The piano stage-rehearsal at the opera was interrupted by a man who entered panting and gesticulating for everyone to follow him. It was the morning of November 9, 1989. A tinny voice was coming out of the transistor radio of the security guard. The communique was so specific that it sounded ambiguous. It said that "from such hour, crossings of the border between the two Berlins would be allowed at official checkpoints." Could this mean that the wall was no longer serving its function? In utter disbelief, or rather convinced that this must have been a state-promoted hoax, everyone rushed out towards the border.
"Mind you that's how they tricked us into boarding the trains...," said an elderly woman who owned a little tobacco shop, hinting at the horrible train rides to the Nazi extermination camps.
At the end of the Second World War, following the Allied victory over the Nazis, Winston Churchill announced that "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent," referring to the partition of Europe between East and West known as the Cold War. Its most enduring symbol was the Berlin Wall, a structure created to divide the former German capital into two distinctive sections. In essence, the true purpose of the wall was not to fence off intruders (as advertised by East German authorities) but to fence in the people of East Berlin, forcing them to remain in the Soviet sector of occupation against their own will. Anyone who succeeded in climbing the wall was greeted in the West as a hero. Unfortunately, most contenders never made it across, their countless unmarked graves bearing witnesses to this sordid reality. Thus the Berlin Wall was regarded on both sides not only as a symbol of hatred but also as a symbol of permanence.
Notorious as the location of exchange of arrested spies, and featuring in countless films, Checkpoint Charlie was inundated that November day by Berliners. East German guards seemed in no position to control such fast growing crowds. The first people began trickling past the checkpoint. They seemed worried and perplexed. They would walk slowly and cautiously, as if expecting some form of retaliation; they would then take a last look back and disappear behind the fence of the frontier post. This slow moving procession went on for about an hour; then the dam broke and people began crossing in droves.
The wall that was built as if in one night had been rendered obsolete in a few hours. Such scenes of suspended animation were reproduced for weeks by every TV channel on earth leaving the world stunned. For the next few months every major artist in the world would decide to fly to Berlin and experience this rendezvous with History. Leonard Bernstein said that conducting Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on location was the highpoint of his career. So did Mstislav Rostropovitch, who gave a concert in the no man's land section of the wall, in memory of the victims.It was in late December when I was asked by Nicole Wisniak, publisher of Egoiste magazine, and Richard Avedon, the exclusive photographer for the publication, to accompany them in Berlin and guide them through the more restricted East. They were interested in witnessing the upcoming New Year's Eve. A series of portraits of stage directors from both sides of the wall was initially contemplated (like Harry Kupfer of the Comic Opera and Peter Stein), but conflicting travel schedules made this impossible, and so the weight fell on East Berlin.
East Berlin was always considered more grey and more sinister than its hip western counterpart. The partition of the city in 1945 had allocated to the Soviet sector the Imperial section with the great boulevards, the largest squares and the most important edifices. Depicted as vibrant with energy, traffic and life, by the painter Kirchner and filmmakers such as Max Reihardt, the East Berlin of the 1980s seemed like a shadow of its former self. Its neighborhoods lay desolate for decades, the main arteries seemed devoid of people. Occasionally the appearance of a solitary vehicle, its engine puttering and moaning from poor quality gasoline, would further intensify this feeling of desolation.
It was this ghost-like atmosphere that the photographs would try to capture. The core would be Unter den Linden, the largest boulevard in the world, dotted by monuments and edifices while leading theatrically to the Brandenburg Gate, the timeless symbol of German history, be it Imperial, Third Reich or Cold War.Extensive reconnaissance walks for the pinpointing of landmarks took place. As rest was necessary we headed for the hotel Metropol, sold-out to the sky. A few minutes later Nicole came triumphantly brandishing the keys of the presidential suite (this was not an ordinary trip!). However, the overall feeling of unease that loomed over East Berlin was hard to shake off. Avedon began explaining to us the difficulty of capturing madness in portraits. Then, exhausted, he dozed off on the couch.
Brandenburg Gate #6, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve 1989 | Photographs Richard Avedon\Copyright © The Richard Avedon Foundation
Brandenburg Gate #4, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989 | Photographs Richard Avedon\Copyright © The Richard Avedon Foundation