a transparent glass building overlooking the Sony Center, a semi-enclosed promenade of restaurants, shops, offices and an IMAX-equipped cinema multiplex. It is a space outside of history. But this garish commercial wonderland - blocks from the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate - is only the most recent of many makeovers for Potsdamer Platz, the busiest city square in Europe before it was levelled by Allied bombs in the Second World War.
Last week, the museum's Arsenal cinema presented a series on the psychology of Potsdamer Platz. The disjunction between the museum's aesthetic artefacts (and its film programme) and the Sony Center spoke volumes about how quickly this city remakes itself. This exhibition of Germany's national cinema is a reminder of past beauty as well as horrors. The museum's interactive permanent collection begins with the idea that cinema may have originated in Berlin when the Sklandowsky brothers premiered a celluloid from their Bioskop camera in 1895, perhaps a month before the Lumiere brothers did the same thing in Paris. But the Sklandowskys' camera was less practical than that of the Frenchmen, and history granted the crown of discovery to the brothers Lumiere.
But even if Germany isn't the centre of world cinema, the Film Museum makes a strong case that Hollywood's golden age was sustained by the infusion of artistic exiles from the Weimar Republic and, later, Nazi Germany. In the silent era, Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari showcased the dark, jagged lines of German expressionism, while Ernst Lubitsch experimented with the romantic comedy formula that would later be labelled the "Lubitsch touch". Fritz Lang's Metropolis, to which the museum devotes an entire room, may be the most influential science-fiction film ever made. Major directors would make their way to Hollywood even before literary giants such as Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann followed them into the sunshine.
The Film Museum reserves its most impartial swooning for the elegant Marlene Dietrich. Though she is forever associated with Hollywood, the German Dietrich spoke her English lines phonetically in her first American film, Morocco. That she was nominated for an Academy Award anyway speaks to her ineffable star power. After the innovative Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl is given her checkered due, the museum charts the decline of cinema in Hitler's Germany, when programming was given over to crude propaganda films.
Later on, the museum pays tribute to the resurgent new German cinema of the 1970s. Visitors can preview films by Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta while ogling Brigitte Mira's colourful dress from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Wim Wenders' handwritten notes from Alice in the Cities. But the grandest revelation is downstairs in the Arsenal cinema, where Wenders' Wings of Desire (Der Himmel uber Berlin) screened in the Potsdamer Platz film series. Though the film, which was rapturously received around the world when it opened in 1987, is perhaps the quintessential modern epic of Berlin, I had always found its poetic ruminations ponderous and slow. But revisited in the context of 100 years of Berlin cinema, Wenders' haunting city symphony gained existential weight.
The film, which follows two angels who hover over the divided city a few years before reunification, uses the Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry as a backdrop and speaks of a child's clarity of vision. "When the child was just a child, it was the time of many questions: Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here and why not there?" By eavesdropping on Berliners on the precipice of 1989's "end of history", it imagines a universe where deep philosophical concerns spring from the mind of every stranger on the U-Bahn.
Perhaps the film's most plaintive image finds an older scholar walking in the no-man's-land along the Berlin Wall, wondering what happened to all the children, "the curious ones" who would sit at his feet in search of knowledge. The man eventually collapses in a chair, realising that he no longer knows how to find Potsdamer Platz. In the perspective of Wings of Desire, finding oneself lost in the midst of historical upheaval is both a terrifying and exciting prospect. It's also, at least in this past century, the story of Berlin.