Germany: Then we take Berlin

By Dean Parker

In football, architecture and cheap food, Dean Parker finds a few ghosts of the old East Berlin - before the wall came down.

Fans go wild at the 'Stadium near the old Forester's House'. Photo / Johannes Koziol
Fans go wild at the 'Stadium near the old Forester's House'. Photo / Johannes Koziol

It was the spookiest exit from a football game I'd ever made, stumbling in the night's scary darkness through a witchy, gingerbread-cottage forest, silently shuffling between pines and maples ... thousands of us.

There was still distant singing from the stadium where others had stayed after the final whistle - die-hards, though their loyalty possibly just simple reticence at leaving the floodlit community for the dark forest.

Occasionally a cellphone would light up, or a pencil torch would flash. And occasionally discernible among the night's tree trunks were strange horrid bowed forest figures: men urinating.

I'd just been to see FC Union Berlin, playing in the German second division, watched them take out a hard-fought 1-1 draw against promotion contenders FC Kaiserslautern, visitors from the Rhineland.

Union Berlin is one of the remnants of old East Berlin.

It's based in Kopernick on the outer southeast edges of the city, with a stadium called Stadion an der alten Forsterei.

This translates as "Stadium near the old Forester's House" and the quickest way to get to and from the old forester's house turned out to be through the old forest.

In East Berlin, Union was the bitter rival of Dynamo, the top team, the Stasi team, the state security team.

Union, a team with strong working class connections, was the regime opposition team.

When Dynamo players formed a defensive wall against a free kick, Union supporters would chant, "Die Mauer muss weg!" ("The wall must fall!").

In 1989, the Wall did fall, and so did Dynamo Berlin. All the top East German players went west, chasing fabulous wages.

Dynamo now play in the Bundesliga fifth division.

The only decent ossi (East German) team that remains is FC Union Berlin. And they're second division.

Now FC Union Berlin is probably not the best place to visit the remains of the eastern sector, unless you're a football nutter.

The best place is Cafe Sybille (website in German), on the old eastern main drag, Karl-Marx-Allee.

It's been there for over a century.

It serves a very civilised brunch. A selection of cold meats, tomatoes, olives, strawberries, cheeses, jam and croissants for two, plus a couple of glasses of champagne won't set you back more than $20. Elsewhere you'd pay that - and more - for the bubbly alone.

Karl Marx Alle, the old main drag. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Glasseyes View

But you're not here for the brunch.

Go out the back and there's an excellent photographic exhibition of the construction of Karl-Marx-Allee, initially known as Stalin-Allee, plus a display of furniture and kitchenware from the Soviet era.

And then sit at the cafe's lovely high windows and take in the view.

Over the road, across a vastness you could drive tanks down, are workers' housing, monumentalist blocks of Stalinist architecture.

They were meant to be workers' palaces.

In fact in their palatial grotesqueness they dwarf you, diminish you, reduce you to worker ants. They're inhuman, the triumph of the bureaucracy, of the regime.

They put you in your place, reduce your individuality. They're the opposite of that heartbeat of socialism, workers' control. They're someone else's control.

It's fitting that these palaces were the cause of the 1953 East Berlin uprising.

In June, 1953, construction workers on the housing blocks struck when they were told there would be a pay cut if they didn't meet their work quotas.

A general strike was called and a general rising followed. Soviet tanks rolled in and violently put it down.

Now, on Karl-Marx-Allee, hired Trabis drive by.

A Trabi, a Trabant, is the old ossi people's car. Not the fastest or most efficient of vehicles, it had a two-stroke engine with a smoky exhaust and was the source of great comedy in the west.

Inevitably it's become cute and hip and hireable.

Actually the best and cheapest way to drive a Trabi is to go to the DDR Museum in Karl-Liebknechtstrasse.

This is the Museum of East Germany. It was absolutely packed when I went and for good reason.

It's a totally hands-on museum, full of families having fun.

