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9.9.2011

In the Company of Spies

Welcome Address to the Film Series "The Celluloid Curtain. Europe´s Cold War in Film"

From the tense to the absurdly grotesque, from the gripping action-packed spectacle to the reflective drama, films that have been forgotten but are absolutely must-see examples of the genre have, after a long absence, been brought back to the screen in the series "The Celluloid Curtain. Europe's Cold War in Film".

"You are Leaving the American Sector": Sign at border crossing "Checkpoint Charlie". (Still from video on film series)

Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen...

I join with our previous, much respected speaker in bidding you welcome to our film series: "The Celluloid Curtain. Europe's Cold War in Film". It is for me an enormous pleasure to see you all here in the Zeughauskino, the Armoury Cinema, to make a short trip back through time, back to a world which increasingly threatens to slip from Germany´s collective political and cultural memory. It's fifty years, a full half century, since the rulers of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) gave the order to erect a concrete wall, 150 kilometres long, through the heart of Berlin. Thereafter, the people of the GDR were decisively caged in behind watch-towers, dog patrols and minefields, which jeopardised the lives of every one of them; and so began the most painful period of the division of Germany, which lasted until 1989.

In all, several hundred people died making desperate attempts to cross the GDR's borders and escape to the West. According to the Centre for Contemporary Historical Research in Potsdam (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam), at least 136 of those were either shot or otherwise lost their lives directly because of the way the GDR controlled its borders. And because no régime fears its citizens' quest for freedom as much as does the totalitarian, a paranoid suspicion that everyone was a potential traitor hung over the entire country.

The horrifying figures I've just mentioned tell another startling tale: based on the total number of people in the country, the GDR Ministry for State Security was by 1989 maintaining a ratio of one full-time member of staff for every 180 head of population: this was the biggest security apparatus in world history! We are still today working through all the documents they left behind. Just imagine: immediately before the re-unification of Germany, the Stasi employed 91 thousand full-time workers and over 174 thousand unofficial collaborators – that's to say, informants. In total, that's more than the current population of a large city like Augsburg or Chemnitz. So we can with justification say that spying and surveillance went into overdrive; and they weren't only directed at domestic critics of the régime. What also excited attention was anything that had to do with socialism's ideological arch-enemies abroad: the USA, NATO member states, the Federal Republic.

The West was hardly less active in spying on its political adversaries on the other side of the now proverbial Iron Curtain. For this psychological metaphor, given physically concrete shape by Winston Churchill when he described it as stretching "from the Baltic to the Mediterranean", this 'curtain' was not entirely opaque. Berlin, where it was perhaps most densely woven, was crawling with spies, who time and again twitched it aside: agents of West Germany's BND, the Federal Security Service, not to mention their colleagues in the CIA and MI6. In the middle of the last century, this pulsating city, still divided into its four post-war sectors, was the indisputable centre of espionage in Europe. Here the Americans and the British conceived 'Operation Gold', the cover name for a tunnel to be dug from West into East Berlin, so they could tap into the Russians' military telephone network; here also they set up the celebrated spy swaps on the Glienicke Bridge. But the most famous symbol of the Cold War locally, and the one which established itself in the minds of people everywhere, was the former border crossing point at 'Checkpoint Charlie'. And as someone who speaks for the Civic Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, abbr: bpb), it´s a symbol that is still very much alive: a year ago, we moved our Berlin operation into new offices right beside the old checkpoint, which is now a favourite tourist destination for people from all over the world. The world-famous sign with its warning in four languages "You are now leaving the American Sector" – hangs in our entrance hall, a reminder to all of us at the bpb that we must be committed to making the story of the Cold War one of the continuing subjects of our work.

This story, which only narrowly avoided sliding into a nuclear catastrophe during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, can be also read as code for the relationship between the two Germanies, and at the same time, as a sounding board for each side´s perceptions of the other. The stereotypes that over time became fixed in our collective consciousness are nowhere better exemplified than in the cultural arena. And especially in popular culture, where above all the cinema, with its high-profile position in 20th century media, took on a dominant role. Anyone who has seen one of the earlier James Bond films, will think they have good idea what life was like in the countries of the Warsaw Pact: grey, joyless, highly militarised, closely monitored. Conversely, the authorities in the East at that time had a penchant for showing westerners to their cinema-goers as indecisive, self indulgent and backsliding: unscrupulous tycoons and decadent hedonists. Spy thrillers once took precisely this broad-brush ideological approach, and so offered a clear picture of the stereotypical images of the Cold War. It only needs a quick glance through cinema history or at the films featured in the "Celluloid Curtain" programme, to see how diverse and intertwined the connexions are between the historical and political activities of real-life spies and the way their missions are shown on the big screen. Take For Eyes Only – Streng geheim, which is being shown the day after tomorrow: the plot is based on the true story of the Stasi spy, Horst Hesse...but it's freely dramatised and so becomes a resource for portraying a particular world-view. Hesse is turned into a committed fighter for the socialist cause, Hansen by name, who succeeds through cunning and skill in getting hold of covert western plans to attack the GDR – plans, which incidentally have never so far been substantiated. There are many similar examples: a few years back, the former GDR spy Rainer Rupp claimed in the news magazine Der Spiegel that on one occasion, information he sent back home prevented a nuclear war. His code-name was 'Topaz', emulating Alfred Hitchcock's 1969 spy thriller of the same name.

It´s indisputable that the names Hitchcock and Bond have had a formative influence on the history of the spy film. But the films selected for inclusion in "The Celluloid Curtain" demonstrate the diverse nature of the genre, which goes far beyond mere Martini-sipping gentleman spies. From the tense to the absurdly grotesque, from the gripping action-packed spectacle to the reflective drama, films that have been forgotten but are absolutely must-see examples of the genre are now back on the screen after a long absence. The Federal Agency for Civic Education has in the past learnt from experience that films are not just an audio-visual memory aid, but also – above all for young people – a means of opening the door to political and historical trains of thought. So it was our especial objective to provide a companion programme of schoolwork alongside the film programme, as well as a panel discussion involving experts in the field. And I would draw your attention in this respect to the bookstall in the foyer, where you will find a number of relevant publications from the bpb, which, I'm sure, will act as a stimulus to further reading.

At this point, I want to express my profound gratitude to our partners in "The Celluloid Curtain" project, in particular to its creator and director, Claudia Amthor-Croft, of the Goethe-Institute in London. Thanks are due also to Jörg Friess, the head of the Zeughaus cinema here in Berlin, which is so kindly hosting the film programme and which has also, together with the Film Section of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, arranged the discussion and information elements in the project. We have been working successfully and very happily with both these institutions for many years, as also with EUNIC, the European Union National Institutes for Culture, which has given us active support in locating copies of the films and helping with sub-titles.

Ladies and Gentleman, the spy is the obverse, as it were, of the 'see-through citizen': the monitored, watched-over citizen, his privacy invaded by those who 'need to know' what he's up to. But the spy is still in certain respects an icon of our time, except that we now live in the age of the Internet, and no longer need technically sophisticated gadgetry in order to get information. We have search engines and social networks – Google and Facebook – to do that job. As WikiLeaks has so impressively shown, revelations on a grand scale are now made online. Today, spies sit behind a desk and a computer rather than slinking in camouflage gear through the fogbound night across dangerous terrain. So sit back and immerse yourselves in another age, when things were different – at least according to the escapist world of the cinema. I wish success to "The Celluloid Curtain"; and to all of us, a thought-provoking experience. Enjoy the programme!

Thank you so much.
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