Last Summer I had the privilege of working on a movie that filmed in Budapest, Vienna, Amsterdam and Berlin. While I was spending most of my time working, I made the most of the free time that I had.
During one of my days off in Berlin, after partaking in some of the usual touristy fare, such as Checkpoint Charlie, a bus tour and the Berlin Wall, I found myself wandering through an old former East Berlin neighborhood. While researching for my book, I delved into the films and writing of the great Werner Herzog. Of course I’ve always been a Herzog fan, finding films like Grizzly Man both tragic and profound, and Encounters at the End of the World hauntingly beautiful and sublime. But on this day I was thinking about something that Herzog had said about filming the Truth (he used a capital T). He posited that so often, documentary filmmakers are like tourists, “documenting” where they have been, but failing to develop a real relationship with the places they seek to portray. Instead, he opted for a “journey on foot” in search of the sublime.
I found Checkpoint Charlie (as well as some of the other popular sites in Berlin) to be so, well touristy, to the point that I realized it was impossible to get a photo of anything without scores of other tourists taking selfies and posing with the fake American military guards in the shot, a McDonalds clearly visible in the background, and all manner of trinkets being sold. I was somewhat appalled by the fact that a spot of such historical significance could be so easily reduced to a scene perhaps more typical of Hollywood Blvd or Disneyland than Europe. Perhaps this is what Herzog was getting at when he chastised his fellow filmmakers for acting like tourists. The Checkpoint Charlie photograph almost seems as if it is a sort of prize, to prove that one has been there, and to take back home as proof. But is there any real relationshop to the place when it is treated like this?
In contemplating all this, I decided to leave the tour bus and strike out on my own, looking for that “journey on foot” experience. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon and very peaceful, as I crossed the Spree River and headed towards the old GDR, East Germany. On the way I passed a lot of pop-up and temporary art installations, for example there was one about JFK’s visit to Berlin (no photos allowed). Inside were copies of his speeches, a small theater playing his speech to Berlin on a loop, and even his old leather briefcase.
Upon further exploration, I stopped at a coffee shop and found perhaps the best cup of coffee I’ve had over my three plus months in Europe. The place was called The Barn, with light roasts, perfect pour overs, and tiny little wooden chairs to sit in on the street. I regret not getting a pound of coffee beans to take home.
Next door I sat down for a lunch consisting of buffalo mozzarella and talked with the staff about the neighborhood. It was historically Jewish, but of course persecuted during the war, and home to the oldest pre-war remaining synagogue in Berlin. The waitress said she works for the restaurant part time to save up for travel, and her next trip will be to Israel.
After having spent all day among crowds, it was nice to simply sit, drink a cup of coffee, have some lunch and talk to some locals.
I believe it was Stalin who famously said that one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. The mood at the various memorials that I had visited earlier, while profound, informative, and well done, seemed to push one’s experience of Berlin towards the latter, the experience of being told about all these statistics, while the sense of tragedy, the real sense of tragedy, seemed to be, at least for me, somehow lost.
After lunch I started to notice that some of the cobblestones were shiny. Eventually I stopped to look at one of these shiny bricks, and discovered that all along the streets of this Jewish district in East Berlin were small, probably brass memorials, with the name of a deportee, date of birth, deportation and death engraved on them.
Just prior to my discovery of these little plaques all over the streets, I had been listening to a street violinist perform across the way, while children were playing nearby. These streets were so full of life, which seemed and does seem so natural to us, so easy and free, yet there was a time in history, not that long ago, when that life was being squelched out by evil human beings.
The juxtaposition of all that life − the violinist, the bike riders, the patrons of the coffee shop, the young waitress saving up for a trip to Israel, a young boy with a toy bike and a pacifier in his mouth, so natural and beautiful − with these small, silent memorials underneath my feet moved me to tears. These are not statistics, these are two real human lives. May we never forget Henriette Arnhold and David Guter.
Perhaps getting lost on foot for a few hours and ending up here was what I really needed that day. In spite of everything that happened in and around this place, life springs anew, and the smell of the coffee, the sound of children at play, and the friendliness of the residents reminded me that every moment of peace is a gift.