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Commemorating the Fall of the Berlin Wall

BU Arts Initiative collaboration includes Marten Persiel film screening


When the Soviet-controlled German Democratic Republic erected the Berlin Wall in 1961 to cut off East Berlin and East Germany from West Berlin and thus the free world, it became the most potent physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain that separated democratic Europe from the Communist Eastern Bloc. The wall came to symbolize the political, social, and economic ramifications of the Cold War. Almost three decades later, on November 9, 1989, East Germany announced that its citizens were now free to visit West Berlin and West European countries; that night, East Berliners climbed the wall and jumped to the other side, joined in celebration by West Berliners. While demolition of the wall didn’t begin in earnest until months later, that day marked the beginning of the creation of a unified Germany after nearly 45 years of separation.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the BU Arts Initiative has teamed up with the Center for the Study of Europe, the Goethe-Institut Boston, Thuro Skate Shop, and the College of Communication’s Cinematheque series to bring award-winning German filmmaker Marten Persiel to campus. Today and tomorrow, BU will host Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall, a series of three events that feature Persiel and his film This Ain’t California.

This Ain’t California is a hybrid documentary that explores the skater subculture that emerged in East Germany in the 1980s. Using original footage, interviews with the teenagers who spearheaded the skateboard movement, and reenactments, the film approaches the era of German reunification through a distinctive lens that emphasizes the cultural, rather than the political, atmosphere of the period.

Marten Persiel, This Ain't California, Berlin Wall, German skateboarding culture

German filmmaker Marten Persiel is the featured guest in Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall, a series of three events commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Photo courtesy of the Goethe-Institut Boston

BU Arts Initiative managing director Ty Furman says that the goal of the project is to approach the political history of the time from the perspective of arts and culture. “It’s not like going to a black-and-white documentary and watching footage of the Berlin Wall falling and talking just about the politics,” Furman says. “It’s a different approach. What we’re focusing on is the culture in East Germany and then the culture and politics of the reintegration and unification of the country and thinking about what Germany went through to do that.”

The scheduled events aim not only to give a fuller picture of the cultural and social implications of German reunification, but also to demonstrate the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall as a world event. Karin Oehlenschläger, Goethe-Institut Boston cultural program curator, stresses how emotionally charged the event was for Germans and its lasting effects on the international community. “The fall of the wall was a seminal event in German, European, even world history,” Oehlenschläger says. “What happened on November 9, 1989, changed geopolitics to this day. Without the collapse of the Communist countries behind the Iron Curtain, all our lives would be different. Besides, it was a completely peaceful revolution, and in Germany, we don’t have many of those. It was such a happy time. I still get goose bumps when I see footage of all those East German Trabis [vehicles] crossing the checkpoints all through the night of November 9.”

The first event is a panel discussion tonight titled Lost in Unification about post–Cold War Eastern Europe, featuring Persiel, who will use This Ain’t California to discuss Germany and Eastern Europe before 1989. He will be joined by Igor Lukes, a College of Arts & Sciences and Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies professor of international relations and history, who will speak about the end of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and journalist and author Agata Pyzik, who will focus on the events that followed the collapse of Communism. Lukes hopes that the panel will shed light on the political and social complexities that almost prevented the wall from coming down in 1989. “I would like to think that one aspect students might come to appreciate is how fortuitous—almost undeservedly so—the collapse of Communism was in 1989,” he says. “It most definitely was not inevitable. Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t want it, the East European Communist elites didn’t want it, the West European leaders opposed it and dreaded its consequences, and Washington was unprepared for it. Yet it happened. It was a lucky and beautiful event in an ugly century.”

Center for the Study of Europe grants analyst and program developer Elizabeth Amrien (GSM’08), who is among the organizers of the commemoration, similarly emphasizes that German reunification was not an easy process, one of the many misconceptions about the end of the Cold War that the three panelists will discuss. “I hope students who attend the panel will benefit from hearing the story told from three perspectives, and that they will be less inclined to accept popular sentiments, in particular the idea that socialism has been tried and failed,” Amrien says.

The second event—timed to coincide with the screening of Persiel’s film—is the Jump the Wall High Ollie skateboard contest cosponsored by Thuro Skate Shop in Brookline. The winner will receive an iPad mini, and all participants will get a chance to talk to the filmmaker, who will attend the event and came up with the idea as an engaging way to celebrate what he calls the “rebellious youthful energy” of the East German underground skateboarding culture that he captured in This Ain’t California.

This Ain't California film by Marten Persiel, Berlin Wall, German skateboarding culture

Marten Persiel’s film This Ain’t California chronicles the underground skateboard culture of East Berlin in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of This Ain’t California

The commemoration concludes with a screening of This Ain’t California, part of the COM Cinematheque series. Following the screening, Persiel will discuss the film and answer questions. Furman says he’s excited that students will to be able to interact with the German filmmaker and learn about the repercussions of German reunification in a new, unexpected way. “From an artist’s perspective, there are different ways to approach things via cinema,” he says. “Marten’s film is documentary-ish. He takes some liberties and approaches some things in a really creative way, as opposed to just showing black-and-white film, having somebody narrate and comment. And that’s exactly what we want the arts to do, be an avenue to approach social issues in creative and thoughtful ways that maybe engage folks who may not normally be engaged in a discussion about such issues—or about any issues.”

More than anything, Furman hopes the three events will challenge common stereotypes about Eastern Europe and provide a more balanced approach to understanding what life was like on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall. “When you talk about East Germany before the wall fell, you think everything was dark and gloomy and horrible,” he says. “But there were kids who found a way to express themselves and be rebellious in a way any normal teenager is rebellious. So the film gives a perspective that’s a little more normative than the images we have of what East Germany was before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We grew up hearing that everything was bad and then the wall fell and everything became better. Well, there’s a lot more to it.”

Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall begins tonight at 5 p.m. with the panel discussion Lost in Unification at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, 121 Bay State Rd. The Jump the Wall High Ollie skateboard contest is at 5 p.m. tomorrow, Friday, November 7, on Cummington Mall, followed immediately by the Cinematheque screening of Persiel’s film This Ain’t California at 7 p.m. at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. All events are free and open to the public. Find more information about the schedule of events here.

Samantha Pickette can be reached at pickette@bu.edu.

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