Trabis are now cute collectables. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Miguel Udaondo

Inside, near the entrance, is a Trabi you can sit in and drive. East Berlin street scenes are projected on to the windscreen in front as you steer the car.

The museum focuses on daily life in East Germany: clothing, schooling, pioneer camps, eating, television. And surveillance and interrogation.

There's an orange-and-brown apartment where you can check out the cupboards and the polyester clothing in the wardrobes.

There's a bizarre display on nudism which apparently was a big craze in the DDR; I suppose it was all about freedom.

And there's a truly depressing display of an attempt to manufacture Eastern bloc jeans.

And there's a touch-screen computer terminal where you can dress your own Perfect Socialist Woman. A mannequin appears on the screen and you choose the hat, dress, shoes, handbag, make-up, reading material. Press Completed and you get a print-out of your creation and are marked accordingly.

My companion, who goes on union marches but also watches TV's Fashion Police, scored 45 per cent. Failed. Sit again or lose your rooms in Karl-Marx-Allee.

Not too far from the DDR Museum is the theatre of the old Berliner Ensemble. This was the left-wing German playwright Bertoldt Brecht's theatre.

Brecht did a runner when the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. He eventually turned up in Hollywood.

In the late 1940s he was hauled before the US House of Un-American Activities who were investigating communist influence in the movie industry.

Asked if he was a communist, Brecht replied, "No! No! No!"

He was thanked for his co-operation, said he was glad to help and the following day did another runner, fleeing this time back to Germany - East Germany. One of his plays is shortly coming up at the Auckland Theatre Company.

The theatre itself is fabulously neo-baroque inside, with ascending tiers of galleries.

From the ceiling hangs a stunning chandelier. The 19th French poet Baudelaire said he could never go to the theatre without thinking the chandelier was the main protagonist.

Brecht's theatre received massive sponsorship from the East German government, keen on showcasing East Berlin's culture.

Of course the West did exactly the same and when unification ended this, it was all a bit of a disaster for artists.

One Kiwi artist who's been surviving in Berlin for 15 years and making a living round the jazz clubs is singer Hattie St John.

She took us on a tour round the remnants of the old Berlin Wall.

I'd been to East Berlin 35 years ago. It'd changed.

Most of the Wall is now but an outline in the pavements and roads that cover its death zone.

But a substantial kilometre-plus section survives on the banks of the River Spree in Friedrichshain.

This is in the old eastern sector and the Wall there is known as the East Side Gallery.

One of the unnerving things about East Berlin had been the total lack of graffiti. It was like a Police Commissioner's dream.

The bit of the Wall that now remains is wonderfully covered in home-made murals, painted back in the early 1990s, one of them a reproduction of that singular news photo of Soviet Premier Brezhnev giving East German leader Honecker an open-mouthed smacker of a kiss.

It has the inscription, "God help me survive this deadly love."

Berlin's a terrific place, emerging from the rubble of 20th century history.

It was sad to leave. But eventually I had to head back out to Tegel airport and catch my flight home to New Zealand.

There, at Tegel, I bought myself a berliner to have with my coffee. A berliner is basically a jam doughnut, covered in icing sugar and costing about a dollar. It's a popular pastry.

Berliner doughnuts for sale. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Benoît Deniaud

If you watch footage of John Kennedy's famous visit to Berlin in 1963, just after the Wall had gone up, you hear him announcing to the packed crowds, "Ich bin ein berliner!" "I am a berliner!"

You hear the crowd gasp, roar, then break into applause at such self-effacing humility, so rare in a politician.

Kennedy's popularity soared.

I must tell Matt McCarten to have David Cunliffe announce, "I am a buttered scone."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: All Emirates flights from Auckland provide direct connections at Dubai with the airline's daily services to Hamburg. Local budget carriers connect to Berlin.

Details: For FC Union Berlin tickets and match details, go to their English-language website.

- NZ Herald

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