"Berlin - Johannesburg"

Opening Speech by Nadine Gordimer


20 May 1998 at the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg

(Leider liegt die Rede nur in englischer Sprache vor.)

Dear friends of the Goethe-Institute!

The Goethe-Institute¥s original invitation to me for tonight¥s opening of the events celebrating the city Berlin was for the premiere of a documentary film exploring Berlin and Johannesburg, two cities where, within the same few months, walls came down: the Berlin wall, and the walls of Apartheid.
Unfortunately - such is the way with film projects - the documentary is in the final stages of production but is not completed. So - with apologies - I shall do my second-best and try to present something of it in words in place of images.
How did it come about that two South Africans, myself and Hugo Cassirer, decided to make a film about Berlin - indeed, had the presumption to want to make one? What was Berlin to us?
Well, as I am very much the senior partner in the enterprise, let¥s start with me. And go a long way back, 45 years in fact. Until then, Berlin was present in my mind as newsprint photographs (no television in South Africa then), the
mis en scene of a few movies, and the setting of some novels. Then, that year I met a born Berliner, a Jew who had been stripped of his German citizenship by the nazis and had fled to South Africa as an immigrant who soon became a South African citizen and had served in the South African and the British armies during the war. We married. He had a whole life, the formative years up to his mid-twenties, about which I knew nothing. I had never been to Europe, let alone Berlin.
However compatible we were in the South African 1950¥s, however much we shared of those half-foreboding, half-hopeful times - the National Party had come to power, but the defiance campaign against unjust laws was in progress - within him there was a world I was shut out of. Berlin was its magnetic centre.
In 1954 I went to Europe for the first time in my life. Reinhold Cassirer, my new husband, went back to Berlin for the first time since he fled for his life. He took me to Berlin. On the western side of the wasteland that lay before the Wall, he showed me
Sigmundstrasse, the weed-filled ground where his parents¥ house once was; the still-standing, restored Matthäuskirche he used to ride round and round on his bicycle as a child. At the cable factory that the nazi regime seized from his family, and that was seized once again, by the Russians, there was an old woman employee who remember go him as a lad and who embraced him more like someone arisen from the dead than a survivor of all these employers.
We passed through Checkpoint Charlie on a permit and saw Helene Weigel in
Mutter Courage. If I had never been to Berlin before, I certainly felt I had never experienced theatre before......
But of the friends Reindhold had had, none was left: all survivors, like himself, had emigrated. So this Berlin was the stage set of his hidden life, half-dismantled, empty of the characters with whom that quarter century of his life was played. Then we went to America, and there many of the closest friends he had had were living: the word went round, some were in New York, others came from New England, the Mid-West. The Berliners embraced, dined, argued, reminisced, recalled private jokes, even "one extraordinary evening" repeated a shared experience of their past when we went to Marc Blittstein¥s faithfull revival of the Brecht-Weill
Dreigroschenoper, with Lotte Lenya herself playing her original role.
From Reinhold Cassirer¥s interaction with these vibrant people I was able to put together the Berliner I never knew......

Later on, back home in Johannesburg, I wrote a story that came out of experience. Its title was face from atlantis - for me, my lost city of Atlantis was Berlin, the Berlin of the late 1920¥s and early 30¥s, emerged from the waves of the past through the discovery of my husband¥s hidden life.
We flip through the pages of many calendars. I have been back to Berlin a number of times in the years since the Wall came down. But it was in 1996 that I began to experience Berlin very much as present. My German editor and friend, Dr. Arnulf Conradi, founded a new publishing house,
Berlin Verlag, and invited me to its launch - in Berlin, of course. The original Berliner, Reinhold, naturally came alone, and the trip happened to coincide with the presence of our son from America, Hugo Cassirer, who was working in Germany with a German film crew at the time. Among his young colleagues I found myself plunged into the extraordinary life of Berlin in the nineties, roved about between east and west, met Berliners in bourgeois Grunewald and trendy Prenzlauer Berg, in Moabit and Siemenstadt. I also renewed contact on their home ground with German writer-friends I have come to know in an international context - Günter Grass and Christa Wolf.

Hugo and I were both struck by the same phenomenon: the concurrence, the many similarities, between the contemporary human situation in Berlin and that in Johannesburg. Berlin, one of the greatest cities of Europe, founded in the 12th century, and Johannesburg, founded as a mining camp hardly more than 100 years ago - what ominous forces of socio-political engineering in the 20th century have brought this about!
The Berlin Wall separated Berliners, the walls of Apartheid separated Johannesburgers. The means were different, but the intention was the same - in Germanyís metroplis, a political ideology, in South Africaís metropolis, a politico-racist ideology. When these walls came down, within a few months, even weeks of one another in both cities - the watershed release of African National Congress leaders celebrated on October 15, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the declaration of Germany Unity early in 1990, the scrapping of Apartheid with the release of Nelson Mandela in February that year - Berliners embraced and celebrated, Johannesburgers embraced and celebrated. There was a period of euphoria which, surely everyone in either city had earned.

