II - Through East border
How did I get across to the other side of the Wall? More by accident than by design.
A delightfully antiquated luxury hotel that had become a meeting place for the entire world. History is written wherever it can; for this Berlin chapter, it had picked on a dusty old place that had once been luxurious, with carpets worn threadbare, and paint peeling off the walls. The major event of the 20th century the collapse of the Berlin Wall, taking with it the entire Soviet empire was being played out in a setting dating from 19th century Prussia. Not far from the Brandenburg Gate, the Schweizerhof had had its hour of glory in the period between the two wars, when Marlene Dietrich was having her triumph in The Blue Angel.
Language too is an insuperable barrier. This was a real Tower of Babel, and it was as good as a reinforced concrete Wall for keeping us apart from everyone else. I shouted in utter desperation: "Is there anyone here can speak French?". This was the cue for our saviour to come forward out of the faceless crowd. Jean Pichard works at the French Institute in Berlin. The prototype of the rather independent intellectual. I gave him my full story: the news flash on France-Info, the stock of paint, the scaffolding, the brushes, the whole lorryload standing idle at the foot of the Wall. He listened and then said:
- Sounds like a bit of a laugh. I'm going to give you a hand. He did a lot more than that; he acted as translator cum guide cum fellow traveller. He was my operator from start to finish.
By dint of perseverance he finally ferreted out a painter from the East, Leo Wolf, who was at the head of the Artists' Union. To begin with, this association was under State control, before falling into the hands of some anti-establishment artists who were trying to breath the wind of modern art through the gaps in the wall of official academicism.
As I had heard on France-Info, Leo Wolf and his friends had decided to paint the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall.
But what were they to paint it with? In East Germany, any orders for supplies were centralized in Leipzig by a State company and passed through cooperatives that were under government control.
This led to shortages. Some colours were not available and so, to carry on painting, artists had to invent themselves a Blue Period or a Pink Period. Which just goes to show what a blessing for them my initiative was, like manna from heaven.
So we arranged to meet up late the following morning, on the eastern side.
He kept talking things over with the others, but I couldn't catch the words and phrases or what any of them were saying. That was when I grasped what the Wall really meant to them. It did not cut a city into two halves, it did not separate Berlin from Berlin. It set a frontier between two worlds and it was a frontier that passed inside people's heads. I had done something spontaneous, instinctively. A gratuitous, free gesture. There were some artists wanting to paint the Wall and here was I bringing them paint and brushes.
What could be more natural, when you belong to the world of individual initiative.
But they saw nothing natural at all in such generosity they just found me eccentric. And most of all, they had no intention of heading straight for the Wall the way I had headed straight for my paint pots. Before they we going to do anything, they first needed to agree among themselves. They may have been opponents of the rťgime, but they still belonged to a collectivist system. I looked on perplexed at an adventure that they had wanted, which was all theirs, but over which I was afraid they were going to start dragging their feet. I was wrong. They had been under house arrest so to speak for so long now that they had learned how to get round the state which, like the Wall, was still only holed.
Near Potsdamer Platz, the Wall had come down, but the way through was blocked by the endless flow of pedestrians. You couldn't get a vehicle through. Better to catch the People's Police while their backs were turned and take one of the official crossing points Checkpoint Charlie or the Bornholmer Strasse, even though they were still heavily guarded. In the end, after a great deal of consultation, our friends finalized their plan for getting through. It would all take place the next day.
It was double or quits.
Just a week before, the slightest inscription, the slightest graffito on the east side of the Berlin Wall could have cost you your life. Even taking photographs was banned. Official Secrets. And now? As long as the Wall was still standing, nothing was actually allowed, but nobody knew any more quite what you were forbidden to do. It was through this gap between what was illegal and what was tolerated that we planned to pass.
