The Burning Wall
review by Elias Savada, 5 March 2004

The Burning Wall, which had a one-week run at the Avalon Theatre in Northwest Washington, DC, in late January, takes the splitting of Germany in the aftermath of World War II and puts a cinematic face on it. Ultimately, it's a happy one, with the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989. Yet for four decades the cold war erected the now dissolved German Democratic Republic (for those who flunked geography: East Germany), fashioned a communist regime that ultimately monitored five-and-one-half million people (about a third of its population), and mounted a terror state that destroyed too many dissident minds, bodies, and souls. More a grand and sprawling historical artifact than a documentary with a cinematic edge, here is a conventional yet engrossing piece that molds a complex number of issues into an understandable educational effort.

Director-writer Hava Kovah Beller, a German-born, Israeli-raised, but long-time New York resident, a dozen years ago made The Restless Conscience: Resistance to Hitler Within Germany 1933-1945, an Oscar-nominated feature. As before, she has done solid, exhaustive researching, and determinedly relates her non-fictional drama using a massive amount of still photographs, moving images (including newsreels and government films), and talking heads. (Some of the shots also appear in Good Bye, Lenin!, Wolfgang Becker's award-winning sweet social comedy surrounding the collapse of the Berlin Wall.)

Over most of the film's nearly two-hour length, the GDR is on trial nearly every minute, particularly in its persecution of Robert Havemann, a German intellectual who joined the Communist Party a year before Hitler's rise to power, was subsequently imprisoned by the Nazis for his political leanings (but convinced the authorities of his value as a scientist to their cause, and then, secretly, did his best to sabotage the war materiel he helped create), and ultimately arrested by the totalitarian state in 1973 on charges of conspiracy to commit treason. The abusive police organization that operated at the behest of the GDR and its communist leaders was the STASI, which operated with immunity under party general secretary Erich Honecker as it conducted surveillance, psychological warfare, and other dirty, rotten things in destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of German citizens.

Beller moves her study along in mostly chronological order: the ashes of the Great War, the splitting of Germany following the Potsdam Conference; the East German hope of a new social order; the Berlin work strike of June 1953, the first open protest in the Soviet Bloc; the rise of the East German dictatorship; the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian independence attempt; the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961; the Czech reform movement; etc. The segment on the Wall's construction and early years recalls all those past, horrifying documentaries, where escape attempts too often resulted in a fatal shot in the back or the agony of becoming enmeshed in a mass of barbed wire. Thousands perished over the course of the Wall's existence.

Among those interviewed include: GŁnter Grass, revealing how he became a Hitler Youth at 15; Pastor Ehrhart Neubert, who couldn't fathom his father's political convictions; actress Corinna Harfouch talking about childhood indoctrination; songwriter Bettina Wegner talks of the constant surveillance and harassment by STASI and the effect it had on her family; Czech leader Vaclav Havel and former West German president Richard von Weizsacker provide political insight from within the higher circles of leadership. One of the most damning appearances is made by a former operative within STASI and the horrifying tactics he used in the name of the dictator state.

The Burning Wall may not have the glorified style of an Errol Morris film, yet not a frame of film is wasted in telling its story of lives tortured, drugged, humiliated, and terrorized by fascist, pro-communist ideology. Of heroes one day, traitors the next. This extended history lesson about an era in German history is more than a dummie's lesson about the moral and political post-WWII struggles that was the rise, and eventual fall, of the GDR.

Written and
Directed by:

Hava Kohav Beller

Starring:
Vaclav Havel
Wolf Biermann
Corinna Harfouch
Richard von Weizsacker
Gunter Grass
Pastor Ehrhart Neubert
Reiner Kunze
Jurgen Fuchs
Bettina Wegner

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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