Mauerpark, a documentary film by Dennis Karsten about Berlin’s most-visited Sunday hang-out, premiered last week at the Achtung Berlin Film Festival of new films about, and produced in Berlin. Filmed in the summer of 2009, with a Panasonic Gh1 camera that allows to selectively leave certain parts of the frame out of focus, Karsten’s film is a beautiful homage to Berlin’s subculture and its eccentric, creative, and talented outsiders.
The alternative scene that until a few years ago used to live and prosper in Prenzlauer Berg has been driven out by gentrification and the rising costs of living. Mauerpark is its last remaining stronghold. Yet, as the film shows, not without a slight hint of nostalgia (particularly in light of the currently uncertain future of Tacheles), its carefree days may also be numbered.
A former green space in the no-man’s-land of division, Mauerpark used to be part of the death strip along the Berlin Wall, and featured one of the viewing platforms, from which West Berliners could look over the wall into East Berlin. Before the War, the area was the site of a former rail terminus, the Nordbahnhof. Few traces remain, apart from the railway embankment at the north end of the park. The Wall ran down the center of the former rail yard, splitting it in two. The area which remained in West Berlin was rented out to various companies as storage yards. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the former death strip was designated as a public park. Thus the Mauerpark is a post-reunification phenomenon, and its popularity has increased to an unprecedented degree in the last 2-3 years.
An alternative, yet family-friendly “freak oasis,” and similar to Venice Beach in L.A. and the Tam-Tams in Montréal, Mauerpark also features the weekend flea market, mass-karakoke in the amphitheater, basketball courts, BBQ grounds, playgrounds for children, a stadium and concert venue, as well as your average Berliners, local celebrities, musicians and artists from all over the world, jugglers, hippies, punks, techno-fans, and masses of tourists lounging leisurely side by side until sundown. As one of the members of the New Zealand band, Ginger Brown, remarked, the atmosphere in the park “feels like a festival every day.” At the same time, another film protagonist pointed out, “…how many broken people are in Berlin,” a touching reminder of Berlin’s contrasts.
Karsten’s protagonists are techno legend and co-creator of the Loveparade Dr. Motte, Russian-Berliner satirist and inventor of Russendisko Wladimir Kaminer, karaoke master Joe Hatchiban, as well as many other creative minds, who bring home the message that “Berlin takes street art and artists seriously, unlike other global cities.” The soundtrack of the film features music by bands and musicians who perform live in the park. One song that particularly stood out for me was Moan, by Robert Lee Fardoe, who often plays in the park and at ZMF Open Mic on Wednesday nights.
The ephemerality of Berlin’s open spaces produces or manufactures a type of nostalgia in the present that is no longer mourning a long-gone past, it seems, but rather a looming uncertainty in the future. This type of nostalgic projection onto the future, fueled by lessons learned from history, is perhaps best mediated through cinematic projections and imaginaries, and may be seen as a way to cope with the very gravity of transitoriness. Susan Sontag pointed out that we photograph things in an attempt to capture and freeze time, and especially objects and people in time, and thus our own mortality. There is a sense of nostalgia in that. Thus the relationship between nostalgia and dialectics is not hierarchical, but rather complementary. Capturing spaces at a moment in time, perhaps as an attempt to intercept time, to delay transformations and to stand witness because Berlin is always changing, many Berlin films become relics of Berlin’s ephemeral vistas and landscapes (Berlin Babylon 2001, Prinzessinnenbad, 2007). Mauerpark has done just that.
The filmmaker was kind enough to take the time to answer my questions:
Berlin is constantly changing (ever since Karl Scheffler first pointed it out in 1910), do Berlin narratives, and your film in particular, attempt to capture a moment in time?
Mauerpark was shot during the summer 2009. Although this is not long ago the film already feels like a historic document. The park is constantly changing and so is Berlin.
Can there be narratives about Berlin without a sense of nostalgia?
Probably not, Berlin is charged with memories. Most people who live here have experienced Berlin being utterly different from what it is now. My first memories of Berlin are that of a city within a divided Germany. Before the Wall came down West Berlin was an island within hostile territory. It was called “Frontstadt”. The government was afraid to lose West Berlin to the Eastern Block, so mandatory army was abolished for the people of West Berlin. This attracted lots of young people from all over Germany to come and live here. An alternative scene established which then renewed itself when the Wall came down.
How would you describe Berlin in comparison to other German (or European) cities?
For a capital it is so cheap to live here, just compare it to London or Paris! Berlin is very tolerant also, people are not too bothered what others are thinking. A banker and a left wing activist may very well visit the same club at night, mix and mingle.
How multicultural is Berlin? What does multiculturalism mean here?
The biggest Turkish community in Germany is based in Berlin Kreuzberg. However the Turks and the Germans do not really mix very well. On the other hand more and more tourists and travellers are coming to stay in Berlin and it is certainly the most international city in Germany.
Are there things about Berlin that you absolutely dislike?
Berliners were never rich but in the past all my friends used to have huge cheap flats. These times are certainly over, Berlin is becoming more expensive. But in comparison to other cities in Germany or capitals in Europe it is still quite affordable.
How long have you been a Berliner? Are there things in Berlin that no longer exist, or things that you miss?
I have been living in Berlin for 10 years now. In the late 80s I also stayed for about a year and I do miss the nightclub “Dschungel” (Jungle), I had a great time there.
You can find Mauerpark on Facebook.