Berlin Volksbühne Corner: A Documentary About a Square, its People and German History

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Berlin Ecke Volksbühne [Berlin, Volksbühne corner], Documentary, Germany 2005, ZDF, Director: Britta Wauer

The Rosa-Luxemburg-Square, dominated by the monumental building of the Volksbühne theatre, is situated in the middle of Berlin, north of the Alexanderplatz in the former Scheunenviertel. It is a place steeped in history. The very remarkable film under review was made by young German film director Britta Wauer, who is a graduate from the Berlin Film Academy (dffb). In 2005, she was awarded the Adolph-Grimme-Prize (together with Sissi Hüetlin) for her documentary "Die Rapoports – Unsere drei Leben" [The Rapoport family – our three lives"; ARTE /ZDF 2004]. In 2001, she was awarded the support prize of the German Television Award for her first documentary "Heldentod" [Death of a Hero]. Berlin – Ecke Volksbühne is her third documentary. She did not only make a technically brilliant film, but her dramaturgy also managed to produce a thrilling visualisation of history and its reconstruction from a multitude of perspectives. A wide dissemination of the film to schools and institutions of political education is very desirable, even beyond the borders of Germany. We wish the film director many more equally good ideas and, moreover, the support to realise them.

The film provides a portrait of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Square, situated in the middle of Berlin, as a symbol of German history. It presents little stories of people, individual destinies and the historic events of the 20th century. The latter are reflected in the square's five name changes: in 1907 it was constructed as the "Babelsberger Platz", from 1914-1933 is was renamed "Bülow-Platz", from 1933 it was called "Horst-Wessel-Platz", in 1945 it was called "Karl-Liebknecht-Platz" by the Soviet occupying power, and finally it was renamed "Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz" by the GDR. The film also deals with the question what people have found so fascinating about this little square in the middle of the German capital.

Even before the Second World War, the area around the square used to be a social hotspot. It was a poor, rather dismal area, but it had a special flair; architects like Hans Poelzig or Oskar Kaufmann used it as a field of experimentation for city planning and development; there was real estate speculation, decay, destruction and reconstruction. East European Jewish immigrants lived peacefully together with small Christian craftsmen and tradesmen, but there were also large numbers of dubious characters. This was the arena where the political and sometimes even militant fights of the 20th century were fought out: left and right wing Social Democrats, Spartakists, Communists, Anarchists, police forces of the Imperial period and of the Weimar Republic; finally Hitler's SA troops had their meeting places and parades here, and there was frequent ruckus.

On the other hand, the "scene" of Berlin developed here, it was a centre of art, cinema and theatre. Shortly before the First World War, a number of houses were pulled down to make room for a "people's theatre", financed by the donations of many ordinary people. This is where Ernst Lubitsch grew up and where the "Captain of Koepenick" bought his uniform, where Communist Party chairman Ernst "Teddy" Thälman" made his speeches, Bertold Brecht experienced riot and Stasi-boss Erich Mielke committed a murder, for which he was tried and sentenced only 50 years later. "Reichs-Marschall" Ernst Göring kept an unofficial concentration camp here. Here, Walter Ulbricht went to the theatre and Victor Klemperer to the movies. The area around the square does not reveal its turbulent past on first sight. However, in spite of the tremendous changes having taken place, one can still come across peculiarities. Some of these are told by the film. When Stefan Lucks moved into his apartment ten years ago, he thought he was moving into a perfectly normal block of apartments. But when he removed the wallpaper in the course of his renovations works, he found small Stars of David underneath. Now he knows that his living room used to be a prayer room of orthodox Jews. The Almstadtstraße, called Grenadierstraße before 1945, has once been the main road of the East European Jews in Berlin. There used to be Zionist associations, Hebrew book shops, Talmud schools and many small synagogues next door to pubs, brothels and jumble-shops owned by small crooks who went after their business in this area.

The headquarters of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) were at the Karl-Liebknecht-House since 1926; today it hosts the PDS headquarters. There used to be a lot of street fighting, leaving many dead. The police took drastic measure, they were threatened with retaliation, and the threats were carried out. In 1931, two police officers fell victim to a left-wing terrorist murder attack in front of the Babylon Cinema. The murderers, who could escape, were Erich Mielke and Walter Ulbricht. The daughter of murdered policeman Paul Anlauf talks as a contemporary witness and tells how she became an orphan at the age of eleven; she also talks about the trial against Mielke after the German reunification. Jürgen Loewenstein, too, gives a very impressive account of his growing up in the Scheunenviertel, where his childhood came to an abrupt end when he saw the Nazis come into power at the age of eight. His parents and grandparents were murdered by the Nazis. He survived Auschwitz, the death march and Mauthausen concentration camp. After the liberation he went to Israel to live in a Kibbutz and founded a new family. When he comes to Berlin today, he goes to the Almstadtstraße where his parents and grandparents used to live and where "Stumbling Stones" commemorate his murdered relatives. He also talked to students from Berlin about his story of the Scheunenviertel, of Auschwitz, the death march and his liberation at the Mauthausen concentration camp in 1945.

After the war, the Soviet military administration and the Institute for Marxism-Leninism moved to the Rosa-Luxemburg-Square. The Babylon Cinema and the Volksbühne continued to give premières and concerts for decades. After the changes of 1989, Frank Castorf became intendant of the Volksbühne and turned it into one of Germany's most interesting theatre houses. The last take of the camera shows the new logo and trade mark of the Volksbühne, developed by Castorf. It shows a cartwheel on feet, which is an ancient robbers' sign, meaning "beware of raids". The film, at the end of which you wish it would go on for a bit, portrays the place where all these stories meet. The film will be available on DVD, with French and English subtitles.

For more information about distribution and screening please contact: Britzka-Film, Britta Wauer: - opens in new window" href="">; e-mail: film [at] britzka [dot] de

The documentary "Die Rapoports – Unsere drei Leben" [The Rapoport family – our three lives, ARTE/ZDF 2004], made by Sissi Hüetlin and Britta Wauer and awarded the Adolph-Grimme-Prize in 2005, is also highly commendable for the use in schools and political education.

It tells the life story of the Jewish-German couple Inge and Mitja Rapoport. Having fled from the Nazis to the USA, where both of them pursue a scientific career, they are persecuted once more as communists under McCarthy and forced to flee back to Europe, where they find their third home in the GDR.

In the context of the project "On the Road With Israel Loewenstein", students of a Berlin Hauptschule (Junior Secondary School) search for traces in Berlin and Auschwitz. Students in co-operation with a Holocaust survivor jointly investigate the latter's family history. Jürgen (Israel) Loewenstein talks about his childhood at the Berlin Scheunenviertel in this documentary: [node:4327] (Text in German)


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