The Berlin Wall would have turned 50 years old on Saturday. The Wall is long gone, of course, but its legacy lives on in a complicated relationship it still maintains with modern-day Germans.
During a recent trip to Berlin, I found many people still grappling with that relationship. To them, the Wall represents not only the unification of the German people in November of 1989, when the Wall came down, but the brutal police state that existed the previous 28 years.
How do you cope with the fact that some of the very people who spied on you or forced some of your closest friends and family into betrayal are still at large? One former political prisoner told me about how she ran into her jailers at the local supermarket.
Germany works hard to present a successful image to the world. It’s the economic powerhouse of the European Union and the undisputed saviour of the euro in a summer of recurrent economic crises. But this high-tech, high-performing country is still very much a Cold War casualty, and its people are still divided.
Enter Udo Lindenberg, a pop-culture icon from 1980s Germany. With his Bob Dylan knockoff singing style, occasionally indecipherable political mumblings and signature black hat and dark glasses, he remains a cultural phenomenon. Everyone in Germany knows of him, even if they don’t admit it.
In the 1980s, Mr. Lindenberg inserted himself into Cold War politics quite personally – by falling in love with a girl from East Berlin and then writing the pop hit The Girl from East Berlin. The Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, then coerced her into spying on Mr. Lindenberg. This story of forbidden love and apparent betrayal is the basis for the new hit musical, Hinterm Horizont ( Beyond the Horizon), which premiered in Berlin earlier this year and is packing the house.
It’s a cheesy, schmaltzy Broadway wannabe, and it’s great. It intersperses huge black-and-white full-screen photos from August of 1961, when families, lovers and friends were torn apart by the Wall. In one picture, an old woman struggles to jump to freedom, while East German police try to pull her back into her apartment. These now iconic photos punctuate the show and never let you forget that, for all the fun we’re having, there’s something very serious to these theatrics.
At the show’s end, Mr. Lindenberg breaks character and speaks about the absurdity of the Wall. He makes a dramatic cutting gesture with his right hand, saying: “You know, the Wall ran right along here,” and, with that, he slices the theatre space in two, dividing the audience into East and West. It’s a stunning realization. This very place – Potsdamer Platz, one of the busiest squares in all Europe – had been no man’s land less than a generation ago, home to empty fields, the ruins of former embassies and Berlin’s red-light district. The message: While all seems fine on the surface, we have yet to get over the Wall in our hearts.
You can dismiss Beyond the Horizon as a nostalgic vehicle for Mr. Lindenberg’s comeback. Much as Mel Brooks does with the Nazis in The Producers, this musical portrays the Stasi largely as a bunch of incompetent dunces rather than the lethal menace they really were.
But in all this silliness is the genuine desire to confront and cope with the Cold War past. Audiences offering standing ovations apparently agree. The fact that Mr. Lindenberg himself appeared on stage after the show, reprised some of the songs, embraced the cast and distributed his favourite Eierlikör (egg liqueur) to those fortunate to have front-row seats didn’t hurt the mood one bit.
It wasn’t just nostalgia for the 1980s but also a hunger for the kind of unity that Udo Lindenberg pleaded for then, and that has yet to be fully realized.
William Collins Donahue is chair of the department of Germanic languages and literature at Duke University in Durham, N.C.