Those who make a city: On the 9th Panorama of the European Film’s Urban Lens and Berlin

Injy Higazy, Sunday 13 Nov 2016

In it's debut year, Panorama's Urban Lens section focused on Berlin, through five films that offered a social, historical and cultural cross-section of this fascinating city

Urban Lens

In collaboration with the Goethe Institut, this year’s Panorama of the European Film welcomed a new addition to its existing list of seven sections — a new section titled “Urban Lens.” The new section is reserved for films that all focus on a single European city, with the German city of Berlin as its debut.

Berlin was captured through five films documenting different moments in the city's history: Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) directed by Wim Wenders, Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt, 1998) by Tom Tykwer, The Lives Of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) by Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, Neukölln Unlimited (2010) by Agostino Imondi and Dietmar Ratsch, B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 (2015) directed by Jörg A. Hoppe.

When first encountering the list of films that comprise “Urban Lens: Spotlight on Berlin,” a few questions automatically come to mind: what are we using the "lens" to see, or zoom-in on? How do filmmakers capture, and make sense of, the tribulations entailed by life in the city? What does it mean to use an "urban lens" to read people’s lives?

While no condition of "urban exceptionalism" can be said to exist, it remains that the urban ushers in a distinct, far more tense experience than that of its rural (or semi-urban) counterpart. An urban experience is mostly an individual experience, where both time and space are strenuously condensed.

Wings of Desire
Still from Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) directed by Wim Wenders

Berlin, however, is not just any city. It is perhaps the archetypal city. Yet, it is a deeply wounded one, with a complex and painful past. After all, it is where a world ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall that had separated it into two cities, East and West Berlin, for almost three decades.

“Urban Lens” offers a solid introduction to Berlin, but also to life in the city, and at its most dire moments. While each city across the globe tells a distinct story, cities still constitute a collective. As birthplaces for subversive art forms and as battlegrounds for contending identities, they are ever-dynamic. This dynamism of city life, however crushing sometimes, remains exceptionally stimulating. It is without doubt that the up-beat city of Berlin offers both.

Having most of the selected films trace the social, cultural, and political history of Berlin before 1989 is no coincidence. And Wim Wender's Wings of Desire comes as no surprise. 

It is a period in the city’s history that continues to resonate in its social fabric to this very day. In fact, one cannot make sense of contemporary Berlin without paying due attention to those not-so-distant years.

Run Lola Run
Still from Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt, 1998) by Tom Tykwer,

The city’s physical and social lives commingle. And despite its existing physical and social barriers and walls, the city is almost always porous. Perhaps, that is what lends it to new forms of resistance, such as underground punk and rock music or hip-hop dance competitions, that are weaved out of the harsh social, political and economic realities of Berlin.

Years before the recent migrant crisis in Europe, Germany has been among the top countries to receive thousands, if not millions, of immigrants worldwide. Immigrant families, many undocumented, have settled in the suburbs of Berlin, which has alone received almost 90,000 new immigrants from this January alone. This influx certainly plays out, sometimes acutely, in urban sites. Demographics alter, new forms of art and popular culture emerge, and societal integration becomes a contentious topic, as we see in Neukölln Unlimited (2010), by AgostinoImondi and Dietmar Ratsch.

In the face of both existing and possible social fissures, Berlin attempts to foster inclusiveness among its inhabitants, as well to counter a certain insider/outsider dichotomy that characterises many of its underprivileged areas, such as the southeastern suburb of Neukölln. In search for commonalities, Berlin celebrates itself as a “multicoloured city,” where hip-hop dance is the language.

The Lives of Others
Still from The Lives Of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) by Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck

Leading a precarious life in Berlin is not exclusive to immigrant families alone. Artists also inhabit a liminal space in society, where their businesses are threatened with abrupt closure. They are thus constantly pushed to the fringes of society or, literally, underground.

There is good reason, however, that Berlin is currently celebrated as the European city for contemporary art. The truly underground and subversive culture scene in Berlin is energetic, with antecedents in the years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall — as we see in B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989 (2015), by Klaus Maeck, Jörg A. Hoppe and Heiko Lange. Well into the 21st century, the city continues to uphold such a cultural persona, as a thriving international cultural hub.

Yet, Berlin still espouses the contradiction of a fast-paced city, coexisting with a somewhat slow-paced and distraught humanity. The humans who inhabit this large, industrial city — as all other cities of the same nature — have been easily susceptible to feelings of alienation. 

We encounter a cinematic engagement with such feelings in Wings of Desire (1987), directed by Wim Wenders. The constant search for solace entailed by life in the city is embodied in the presence of angels, who occupy the city’s crane-dominated sky. The angels tap into the inhabitants’ dreams, fears, and bitter moments, slowly unlocking the city through the lives and minds of those who inhabit it.

Neukölln Unlimited
Still from Neukölln Unlimited (2010) by Agostino Imondi and Dietmar Ratsch

In the film, we also navigate one of the city’s multistoried public libraries, peeking in on individuals sitting on small wooden desks, nestled between large bookshelves, and industriously attending to their intellectual labour.

We watch them immersed in their toil, rarely conversing or congregating. The city’s inhabitants, again as slow-paced, conforming and consumed by the city, are seen in juxtaposition to the energetic, dissident and aggressive Lola, in Run Lola Run (1998) by Tom Tykwer.

“In every city, the longing for a greater city,” we hear Damien, one of the angels in Wings of Desire (1987), say.

Embedded in this longing is the realisation that it is impossible to quench. Because no matter how big a city is, it is always going to be bounding for some — those who have been barred by a wall as much as to those relegated to its periphery, both geographic and social.

Still from B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 (2015) directed by Jörg A. Hoppe

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