But then came the morning after the party.
The realities of daily living together, the competition for employment, for housing, the gaps in entrepreneurial skills, the clinging to privilege on the part of those who had been on the materially privileged side of the walls, concrete and psychological - these were what Hugo Cassirer and I recognized in Berlin, from our experience of these problems at home in Johannesburg. These were what led us to become fascinated to explore them in a documentary tale of two cities.
We spent months in prepartion, particularly in the case of Berlin, returning there again and again, consulting Berliners in different walks of life, reading, researching, since we were well aware that our knowledge of the city and people was superficial. We wrote our script, respectful of the dictum that, in a documentary, you find your film in the process of making it.
We decided that I would be the narrator and that we would not use vox-pop - the banale questions fired at people passing in the streets - for the sense of how people were going about shaping their lives in a new way. Although we would make full use of my connection with literary intellectuals, we would seek out leading individuals in other fields who both would have strong ideas and be practically involved in reconstruction. As a result, in Berlin we filmed my encounters with people such as Dr. Josef Kleihues, a world-famous Berlin architect who is involved in the overall re-planning of what was once the heart of the city, the
Potsdamer Platz, Pariser Platz, Friedrichstrasse, and the restoration of other quarters. Materially Berlin was being rebuilt, while Johannesburg was being reoccupied.

We spent a wonderfully fascinating day with Günter Grass, when we not only filmed him giving his controversial views on unification, which he thought was done without sufficient recognition and planning to deal with the inevitable problems that have now arrived, but we also filmed him showing me his beautiful poetry-and-water-colour paintings. There are my filmed conversations with Christa Wolf at her home in Pankow, where the elite of East Berlin politicians once lived. And by contrast, seeking out the young generation, who grew up without ever having seen the west side of the wall, we have a striking interview and walkabout with the enfant terrible of post-wall writing in Germany, Thomas Brussig, whose novel, 'Heroes like usí is a rollicking satire of the Stasi.

At Normanenstrasse itself, the Stasi headquarters which now are partly transformed into a museum; I describe the place while sitting in Miehlkeís chair; and show the absurdity of evil as evidence in the regimeís spying devices, which include a tree-stump and a frivolously feminine beaded evening bag which contained secret cameras; so that from funerals to cocktail parties one was always under surveillance. I donít think Apartheidís state security could have achieved such sophistication in Johannesburg; although they followed the same tactics: from the Stasi we took our cameras to the Topogrophy of Terror museum; the simplest and yet most telling of monuments by which, as a plaque there declares; what happened in the Holocaust must never be forgotten so that it may never happen again.

We have footage of a young East Berlin family for whom unification of the city means they have acquired motor bikes and can ride around joyfully where they never were before. we became familiar with some of the derogatory terms some East and West Berliners use about one another in private; just as in our own Johannesburg, some whites still secretly refer to blacks in derogatory terms, and some blacks have theirs in reference to whites. Separation, whether for less than two generations, in the case of Berlin, and many generations, culminating in 1948, in Johannesburg, is not easy to heal. and unemployment, exacerbated by the difference in sophisticated levels of many skills, keeps reviving the sense of ëusí and ëthemí in a city.

In Johannesburg, our film includes a rather unusually personal interview with President Mandela, in the form of a conversation between him and me. Another with the poet, former freedom fighter now a member of parliament, Mongane Wally Serote: a visit to a young black family who had just moved from living 14 in one room in Alexandra, to a little house of their own built with government subsidy and their savings. We contrived a unique opportunity to get into the old fort before its grimmest reminders of its past as a political prison and riot squad depot were removed, and - with further reminders of the Stasi headquarters, into the notorious interrogation 9th and 10th floors of John Vorster Square, where the evidence of its past were going through the shredder. Under the flyover at Faraday station down town, we filmed one of the rather public private enterprises to overcome unemployment: the vast herb market where an influx of rural people squat and trade.

I knew that filming in Berlin would be a voyage of discovery: I thought I knew my home city, my Johannesburg. But I found there was much I didnít, there was much to discover. And it is there, for all of us who live here, with ist problems of the past casting a shadow on the present, ist freedom and frustrations, ist feared violence and ist often unexpected human acceptance that, whatever the difficulties, this city, whose vibrancy through all vicissitudes has been caught so well by Jürgen Schadeberg, over the years, this city now belongs to all of us. And Berlin - well, the variety of events beginning at the Goethe-Institut tonight will provide a welcome introduction to and an exploration of its history and extraordinary renaissance - its freedoms and frustrations in becoming one.

© Nadine Gordimer