The images are iconic: Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev engaged in a passionate kiss with East German leader Erich Honecker; a Trabant - a notoriously stinky East German car - busting through the brick and concrete of the feared and hated 155-kilometre Berlin Wall.
Just as the wall dividing East and West Germany stood as a symbol of Communist domination, the murals - painted by artists who converged in Berlin from points around the world - were symbols of freedom. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the culmination of a year of change: Solidarity had been legalized in Poland, Vaclav Havel was released from a Czech prison, and nearly two million people linked hands across three Baltic states in a stand against the Soviet Union. The murals, though, inspired by the euphoria of reunification, captured the imagination of the world.
And they're about to do so again. As Berlin prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall with concerts, light shows and even a two-kilometre domino chain to be toppled by spectators, the East Side Gallery - the stretch of wall on which the murals were painted - will be showcased. In recent months, many of the East Side artists returned to repaint their works on what is now the longest of the very few remaining stretches of what once formed a "river of stone."
Russian artist Dmitry Vrubel, who painted the infamous kiss, said earlier this year that he worries about recreating his painting. "I'm a little bit afraid," he said. "Maybe I can't remember everything, so it won't be exactly the same painting, not 100-per-cent the same."
Such is the power and emotion of the East Side images.
Positioned along two kilometres of the river Spree, the gallery is scenically set between two of Berlin's hippest neighbourhoods: Kreuzberg, in the former "last outpost of the free world," and Friedrichshain, in the former "workers' paradise." The no man's land is now a series of urban beaches covering the range from lowly squat to ultra posh.
This is prime real estate. Project co-ordinator Jörg Weber, a former East German, still can't believe the land was given official monument status - especially since developers weren't alone in their desire to obliterate this "sleeping crocodile" that had killed more than 270 individuals attempting to escape East Germany by climbing, digging, swimming and/or rappelling their way to freedom.
Nor can he believe that after eight years of fighting for funding, and six months of tracking down the artists, the city is regaining what it lost through natural decay and the work of "wall-peckers" - those who physically attacked the wall because they hated what it stood for, or because they wanted a nifty relic.
Artist Margaret Hunter's mural Joint Venture is the only original painting remaining - thanks to the obsessive work of art restoration students. Hunter, who left her native Scotland for Berlin in 1985, is doing a second painting for the anniversary. The 20th anniversary, she says, "is a good time to reflect and look back with clearer eyes."
In contrast, the 15th anniversary revolved more around ostalgia , thanks in part to the popularity of the film Good Bye Lenin! , a tragicomedy in which a son tries to keep the idea of East Germany - Ostdeutschland - alive for his ailing mother. Hunter recalls it as a stage of bereavement.
Today, though, it's more about GPS tours allowing tourists to cycle the path of the Wall, and Facebook being all a-twitter with grassroots anniversary plans for a "mauer mob" with 47,000 participants holding hands along the original route.
The city's squares and museums are filled with Wall-related exhibitions and television channels are broadcasting endless documentaries. On a given night there may be programs about the enforced adoption of children of undesirables in the GDR, how rare plants evolved in the strips of no man's land, or how East Germans enjoyed a superior sex life to their Western neighbours. Maybe ostalgia isn't dead after all.
With the recent re-election of Angela Merkel, the first former East German to become chancellor of a reunited Germany, it's easy to assume that the country has already come far. Resentments, however, remain: Two-thirds of former East Germans don't think of themselves as citizens of a unified Germany, and most former West Germans resent the 5.5 per cent "solidarity tax" they will pay until 2019, when it is hoped that economic balance will be achieved.
Berlin, though, seems to be ahead of the game. With architectural reunification essentially complete, it's often impossible to distinguish between the country's former halves. And for visitors, Berlin comes across as a city united in spirit - as one of the most happening capitals in the EU. The former East Berlin neighbourhood of Mitte, and its square Alexanderplatz with its iconic - and very Ossi - TV tower, now forms the natural geographical centre of the city, complete with affluent residents who appreciate the irony of receiving a 10-per-cent rebate on health care and insurance.
Back at the revitalized East Side Gallery, 20 years on, the only noticeable difference is the website that now appears with each artist's signature. But few of the East Side artists believe new media will help foment revolutions in areas of suppression today. "Human nature is human nature," Hunter says. "It's just a concentration of points that starts with the people and goes upward. It happened here 20 years ago and it might still happen in Tehran. But don't hold your breath."
Weber is more dismissive: "Here the government was weak; there [in Iran]it's still strong."
Only time will tell. Who would have thought that Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds could open in Germany to rave reviews?
On this day, Weber is working with artists from Japan, America and India. "And there's the real story: Before, that would have been forbidden," he says.
"Look at these paintings as a hundred messages to the world. ... And while the Wall used to carry these paintings, now it's up to these paintings to carry the memory of the Wall."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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Pack your bags
GETTING THERE Air Canada partners with Lufthansa for regular flights to Berlin. Berlin's central train station, Hauptbahnhof ( www.bahn.de), has connections to all of Europe.
WHERE TO STAY
Artist Riverside Hotel and Day Spa 49 (0)30 284 900; www.tolles-hotel.de. About $200. A former car dealership on the Spree River now features spectacularly lush rooms and what has been voted the best spa in the city. Ostel Das DDR 49 (0)30 2576 8660; www.ostel.eu. About $12 to $70 a night. A design hostel dedicated to all things GDR, right down to the wallpaper and the food-ration coupon for breakfast. The cheapest accommodations are in the "pioneer army dorm."
WHERE TO GO
Checkpoint Charlie Friedrichstrasse 43-5; www.mauermuseum.de. The largest Wall-related tourist draw. Berliner Wall Memorial Bernauer Strasse 111; www.berliner-mauer-gedenkstaette.de . This new memorial, with its restored length of Wall, is much more evocative than Checkpoint Charlie. Stasimuseum Ruschestrasse 103; www.stasimuseum.de. Popular for its James Bond gadgets and paraphernalia related to the DDR's secret police. DDR Museum Karl-Liebnecht-Strasse 1; www.ddr-museum.de. Offers a broader perspective of life in East Germany, with a detailed 3-D diorama of a nudist beach and a bona fide Trabant, "the world's smelliest car."