There is something real and satisfying about investigating what happens after the watershed moment: the inning following the grand slam, the chemist’s quiet return to the lab after the Nobel ceremony. Berlinized, Lucian Busse’s second feature-length documentary, doesn’t chronicle the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, but rather the artistic and cultural scene that sprouted up in the years following — in all of their weirdness.
After watching this movie, I’m convinced that Berlin in the ‘90s is an interesting subject of inquiry. Probably the closest historical parallel is Manchester’s “Madchester” scene in the ‘80s, which blossomed when bored Northern English youths discovered MDMA and gave us the Stone Roses, followed by Oasis. The inciting incident for Berlin wasn’t a drug-induced euphoria, though there was definitely that too. It was the new-found freedom of an undivided city.
Through a flurry of bad teeth, this freedom – Freiheit – is explained to us by the forty-somethings who were actually there. One (now rather staid) woman tells us that you had sit on the toilet to develop your photos because there was no dark room to be found. A man with long hair and sepia glasses admits that he thought “we could change what it means to be alive.” Another tells a twist on the Pied Piper myth: one DJ played a set so loud that the rats disappeared for weeks.
There’s hardly any form or purpose to this film. It has the qualities (charms and eye-rolls both) of being told about a distant time and place by an uncle who is visibly chuffed to have been in attendance. On one hand, you do want to learn about the Summer of Love; on the other, you could be spared the particulars about his then-girlfriend’s patchouli perfume.
At its best, the documentary presents the disorientation of the Wiedervereinigung, or reunification. In one anecdote, they blackened out the street names in Prenzlauer Berg so that only the locals, and not the West German authorities, would know their way around the newly-free East.
At its worst, a man in a hoody jumps around a hill on Museum Island pointing out where the various rooms of a nightclub had been.
The nightlife scene itself, which was dangerously entwined with the art scene, undoubtedly gave Berlin some of its defining features: beach bars, wacky fashion, and a charming, poor-but-cool vibe. But at times, its memory feels like a humorless Portlandia: everything is made of duct-tape, and suddenly we’re watching an acrylic wheel of children’s harmonicas spin. My takeaway, maybe somewhat oblique to the actual film, was this: the avant-garde entails its own kind of banality. As articulated by one middle-aged interviewee, “If there were an alien, it would have fit right in.” The allure of that kind of cultural sphere can’t really persist more than a decade. While the identity of an artsy, weird Berlin persists to this day, most of the interviewed are still mourning the loss of that ecstatic moment of creative freedom.
Watching this film, you do get a creeping sense that it was born of nostalgia. Where a few seconds of footage would have sufficed, Berlinized indulges in a seven-minute shot of young people, dressed in bunny costumes, dancing to the slow shriek of an East German guitar. Mercifully, the documentary is only 79 minutes, but one gets the feeling that this brevity is less from a soul of wit and more from a dearth of workable material. They stretched what they had; they were scrappy like Berlin is. But they probably didn’t do the city justice.
Berlinized — Germany. Dialog in German with English subtitles. Directed by Lucian Busse. First released April 2012. Running time 1hr 19min.