Checkpoint Berlin is both a reflection on the city’s complex 20th Century history and an erudite essay on the Wall and its absence.
The film also sets out to solve the mystery of director Fabrizio Ferraro’s lost uncle, a former resident of the city, and someone who may or may not have a played a small but heroic role in guiding a couple out of East Berlin.
The idea for Checkpoint Berlin came about when the director was in Berlin for a screening of his previous film Les Unwanted de Europa. “The protagonist of that movie, Marcello Fagiani, and I walked along the line of the wall. Walking, as usual, stimulated a whole series of reflections on the historical need for borders and also on the danger of an absence of borders. The film tries to share these reflections publicly.”
Ferraro focuses on two very opposing characters, both in their early 20s, who played a significant role in the city’s history; Günter Liftin, who was shot yards short of the Western bank of the River Spree as he attempted to swim to freedom, and military cartographer Hagen Koch who painted the thick white line between Friedrichstrasse and Kochstrasse that determined where the Wall’s construction would commence.
“There is no metaphor within the question of the Wall but the expression of a concrete condition,” Ferraro stresses. “Everything today seems to have freed itself. Thirty years have passed and you can finally cross the line, see everything, see the opposite side which has for too long been darkened. But as often happens, any overcoming, any settling of an obstacle, of a point, brings with it other problems, sometimes much more difficult and dangerous than those past.
“And our senses are still not ready for certain momentous changes. Immediately a question also arises: in which movement do we find ourselves after this apparent liberation?”
In Ferraro’s film, movement is key. We see stunning, terrifying aerial shots of the blasted city immediately after the war as well as the mobilisation of military vehicles and personnel in constructing the Wall.
But people also walk, by the Wall in archive, or beside where the Wall once stood in modern day. Or they walk to freedom. We see a reconstruction which depicts a young couple who were guided by “a smuggler… a man with the face of an angel”, whom Ferraro suspects may be his uncle.
These people walk interminably for miles and miles, and as they do so the guide intones, “I am a candle maker, an absolute failure.” We are not offered a reason why he should repeat this ad infinitum, but we are told that that during this period the uncle became separated from his wife, but whether or not by the construction of the Wall is unclear.
“The biography always marks a mysterious trace between the private shadows and the public dimension of what they have hidden,” comments Ferraro. “Even my uncle, who deliberately decided not to take a position, either in the East or in the West, offers us the chance to overturn the official and private truths and to find another position towards the historical discourse.”
“Berlin is a crossing point in the history of the West, that’s why we can say it is a ‘checkpoint’,” Ferraro concludes, underlining how, in the age of tourism (many of whose number we encounter in the film), the city remains a place both complex and mysterious. “Berlin is a kind of passage, of intermezzo, but its answers should not be to transform itself into a simple and welcoming modern capital of the West.”