In the immediate wake of the collapse of European communism many cities, Berlin in particular, chose to quickly eradicate any evidence of the regimes of the former Soviet block as they chose to embrace western democratic free-market capitalism. As recently as June 22nd, 2008 The Observer newspaper reported that a number of prominent former presidents, foreign ministers and ambassadors – including Mikhail Gorbachev and Vaclav Havel have called for the opening of a Cold War museum in Berlin. A particular example is in the former ‘Death Strip’ or ‘No Man’s Land’ that existed on the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall. While the wall was deconstructed and used mainly for road building the site of the wall and the strip was left largely vacant until recently, when property developers have started to reclaim the area.
Nothing Human is Alien to Me considers depictions of the Cold War both current and past and how this complex political stand-off was represented; focusing specifically on John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. This was possibly the first western account of the Cold War that depicted both sides as duplicitous and largely detached from the ideological positions they outwardly maintained.
In 1964 a film adaptation was directed by Martin Ritt – who had been black-listed from Hollywood during the McCarthy era in the 1950’s. Both book and film open with a double agent unsuccessfully trying to cross the border at Checkpoint Charlie. Interestingly, this opening scene was filmed in Smithfield Market Dublin. Smithfield Market was presumably chosen as made for a cheap location where Berlin border could be reconstructed convincingly. Ironically the area is now in the midst of another architectural transformation as half of the square has been re-developed to accommodate the massive construction of up-market apartments and a number of hotels. The other half retains the council houses that have long populated the square.
In Nothing Human is Alien to Me the complexities of a hugely impacting historical socio-political scenario are contrasted with the current real estate driven shift in the demographics of city centres throughout Europe. The opening sequences of the film show a number of locations in the centre of Berlin as they currently appear. Some, such as Potsdammer Platz, have been radically re-developed since 1989, some are in the process of being altered while others are as they were left – still showing signs of the DDR such as the base of a prefabricated office at the Bornholmer Bridge. These locations have all been shot on a 1960’s Bolex 16mm camera using black and white stock. This is the exact manner in which the construction of the wall was recorded in 1961 as illustrated by the surviving footage on show at the Berlin Wall museum. These are inter-cut with colour photographs taken of the Wall throughout its 28 year history as well as a number of photographs of the sites in disrepair taken by the artist when living as a student in the city in the early 1990’s. These sequences have been shot on colour digital film.
By using an outmoded means of recording to portray the contemporary settings and the most contemporary means of presenting the historical settings the film considers the complexities of depicting convoluted and multi-layered political conflicts. A common assumption is that history becomes clarified through the benefit of hindsight. Nonetheless, each generation re-writes the past according to, and as a means ofjustifying, the ideological standing and viewpoints of the time. As countless reappraisals of the 20th Century are published each month perhaps we are less equipped to clearly evaluate the situation now than 50 years ago when the political landscape had roots that are no longer present in the 21st Century.
The pivotal shot in Nothing Human is Alien to Me takes place in Smithfield Market. The camera – positioned at the location of the border as depicted in Martin Ritt’s film looks to what represents East Germany in the film. We can see a number of derelict buildings and a Eurospar. As the camera pans to the right we see a line of corporation houses and finally the ‘Market Café’, the long standing market dining outlet on the square, now closed. As the camera makes a 180 degree turn we see the new up-market apartments and finally – directly across from the ‘Market Café’ the camera rests on the ‘Good Food Supermarket’. An organic supermarket recently opened to cater for the requirements of the new apartment residents.
The final shots of the film focus on the former lights that shone over the Berlin Wall to prevent people escaping from the East to the West of Berlin. Still powered by the cities electricity mains they flicker on and off over the soon to be developed No Man’s Land.