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The Burning Wall: Dissent And Opposition In East Germany, 1949-1989


The Burning Wall: Dissent And Opposition In East Germany, 1949-1989

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Hava Kohav Beller spent almost 10 years working on The Burning Wall, the sequel to her 1991 film The Restless Conscience. The earlier work documented German efforts to resist Hitler, openly and behind the scenes, between 1933 and 1945. The Burning Wall picks up the story in 1949, with the formation of the German Democratic Republic and the gradual disillusionment of socialists, many of whom had been oppressed under the Nazis and had envisioned their new nation's relationship with the Soviet Union as much freer than it eventually was. Beller opens and closes the film with pictures of a disassembled Berlin Wall, abandoned in a field, its crumbling pieces serving as a reminder of the folly that typified the GDR. Between those images, Beller strings together dramatic file footage and even-tempered testimony from former East German citizens, who explain how they could let themselves be literally walled off from their own countrymen. The ironies pile up: A man tells how his parents stood up to the Nazis, but how he buckled when Communist officials pressured him to repudiate his Christian faith. A group of artists, inspired by Czechoslovakia's "Prague Spring" uprising and the initially looser regime of Leonid Brezhnev, create work inspired by their utopian interpretation of socialism, until the freedom granted to them gets taken away again. The Burning Wall continually reiterates the paradox of "freedom granted," as the citizens of the GDR watch their Soviet parents and their Warsaw Pact siblings to see just what they can get away with. Another recurring theme, religion, serves as a sanctuary for dissidents throughout the '70s, and eventually a bridge between protesters and their government in the '80s. Beller builds to the surprisingly rapid demolition of the Soviet bloc in 1989, cutting between the masses in the streets and the GDR's last-gasp 40th-anniversary celebration (complete with a perfunctory recitation of "The Internationale"). But the Berlin Wall's destruction isn't depicted as a thorough triumph. Many leaders of people's movements regret the suddenness of the change, which prevented them from realizing their vision of a truly open socialist state; a former colonel from Stasi (the East German secret police) sighs, "All I did for the party, for 27 years of my life, that was all for nothing." Edited with a feel for the momentum of 40 tumultuous years, and underscored by somber music, The Burning Wall has an air of mystery as it ponders the fundamental question of the 20th century: Does a corrupt system have its own life, beyond the people who enable it?