Sunday, July 30, 2017

Berlin Part 1: Lawton Reflects On A City That Won’t Let Go (at least in his novels)

Zoë Sharp

This week I'm playing a substitute, again, in the form of the talented John Lawton, who wanted to explain his fascination with the city of Berlin.

Berlin does not pall. No idea why. So much else does. After umpteen visits it still fascinates.

I first went there almost by accident, and at that by an odd route, in 1989.

I was in Prague, for Channel 4 (UK TV) covering a visit by Harold Pinter who was there to see one of his plays, Mountain Language, performed at The Magic Lantern and to meet fellow playwright Vaclav Havel, who was unlucky enough to be stuck with the job of president of Czechoslovakia – Havel told me he wanted out as soon as possible … that didn’t happen for another thirteen years.

I thought I’d wrapped the shoot when visas and carnets arrived with instructions to film at the premiere of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin – a film Harold had scripted. Visas, carnets but no airline tickets … but the visas seemed to cover us for the rapidly collapsing DDR (East Germany) as well as Berlin so I got the cameraman and myself on a train from Prague to East Berlin and crawled across Prussia (quite the most boring stretch of countryside imaginable, and unlikely ever to be in anyone’s ‘Great Railway Journeys’) via Dresden and into the Lichtenberger Station in East Berlin.

It was way past midnight.

Cabs aplenty, but no driver willing to take us to our hotel on the Kurfurstendamm

“We’re the wrong side of the fuckin’ wall,” the cameraman said, unhappy about the journey from the start.

“It’s OK. I speak the universal language.”

I did what I had done in many a city, I fanned out a hundred dollars in twenties and waved them. I have known directors more blunt than that, who simply yelled out “Bribes! Dollars! Bribes! Who do I have to fuck to get out of here?”

After a few minutes a driver approached and said he’d take us but there would be no guarantees we’d get to the other side.

“A lot has happened,” he said. “The rules don’t work any more.”

He was right.

He brought the cab to a halt in Friedrichstraße, in an eerily empty car-marshalling yard, just to the north of Checkpoint Charlie.

“There’s no one here,” he said, incredulous.

We drove on. Reached the second barrier manned by the Americans – or in this case, unmanned by the Americans. They too had gone home.

“Must be summat good on the telly,” the cameraman opined. “Juventus versus Nottingham Forest.”

At the Kempinski Hotel, we unloaded our sizeable kit and I gave the driver his hundred dollars. He just stared at it and I realised it was probably an utterly over-the-top sum. I hadn’t a clue what the exchange rate was.

“Keep it,” I said.

“I think you just paid off his mortgage,” said my miserable companion.

The next day the cameraman pulled a few strings. He had a mate in the British Army of Occupation – and he got us a car with a Ministry of Defence registration … and a willing driver.

We drove back to Checkpoint Charlie, now fully manned. Both sides noted the number plate but no one asked for so much as a glimpse of a passport. We were ‘Military’. So we roamed around East Berlin, breathed in the rarified air of ten thousand farting Trabants, shot a few rolls of ‘general views’ and went back to the West, equally unmolested by authority.

In the evening … we were supposed to film the premiere. It just didn’t work out that way. The quiet of day erupted into the riot of night.

We found our way to Potsdamerplatz, where kids with sledgehammers were knocking holes in the Wall (Der Mauer), and East German guards were futilely trying to stop them.

The top of the wall wasn’t flat, it was more like a sausage. All the same dozens, if not hundreds were standing on it, taunting the guards. We filmed for a few minutes, then the cameraman said, “I’m not missing this,” strapped the camera to his back and shinned up the hand-chipped footholds in the side of the wall. I had the tripod. You think directing is the tops? No such luck. Directors mostly just carry the tripod. I couldn’t climb the wall with a fekkin’ tripod on my back, but by now one of the holes in the wall was big enough to step through. I followed half a dozen students through the gap, only to meet armed guards shoving us back. The cameraman waved at me. I just glowered.

The party went on all night.

I got fed up after a couple of hours, left the cameraman up there and went back to the hotel.

The next day I pointed out that the wall just didn’t run through the middle of the city, it wrapped West Berlin completely – and I wanted shots of the wall in the middle of the countryside. Something real but against the grain of most newsreel shots of the Berlin Wall.

It wasn’t hard to find a spot on the north side of the city, at the top end of the French Sector.

Already, Berliners had been out with their sledgehammers, and there was a gap between the concrete plates just big enough to squeeze through.

I stood in an open meadow in the DDR. No stink of Trabants. Not a human being in sight. The cameraman stuck the lens of the camera through the hole. I walked to the brow of the hill, and as I topped it three Stasi with sub-machine guns ran up the far slope towards me. I have never been the sporty type – all sport bores me – but my one accomplishment in shorts and plimsolls at school had been sprinting. I shot back towards the camera, Stasi in pursuit, knowing full well that this would probably end up in the company’s Christmas Party video, an annual festival of embarrassment most commonly featuring news readers caught picking their noses or reporters using the lens as a mirror while renewing lipstick unaware the bastard cameraman was recording it.

I got away. Not a shot fired. Well, I never thought they would.

The day after we came to leave Berlin. Tegel airport. No film of Harold Pinter and Margaret Atwood, plenty of GV’s to keep us in TV ‘wallpaper’ for weeks if not months, and a few minutes of me evading arrest that the cameraman refused to let me destroy.

Our gear was ... hefty. It was probably worth around £120,000, so we travelled with a sheaf of carnet papers for customs simply to avoid paying the earth in import duty every time we boarded a plane. It was de rigeur to get them stamped every time you entered or left a country.

But … no one had seen us enter West Berlin.

The West German Customs were baffled.

“How did you get here?”

“Through Checkpoint Charlie.”

“But there are no stamps.”

“They’d all gone home for the night.”


“Both sides. No Germans, no Russians, no Americans.”

I was not believed. These were young men. The Wall was a fixture. It had been there before they were born and for the whole of their short lives. That it had days, if not hours to live, had not occurred to them. It was as if I had told them mountains moved.

The cameraman said, “We’ll end up like that mythical BBC crew. The one that keeps a kit permanently at Heathrow ‘cos they ain’t got the carnets to bring it into London. No kit, no ‘Arold bloody Pinter. Boss’ll kill you.”

Reason or, more likely, my gift of the gab prevailed.

“You may be waiting for re-unification,” I told them. “Most Berliners reckon it’s already happened. Go down to Potsdamerplatz and see for yourself. You could practically push the wall over.”

It was years before I saw Berlin again. Berlin united has changed so much and I am constantly grateful for two days spent in the Cold War, lukewarm as it was by 1989 … without them I would be a writer bereft of a subject.


  1. Tom Hanks should play you in the movie, John. Wait a minute...I think he has! :)