Film Review | Bornholmer Strasse: Breaking down the barriers

Screening at the German-Maltese Circle next week to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, Christian Schwochow’s film finds humour in bureaucratic absurdity

The essential absurdity of over-determined national borders is an easily parodied fact of modern life. At best (though really, at worst), they take on a sublimely Kafkaesque form: leaving us baffled at how governments and relevant institutions insist on separating people from their loved ones and simply barring them to travel on the basis of an essentially arbitrary national line.

There comes a point when concerns about security and territorial sovereignty cease to make any sense in the grand scheme of things – and especially in their micro-based variant – and suddenly the fault lines are revealed for what they are: the panicked wranglings of nations and politicians nervously clutching at what they think they can control, sometimes bolstered by public sentiment, sometimes not.

The fact that these concerns have once again bubbled back up into public consciousness thanks to both Donald Trump’s electoral pledge to build a literal wall between Mexico and the US, and the rising tide of far-right, ‘hard-border’ preaching, sentiment all across Europe makes Christian Schwochow’s lighthearted take on the Bornholmer Straße border crossing episode of 9 November, 1989 something of a bittersweet pill to swallow.

First aired in 2014 and adapted by screenwriters Heide and Rainer Schwochow from the book ‘The Man Who Opened the Wall’ by Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg, ‘Bornholmer Straße’ recounts the chaos that ensued after Socialist Party official Günter Schabowski somewhat mistakenly declared, during a 9 November 1989 press conference, that the border between East and West Germany should be opened. The surprise public announcement leaves the panicked border guards scrambling to deal with the situation as their superiors remain none the wiser: they cannot give them any concrete orders, because they have no orders to give.

At the centre of the maelstrom is Lieutenant Colonel Harald Schäfer (Charly Hübner) – drawn from the real-life figure of Harald Jäger – who starts his evening believing that his incontinence would be the worst of his problems, but whose night devolves into something far more pressing as the crowds pile on and on, and the weight of the nation’s most urgent diplomatic issue piles onto his shoulders.

Prior to said chaos, however, the film establishes its tone with a telling – and likely fictional – little episode: a dog has snuck past the border, and the officials under Harald’s watch are confused as to how to deal with what technically constitutes an act of border trespass.

But an act of literal deflation greets us even earlier on in the film, however, as Harald is shown struggling with his incontinence over the workplace toilet seat.

Oscar-baiting heritage cinema this ain’t, and it’s all the better for it.

Neither is it a vulgarisation of events, however. Harald’s digestive troubles are not just a gross-out gag: they are also a none-too-subtle allegory for the stalemate that his country is stuck in thanks to the border – a border that Harald and his colleagues have built and continue to maintain with their blood, sweat and tears, fortified by their belief that it was the right thing to do in the interest of peace and security. The Schwochows’ canny script also makes the good strategic decision of making something of a classic hero’s journey out of Harald’s situation.

He is a corpulent everyman whose authority hangs by a thread, but who now has the chance to do something truly extraordinary.
The fact that his superiors are revealed to be clueless – and, latterly, drunk – only strengthens his resolve to bust out of his comfort zone.

The verdict

Confronting an open challenge reflected in the film’s very last line, Bornholmer Straße dares to find the humour in a Great Historical Moment, both deflating it of excess grandiosity to reveal the human and bureaucratic foibles and – it must be said – doing some necessary work to dismantle the idea that humour is not a particularly German forte. First aired in 2014, it now comes to us with a bitter tang, however, as the essential absurdity of borders has once again cropped up in the national discourse with depressing inevitability.

Bornholmer Straße will be screened on November 22 at 6.30pm at the German Maltese-Circle, Messina Palace, Valletta on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall and as part of the 10th German Film Festival in Malta, organised in collaboration with the Goethe Institute. Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg, the author of the book that the film is based on, will be present for a Q&A session after the screening.

Entrance is free but booking is required on: