A number of weeks ago, after Amy and I had been in Berlin for a fortnight, we decided to watch some Berlin-themed films. We thought it would be a way of encouraging ourselves to mentally occupy the city. We chose some ‘serious’ films, including Berlin Babylon and Wings of Desire, but also decided to watch a film that our guidebook warned us was of questionable quality.
The film was Valkyrie, an historial thriller about the 20 July bomb plot, in which a senior Nazi officer, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, conspired with fellow Wehrmacht officials to assassinate Hitler by planting a bomb at the Wolf’s Lair (Hitler’s hideaway in Eastern Prussia). The attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944 was, of course, unsuccessful, and the conspirators were executed. In Valkyrie, von Stauffenberg is played by Tom Cruise. Almost every actor has a different accent, and Cruise is hypnotisingly odd as von Stauffenberg (he plays the German Colonel in the same way that he plays maverick, all-American heroes, so that von Stauffenberg is often indistinguishable from Mission Impossible’s Ethan Hunt).
Cheesy as Valkyrie was, however, watching it in Berlin was an eerie experience. It was while watching this second-rate blockbuster that the word “haunted” was first brought to my mind.
Following the film, Amy and I started to read about the details of the July bomb plot. We realised that many conspirators had in fact been executed just around the corner from where we are staying, at the Plötzensee Prison. Many of the political prisoners murdered at Plötzensee Prison met with a grizzly and chilling end (such as the mass hangings on the so-called Bloody Nights of Plötzensee).
My initial experience of Berlin was of a relaxed, accepting place, where it is easy to find people to meet up with and things to do. It is a city where you can buy a beer from almost anywhere at any time, which offers an abundance of opportunities for diversion. Of course I knew about Berlin’s many dark periods of history, but I was initially absorbed by its friendly atmosphere, and the ease with which it allowed me, a recently-arrived foreigner, to slip into its dissolute rhythms.
Up until we watched Valkyrie and read about the July bomb plot, the name Plötzensee was more familiar to Amy and I as the lake around the corner from our studio, on which we had paddled on one of the last warm days of Autumn (I had even worn sandals). We hired a boat from the grizzled woman serving drinks at the Imbiss on the shore of the lake and, beer in hand, enjoyed the mild temperature and picturesque surrounds.
It was a disturbing experience to imagine the grizzly events that had taken place so close to this idyllic enclave, where we had seen Germans swimming around nude and couples enjoying the gentle light of Autumn.
Around this time, I had another encounter of Berlin’s past in the present. While I was walking across the bridge that crosses the expanse of train lines around Westhafen (a train station near the Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik), a monument on the bridge was pointed out to me.
The memorial commemorates the former train station at Putlitzbrücke which, from 1942 onwards, was the main depot from which Berlin’s Jews were deported. According to the website for the Deportation Memorial on the Putlitzbrücke, about 30,000 Jews were transported from the platforms that were once there, many to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were murdered.
The ZKU is located in a relatively industrial area of Berlin. It faces the Behala Westhafen building, where we see shipping containers being loaded all day long, and an expanse of train tracks. The S-Bahn goes past our window many times each day and the train lines have been the scenery of our lives for the last two months.
It was upsetting to realise that this very same infrastructure was employed for the officious, industrial-scale removal and extermination of tens of thousands of people.
These two experiences – the discoveries of the pasts of Plötzensee and Putlitzbrücke – gave me a feeling for what it means for a city to be haunted by its past. It was hard to reconcile my experience of Berlin with the knowledge of such awful recent events. Moreover, the knowledge of what had happened nearby made it seem as if these events were still present, rumbling somehow beneath the city.
This experience of haunting could, of course, have been prompted by many – if not almost all – of the sites around Berlin (and indeed Germany). I am hardly the first person to have used the figure of ‘haunting’ to describe Germany’s relationship to its past.
What I found particularly interesting, however, was that this feeling of being haunted is one I have rarely experienced in Australia. I can think of few places in Melbourne in which I have been prompted to consider what acts of violence may have taken place in the spaces that are so familiar to me.
This is not because Australia, or Melbourne, is devoid of sites on which terrible atrocities occurred. There is no doubt that Australia has much difficult history of its own (such as massacres and the founding of the country on indigenous dispossession). Modern Australia was not built upon a blank space, a terra nullius. All the same, I am rarely prompted to think of the nation’s past in Australia’s cities.
I think this is a topic worth considering. What does it take to have an experience of haunting? What is it, exactly, that allows you to feel that the past of a place is still with you, present and yet not present? I will consider these questions further in a later post.