Fall of the Wall: Movies on Life Behind the Iron Curtain

The clip above shows Peter Gabriel performing in Berlin yesterday, at the 25th anniversary of the infamous Wall’s demise. It was a festive occasion, with appearances by among others Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa, highlighted by the “Lichtgrenze” installation, lit balloons marking the original path of the Berlin Wall. Watching the balloons rise into the sky, symbolizing the fall of the Wall, was powerful. It is true that it was never easy for West and East Germany to fuse into one democratic nation, and that problems still linger. It is also true that Russia under the increasingly totalitarian leadership of Vladimir Putin is once again becoming a threat to its democratic neighbors. But for one night, Germans and Europeans in general could enjoy celebrating what has to be seen as a very positive event in the continent’s history.

A short while ago, I finished “Iron Curtain”, Anne Applebaum’s amazing chronicle of Eastern Europe’s early years after World War II, an era when the Soviet Union brutally enforced their destructive agenda on Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Albania. Meticulously and honestly, Applebaum goes through every facet of life behind the fresh Iron Curtain and makes us understand why it succeeded for so many years even though the economic policies and moral values of Stalinism were ineffectual and rotten from the beginning. She also makes clear how much the countries differed from one another, and how much they differed from Russia, making Stalin’s brutal influence even more tragic. It’s history soaked in blood, and Applebaum remains fiercely critical (as evidenced by her Twitter feed, for instance) of every totalitarian tendency that still comes out of Moscow; unfortunately, there’s not a shortage of worrying signs today.

There are many movies made about the Cold War. Some of them focus on life behind the Iron Curtain. A few memorable examples:

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) – The film that brought Andrzej Wajda to prominence is a true classic that references the Warsaw Uprising, Poland’s Home Army resistance to both Nazis and the Soviet Union, as well as life in Poland right after the war.

The Fireman’s Ball (1967) – One of Milos Forman’s early films in Czechoslovakia is widely perceived as a satire on life in Eastern European Communist countries. Holds the distinction of being “banned forever” by the regime after the Soviet invasion of 1968.

Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981) – Andrzej Wajda again. The director has made it his life’s mission to portray the travails of his beloved Poland. These films portray a Communist shock-worker and his son who latterly becomes involved in Solidarity.

When Father Was Away on Business (1985) – Sarajevo, the early 1950s. The film that brought Emir Kusturica to international prominence depicted years when Yugoslavia under Tito ended up in conflict with the Soviet Union.

Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) – Wolfgang Becker’s comedy has a dedicated communist waking up from a coma, not knowing that the DDR no longer exists; her son (Daniel Brühl) fears the shock might be too much for her and tries to uphold the illusion that the dictatorship is still functioning. Targeting those who miss East German kitsch and Walter Ulbricht’s “stability”, the film segues into something more earnest.

The Lives of Others (2006) – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant account of the paranoid East German system where the security services could rely on an extensive system of informants. This may not be a society where people are shot in the streets, but its structure is nonetheless frightening. The clip above shows the beginning of the film.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) – Two students are trying to arrange an illegal abortion in Communist Romania. Part of the Romanian New Wave movement, Cristian Mungiu’s film shows the bureaucracy and consequences of a horrible system.

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