Meanwhile, the battle was only just beginning and here again I had misjudged the forces in presence: a handful of fringe artists up against a totalitarian State. As a blind westerner free to come and go as I pleased, when I heard the artists engaged in endless palavering, I suspected they were inhibited by years of Marxist dialectics. Quite the opposite, their calculation was right and the official route was indeed the safest one. At Checkpoint Charlie, overlooked by the sentry box of the People's Police armed with kalachnikovs, it was still deserted; there was no-one going on foot in either direction; here nobody was leaving East Berlin, only the occasional lorry from the west came through, carrying all the necessary rubber stamps, and following lengthy stringent controls. Not many days from now, droves of calm and disciplined East Germans fleeing to the west would pass through here. A crowd communicating in a silent prayer, caught in the freezing fog which only added to the impressiveness of their silence. A procession of shadows stiffened by the winter and the final effects of a deep-seated fear.
However, just now nobody dared step out of line at Checkpoint Charlie. And yet, the first sign of a crack in the Wall, the minds of the People's Police were beginning to be filled with doubts. They felt the situation was slipping away from them. As if they knew what was going to happen next: after the silence of the hordes drifting west would come the hammering of people pounding away with a hammer and chisel, or more likely with a cobblestone and screwdriver, to burst open the concrete, make it harmless. To withdraw the reinforcements from the reinforced concrete.
Right now, however, Checkpoint Charlie still looked like Death Row, with its watchtowers and sentries on guard. JoŽl had parked the lorry in no mans land, waste ground overrun with weeds in which buildings sprang up like mushrooms after a storm. Off he went to fetch it and then he stopped short at the wheel in front of the sentry box, daring neither to go on nor to double back.
- "You just stay right where you are", I told him.
And so I went back to the Schweizerhof with Jean Pichard. In the hotel lobby it was still the same electric atmosphere. We dragged along two cameramen from CNN, the American TV station. It was our intention to tackle the People's Police from the rear. Thanks to Leo Wolf, we now knew where people in the know could cross to the other side in safety on foot. So, taking a roundabout route, we got back to Checkpoint Charlie, but this time on the eastern side. Now the big one the lorry. The guys from CNN were raring to go. They set up their cameras on a tripod, just behind the Vopos and began filming. I stepped forward. Immediately a Vopo intervened, barred my way threatening me with his kalachnikov. Things were not looking good. Fortunately, luck was on our side. Just as I was talking to him, a 38 tonner overtook JoŽl's truck, which was still stationary. The Vopos went up to it to check that its papers were in order. I took this chance to slip behind the 38 tonner and go and join JoŽl. I climbed onto the running board. JoŽl got into gear. The cameras were on the lorry, which began to move slowly forward. The 38 tonner had cleared the roadway. A Vopo came up.
He had his kalachnikov pointed at my stomach. I pointed to the cameras filming us all the while. He barked out in German. I explained in a mixture of French and broken English. It just took one look. I saw the fear in his eyes when he turned towards the cameras. It had just dawned on him that if he fired, they would not be filming a soldier dutifully obeying orders from above: they would be filming a murder, a gratuitous crime, a summary execution.
He took a step back, lowering his machine-gun. We had won the day.
On the pavement, on the other side of the gates, a small group were stamping their feet in the cold. It was Leo Wolf and his friends. They had been waiting patiently for hours for them waiting was almost a way of life. Leo Wolf emerged from the group and made a gesture mere mention of which, ten years on, still goes straight to my heart; he held out a little bunch of flowers to me. Under his little woollen hat, his eyes were laughing.
All together, we left for the Artists' Union headquarters to unload the lorry into a squalid basement. I can still see them carefully picking up each pot as if they were gold bars. They packed them away meticulously, colour by colour, first the blacks, then the blues, the greens, the reds, the yellows and lastly the whites. Then they put away the overtints, the paintbrushes, the scaffolding, the tarpaulins, the plumblines, the draw-strings. As I watched them, I remembered Christmas when I was a child, when you opened your presents one by one, very slowly, to make the pleasure last longer. It was late by the time they had finished tidying up, too late to paint the Wall. There were meetings, and more meetings. After twenty-eight years of spotless bare concrete, the Wall could wait another day or two. They would paint it tomorrow. But I would not be there to see them: my business affairs back in Paris were calling. It was time to leave.
I got back into my car. It was one of the biggest regrets in my life.
It was the artists' turn to come on for the final act. They were to use their colours to paint the end of the tragedy. It was up to them to make a show of it. The Wall was the backdrop for their history. Even though, with its fall and with reunification, it has become a major element of ours too.