Saturday, August 6, 2011

One, Two, Three! and the Building of Berlin Wall

the poster © Saul Bass

image source Archiv für Filmposter

Two decades have passed since the Berlin Wall came down.
As a teenager living in Italy, this had little impact on my life; it was one of the biggest historical events of the 20th century but it was filled with myth and it didn't have a clear meaning.

Few months after arriving in Berlin, seven years ago, things started getting clearer to me: it was obvious that the two Germanies had had for a long time two histories, not to talk about ways of life and that there were still differences between former East and former West Germany.
What is called "Reunification" isn't all about the enthusiastic one night show of people tearing down a wall and having a big party, but the often difficult coexistence of two mindsets, traditions, economies...

Truth is that, as much as we talk about the night of the Wall's fall, on November 1989, little we know about what happened in the night between August 12th and August 13th 1961.

(...)At midnight, the police and units of the East German army began to close the border and, by Sunday morning, 13 August, the border with West Berlin was closed. East German troops and workers had begun to tear up streets running alongside the border to make them impassable to most vehicles and to install barbed wire entanglements and fences along the 156 kilometres (97 miles) around the three western sectors, and the 43 kilometres (27 miles) that divided West and East Berlin. (source Wikipedia)

Historical details aside, what shakes me most are the stories of those families being split and their attempts to reunite while the political division still existed, the accounts of people being shot for trespassing the border (always fleeing from East to West), not to mention the complaints of some people who actually think "it was better when we had two separate cities".
The fact that Eastern Germans hadn't eaten bananas until 1990 only adds some exoticism to the picture.

"One, Two, Three!"* is a satire of the Cold War with Berlin as its most obvious symbol

The American businessman MacNamara (James Cagney), head of the Coca Cola office in Berlin, is working on an agreement to export Coca-Cola into the Russian Market.
MacNamara's is trying hard to impress his Atlanta boss, Mr. Hazeltine, with the aim of becoming Coca-Cola chef in London; he also accept to host Hazeltine's daughter, Scarlett, during her travel around Europe, but his stress will only increase because of the girl.
In Berlin she falls in love and marries the East Berliner communist Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz).
At this point MacNamara, concerned about his career, will first try to get rid of Otto and then - learning that Scarlett got pregnant - to turn him into a capitalist and thus a more suitable party for his boss' daughter.

But "One, Two, Three" deals with Berlin's political and geographical division in a very practical way, because all the shooting was being affected by the changes:

(...) While the armament was strictly a figure of speech, it did fit the situation. Ever since Wilder placed the picture before the cameras in early June, he has been engaged in a private war with the East Berlin authorities over permission to shoot a sequence through the gate, which lies entirely within the Soviet sector of “Splitsville,” as the divided city is known to the company…
The New York Times, July 19, 1961

(...)Permission to shoot in East Berlin was revoked three weeks into production, forcing Wilder to have Trauner build a full-sized replica of the East side of the Brandenburg Gate on the back-Iot of the Bavaria Studios in Munich.
Billy Wilder, Cinema One, Secker and Warburg, 1968

13 August 1961 50. Jahrestag des Mauerbaus is dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of the building of Berlin Wall.
Locations and aerial of the Berlin Wall.
A complete reviews' collection of "One, Two, Three" is in Shooting Down Pictures.

*The plot of "One, Two,Three!" is based on a one-act comedy written by Ferenc Molnar, whom you might remember for "The Boys of Paul Street")