STUDIO: PBS (Direct)
MSRP: $24.99
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 60 minutes

The Pitch

Learn about the events leading up to the inception of the Berlin Wall, the most potent symbol of communist oppression, and the struggles for the inhabitants of East Berlin, Germany, and the aftermath over a period of several decades which brought about the destruction of the wall.

The Humans

George H. W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, James A. Baker

The Nutshell

The Berlin Wall, which was constructed on August 13, 1961, and was left up until November 9th, 1989, was a barrier designed to separate East and West Berlin, Germany and was mainly to prevent the “will of the people” from creating a socialist state in East Germany, which fell under control of the soviet union after WWII.  Inevitably, this wall led to numerous escape and defection attempts, as many as 5000, as families on the Eastern side of the wall wished to be reunited with their families on the West side.  Through a series of political movements beginning in the early 1980s, though, the wall was eventually brought down, ending the oppression and marking a time of freedom that was not known for 28 years.

“You want I fuck your face?”

The Lowdown

I’m sad to say that going into this documentary I knew very little of this situation. While I had always seen footage of the wall being knocked down, I was never really familiar with what happened.  I just knew that it was important.  After seeing this documentary, though, i’ve learned a lot more about the situation.  This documentary seeks to explain what happened, but that’s pretty much all that it does.

Between 1945 and 1961, 2.5 million East Germans exercised the right to decide for themselves which side of Berlin they would live on.  Later in 1961, however, officials decided to put up a wall, or fence, or some sort of “barrier”, keeping them from defecting over to the West.  So in the wee hours of August 13, 1961, while Berliners were on vacation, a wall was covertly erected separating East and West Berlin so that no one could defect.  One of the interesting situations that came about as this process was commenced was how certain apartment doors opened into West Berlin, but the inhabitants of these apartments were East Berliners, and they now would have no ability at all to use their front doors.  I personally can’t imagine this, being trapped in your own apartment, living like a prisoner in your own house.  It’s a sad situation, one brought about by communism and a desire to put a socialist chokehold on citizens of a small section of a country.  Imagine having to stand on raised platforms on either side of a wall, and having that be the only way you could see your mother, father, brothers or sisters.  No seeing your family for Christmas or whatever holiday. It’s a sobering thought, having them within reach but not being able to see them unless you wanted to be imprisoned, or worse.

“So I says to Mr. North, what do you plan on doing with that thing?”

One of the harrowing stories of escape comes from a man named Rudolf Mueller, who was working in the West when the barrier was put up, but his wife and 2 children were stuck in the East.  He then devised a plan to bring his family over to the West.  Knowing that there was an idle construction site next to the wall in the West, he decided to dig a tunnel that would end in the basement of an apartment in the East where his family would meet him.  After digging for three weeks, him and his brothers finally reached the East-side apartment and retrieved his family and another couple who were waiting.  It should have went smoothly, but one of the East German border guards discovered them and challenged them as they were coming back.  Years later Mueller figured out that he might have been betrayed, and that the couple he helped rescue might have in fact been agents of the East German secret police.  Mueller was armed when confronted, something the guards did not know.  After being told to stop, the guard raised his weapon and so that his family could get through safely, he made the ultimate sacrifice– he took the guard’s life by shooting him in desperation.  It was a sad situation, it really was, and I think the documentary does a good job of illustrating just how hopeless the situation was as a present-day Mueller regretfully recounts the steps in person of how everything happened, and where he killed the soldier.  This man is obviously disturbed by what he had to do, and is no doubt haunted by his decision to open fire.

Even more outrageous and upsetting is the story of how the Stasi, the official state security service of Germany from 1950-1990, spied on German citizens and put them on watch lists, much like McCarthyism.  After the wall came down, many East Germans were allowed to apply to see their Stasi file which included their intimate information which had been compiled from following them and their colleagues or family around.  One man, Dieter Wendland, who grew up near East Berlin embracing popular culture such as Woodstock and The Beatles, which to him and most East Germans symbolized freedom, led him to be placed on these such watch lists.  The government, because of a willingness on Dieter’s part to escape the confines authority placed on him and his people, even went as far as to recommend he never be allowed to attend any university.  They effectively tried to sabotage his adult life.  It’d be hard to imagine in today’s society, whether in Germany or the United States, but out of the question entirely?  These days it’s anyone’s guess.

“We burn torches for freedom, for justice, and because it’s hard to see at night!”

Documentary filmmaking is, in my opinion, the most intimate form of filmmaking there is.  It’s a capitivating way to tell a story, and the best documentaries do more than just recount what happened.  They engage us on a personal level while introducing us to a subject we probably had very little knowledge of.  That being said, and this being a PBS documentary, we aren’t really given anything more than the facts of the situation.  This is fine, and I don’t really see how anyone’s opinion would benefit the telling of this story, but it’s still nice to have a more personal, non-robotic feel to a story that’s unfolding.  A great documentary has to engage us emotionally as well as it does intellectually.  The firsthand accounts from people such as Dieter Wendland and Rudolf Mueller give a more personalized feel to the story as opposed to a procedural by-the-numbers feel, but altogether I think they could have shown more first-hand accounts from the citizens.  I also feel that the documentary itself ended way too abruptly, and we’re greeted quickly by that all-too-familiar “To learn more about this program” prompt by PBS.  Ultimately the film is hampered by its short running time and its lack of real emotion.  It certainly does its job well in informing us, and you’ll definitely learn a lot, but it fails to be memorable.  Dear PBS, please let Ken Burns do EVERY DOCUMENTARY EVER.  Thank you.

“If you study this closely, you’ll notice that it says personal appearance and hygiene are important in Germany as well as other countries”

The Package

It’s presented in 1.33:1 widescreen, and the documentary is told mostly through archival footage and photos, but the transfer is a bit grainy at times.  There are no special features to speak of.

7.0 out of 10