In the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, photographer Arwed Messmer and author Annett Groschner began research on a project focusing on one street – Gleimstrasse – that had been bisected by the divide. While researching photographs of East German border guards they came across several rolls of developed, yet unprinted, 35mm film stored in Potsdam’s Intermediate Military Archive. The negatives showed a series of utterly prosaic horizontal shots – from the East – of the Wall that could, it seemed, be displayed so as to form panoramic views of their subject. This, though, was no Mexican Suitcase moment – and the two left the material undisturbed, it being merely tangential to their project.
But the pictures must have made their mark, for 13 years later, Messmer and Groschner returned to the cache (now housed in the German Federal Archives, Koblenz) to reinterpret its contents as part of an extensive exploration of the Wall, as experienced from the East. The Other View – The Early Berlin Wall is a comprehensive and compelling presentation of their work, incorporating the 35mm trove, maps, documentation of escapes and attempts, photographic records of watchtowers, ‘crime’ scenes and personnel, incident reports, and even written commendations from the Border Regiments’ Book of Honor.
The Wall photographs were nearly all made in 1966 by soldiers from East German border patrols who had been instructed by the Berlin City Command to document the 44 kilometre perimeter in order to facilitate its upkeep and improvement. Under ‘normal’ circumstances such photography was strictly forbidden and punishable; the 1966 images remained classified and, presumably, neglected until the fall of the East German state.
If popular imagination now conjures an insurmountable Wall of relentless, graffitied concrete, it is worth studying some of the stretches pictured here. On inspection the early ‘Wall’ comprised ditches, fences, dog lanes, humps, tank traps, watchtowers and more besides. There were certainly no Eastern graffiti artists at work in the mid-60’s. In fact, as an essay by Olaf Briese makes clear, the Wall was constantly evolving – to the extent that six ‘generations’ of its presence can be identified: the border was initially sealed by people, soldiers; then barbed wire was used, yet it remained vulnerable to vehicles; next came an ad hoc assembly of bricks, blocks, beams and more wire; then front and hinterland walls were built to enclose an illuminated ‘death strip’; and so on.
Messmer’s achievement is not just to have made some kind of topographical sense of the negatives – they are presented here, in sequence, with maps detailing the vantage points from which they were taken – but to have reinterpreted them so as to activate their dormant potential, while still retaining an abiding sense of their original function. To be clear, only in part do the frames made by patrolling soldiers in 1966 resemble Messmer’s panoramas. These new vistas are digital constructs that stitch together, crop and match, the original photographs. In their present state they owe as much to the technical advances of Photoshop as they do to the security anxieties of the GDR’s Communist Party.
The photographs are further enhanced by the banal, paranoid – always unmoved – incident reports that accompany them: we know that by the Spree’s Brommybrucke a man in an Opel Kapitan used binoculars to observe the security arrangements, making notes in a small book; an American soldier at the Checkpoint Charlie barracks held up a photo (25 x 30cm, we’re told) of a nude; and, near the junction of Bernauer and Wolliner Strasses, a demolition worker on the East called from a first floor window, ‘Mama’. Immediately ordered to leave, he wept and said, ‘Can’t you see that that is my mother?’
The Other View represents one of the most considered and ambitious archival projects of recent years (and there have been a few). Its clarity, its utilitarian aspect and its refusal to emote are wholly in keeping with its origins. As such, you might say it forms an essential ideological and photographic counterpoint to the poetics and solipsism of other Wall projects – perhaps the authors could have named their work Berlin in the Time of Ulbricht…?
The Other View – The Early Berlin Wall
Edited by Annett Gröschner, Arwed Messmer
Essays by Greg Bond, Olaf Briese, Florian Ebner, Matthias Flügge, Annett Gröschner, Arwed Messmer
752 pp., 552 ills., 23 in color