Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Berlin’

Charité at War ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th July, 2020

Charité at WarAs a child growing up in 1950s England I was told that there was no such thing as a good German. Memories of the War were still raw and rowdier boys than myself ran round with wooden sticks pretending they were rifles for shooting Krauts. But as I grew older and read more I realised that of course there were people in Germany who opposed the Nazis, often sacrificing their lives or liberty as a result. On 20 July 1944, Graf Claus von Stauffenberg, the leading figure in a group of conspirators, narrowly missed assassinating Adolf Hitler, triggering terrible retribution. Other dissidents, less brave, kept their heads down and waited for the nightmare to be over. This is the background to the German TV series Charité at War, available on Netflix. The story is based on the reality (with a sizable degree of poetic licence) at the Charité hospital in Berlin during the War, up to the time the Russian forces arrived in May 1945.

Charité at War 2 The key figure in the series is the esteemed surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch, who is shown with his wife as being part of a cultivated circle that included von Stauffenberg, as well as the anti-Nazi Hans von Dohnanyi and the (by then deceased) Jewish painter Max Liebermann, who indeed painted Sauerbruch’s portrait in 1932. Sauerbruch in real life did oppose the NS-Euthanasia T4 programme that exterminated handicapped children and other “undesirables”, which features in Charité  at War. But what is not shown in the TV series is that as a member of the Reich Research Council he supported medical “research” on inmates of concentration camps. Nonetheless, after the War the Allies dropped charges against him for lack of evidence. The actor Ulrich Noethen (who incidentally has twice played Heinrich Himmler in other contexts) makes Sauerbruch an essentially sympathetic character, above all motivated by his medical vocation and loyalty to the Hippocratic Oath. Many of the other characters in Charité at War do fall neatly into “good” and “bad” categories, though others are tormented by the moral conflicts and personal safety issues involved in the deteriorating environment and are accordingly far more ambiguous. Dilemmas are heightened when people are revealed to be Jews or homosexuals. Much of the work of the hospital is realistically portrayed and there are occasional snatches of original colour newsreel films of the time to give one a greater feeling of what life in wartime Berlin was actually like.

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London’s Imperial War Museum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th August, 2016

Imperial War MuseumWhen I moved to London from Brussels, more than 30 years ago, I deliberately avoided going to London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM), as its name suggested to me a form of British jingoism that grated with my Quaker pacifism. But how wrong can one be! Older and (perhaps) wiser, I now recognise what an extraordinary treasure-house the place is, not just because of the amazing tanks, aircraft and other military equipment on show but especially because of the imaginative and varied displays in themed galleries, that are as much about peace, security and peace-building as about war, as well as featuring regularly changing special exhibitions. As this month I have for the first time been teaching a summer course in International Relations, at London University’s SOAS, I took the students the the IWM this afternoon, focussing on two specific themes: the Cold War years of 1945 to 1989 (or The War that Never Happened, as the Museum puts it), then up a flight of stairs to the artist Edmund Clark’s take on the War of Terror (sic) — the latter giving a creative and challenging view of such things as extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay and the “secure houses” in which suspects thought liable to be radicalised were held in the UK in suburban dwellings of chilling blandness. The maquette of the area of the Berlin Wall around the Reconciliation Church (destroyed by the Communists in 1985) sent tingles down my spine, as I remembered all the forays I had made across the Wall, between West and East Berlin in the late 1970s, visiting Quakers and sometimes government officials in the DDR. There are many more fascinating exhibits to spend hours perusing, including one hall charting a century of War films, and there is even a children’s area where they can draw and write to develop their thoughts about what they have seen. Altogether the museum is a first-rate experience (free, of course), and it even has a decent self-service café attached.

War of Terror

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Tales from the Tower of Babel

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th July, 2013

Marlene Dietrich performs in her famous role as LolaGeoff BrownAlmost 75 years ago, when talkies were taking the cinema world by storm but dubbing techniques had not yet been finessed, there was a period in which film companies made several versions of the same movie, shot with dialogue in different languages, sometimes using the same actors (with varying degrees of linguistic ability) but often employing completely different casts. The Ufa studio outside Berlin, with its distinctive four wings, became a veritable multi-lingual film factory in the early 1930s; German, English and French versions of the same scene in the same sets would be shot before everyone moved round to the next wing and carried on with the next. It was a cumbersome process, but better than trying to make do with the title cards that had been feasible in the days of silent movies. This evening, at Europe House in Westminster, the British film historian Geoff Brown gave a fascinating illustrated talk on that brief period of multi-lingual film-making, including some hilarious shots of Laurel and Hardy hamming it up in Spanish and a revealing comparison of the German and English versions of Marlene Dietrich singing in the seedy Blue Angel nightclub. As became clear, there were sometimes cultural differences that had to be catered for, the Anglo-Saxon world in general being far more prudish than the continental Europeans. And when completely different actors were used in effect two quite different films emerged. I particularly savoured a clip of the German version of Anna Christie (1930), in which Greta Garbo vamps it up with my old friend Salka Viertel in a cameo role as a drunken older woman; the two actresses later became bosom pals in Santa Monica. Geoff Brown’s enthusiasm for the period and the multi-lingual film phenomenon was infectious and his particular style of lecturing, during which his slender frame seemed at times to wish to clamber up the metal latticed lectern, inimitable. It was perhaps tempting fate to hold an event called Tales from the Tower of Babel in the London headquarters of the European Commission, as there are now (with last week’s entry of Croatia) no fewer than 24 official languages in the EU. But as the EU’s Culture Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou has pointed out, it is the richness of the linguistic diversity of Europe and the growing mutli-lingualism of its citizenry that is one of the greatest joys of the European Union.

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1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th September, 2009

Peter Millar book coverAs the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, the bookshops are filling up with commemorative and interpretative volumes. One of the most welcome is Peter Millar’s 1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall (Arcadia Books, £11.99), which will be launched at the Frontline Club in London on 1 October. Peter followed me from Oxford into Reuters at the news agency’s old Fleet Street offices and then as the baby in the set-up in the International Press Centre in Brussels, though he lasted longer than I did. I resigned while still in Brussels when I received my first book contract  (for The Great Wall of China), whereas he went on to work for Reuters in East Berlin and then Moscow, before moving over to the Sunday Telegraph and then the Sunday Times.

We didn’t meet up in East Berlin when he was posted there, though I was going in and out of the place frequently at the time, visiting Quakers and other people involved in what became the Swords into Ploughshares movement which was the forerunner of civil unrest that would eventually see the edifice of DDR authority collapse like a house of cards. By the time 1989 came round, I was at Bush House as a sort of ‘rest of the world’ commentator for the BBC World Service and at times rather envied those who could concentrate on the disintegration of European communism. I did go to Berlin again shortly after the Wall came down, however. Rather than  bringing back a chunk of that graffiti-daubed monument, I bought a very fetching Soviet sailor´s cap for US$1 from a tipsy Russian instead.

Peter Millar’s book — whose title is a deliberate nod of homage to the late, great Spike Milligan — is full of telling anecdote and seamlessly blends autobiography with historical reportage. There are a few go0od laughs, but much of the tale is suitably serious. There was indeed euphoria on the night of 9 November 1989, as the Wall was breached — I shed a tear of joy myself, watching the scenes on TV at home in London — but there was anguish too. Peter was able to smile wrily at some details he later discovered in his Stasi files. But for many of my friends and colleagues, what they then found out about the system they had been forced to live under for so many years was in many cases even more traumatising than what they had imagined.


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