An ongoing project documenting the remaining places built by the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) using film that expired along with the regime in 1990.
About this project
This project is an examination of the physical reminders of institutions that no longer exist. Germany ceased to be divided almost 30 years ago but the symbols of the DDR show no signs of disappearing. There's an ongoing debate in America regarding the appropriateness of Confederate monuments and landmarks remaining in Southern towns and cities. The Confederacy was nothing like East Germany, much like it was nothing like Nazi Germany. It's hard to imagine important lessons learned from the DDR -- like that of Hohenschonhausen -- remaining in the public consciousness if the physical memorial were not open to the public. We may understand life in the DDR from watching a movie like "The Lives of Others," but we don't understand the toll of the psychological torture carried out there without standing in former water cells and seeing the interrogation rooms where prisoners lives and families were threatened.
More than any other nation, Germany is vigilant about examining its past. Ernst Thalmann is covered in graffiti, but still remains a symbol in Prenzlauer Berg. One day the former guards and inmates will be gone, but the brick and mortar of Hohenschonhausen will continue to educate as long as they are open to the public. Mencius said there is no greater delight than to be conscious of sincerity on self-examination. While Germany may not be perfect in this regard, they have certainly given Americans a framework for their own conversation.
First the wall came down, then the nation, and finally the curtain. But the landmarks still stand.
When I first acquired a number of rolls of Kodak film that expired in 1990 I stored it in my freezer. I wasn't sure what to do with them until last year when I visited Berlin.
During my visit I saw that much of east Berlin still looks like it did when it was the capital of the DDR. Some landmarks, like the Volksbune and the Alex are still publicly used and lauded landmarks of Berlin. The Alex even seems to match the Brandenburg Gate as the premier icon of Germany's capital.
These landmarks are well recognized, well loved, and well documented. I've taken plenty of pictures of them myself. But it was not these types of DDR landmarks that inspired this project. For this project, it's the less popular, or even unsung landmarks I am documenting.
To document them I could think of no better tool than the film that expired in the same year as the DDR.
Kodak Vericolor III will not be in the inaugural class of the Film Hall of Fame. This workhorse was popular with wedding photographers in the eighties. As such, it's a film stock that's a bit more muted in its color, which makes it even more unpredictable as an expired film. Expired film has its own cult following in the analog photography community. Part of the allure is the nostalgic exercise of shooting a vintage way with a vintage film. For others it's just fun to see what sort of random effects and coloring you get with expired film.
Once film goes past its shelf life, the chemical composition begins to lose its integrity. The older the film, the more challenging and random your results will be. This film was likely rolled out of the factory before I was born, and has been "dead" almost as long as I've been alive. But it's perfect for this project because as the integrity of the film chemicals began to break down, so did the Berlin Wall.
Ernst Thalmann led the German Communist Party during Germany's tumultuous Weimar Era. As such, he was the primary opponent of Adolf Hitler, who after brutalizing his way to power had Thalmann arrested and held in solitary confinement for 11 years before ordering his murder at Buchenwald in 1944.
As Berlin neared its 750th Jubilee, the DDR sought to commemorate the event by creating a park on the site of an old coal gas plant in the city's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. The "inhabited park" would serve as a showpiece of socialist city planning. It would include public housing for 4,000, a planetarium, a school, public pool and a memorial to Thalmann, who would be the park's namesake.
The park's status as a showpiece of socialist planning was short lived as the DDR expired only four years after the park's creation. After reunification, debates on whether or not to keep the park went back and forth until local residents voted to keep the name in 1997.
But the placement of the park caused a more alarming issue as the area's previous chemical use left the soil and groundwater contaminated with cyanides, phenols and tar that had to be meticulously cleared.
When the wall came down, one of the only DDR government buildings to not be stormed was the central remand political prison at Hohenschonhausen. It survived because no one knew where it was. Prisoners brought here were driven around for hours before arriving in this Berlin suburb, never saw other prisoners and never saw outside of the prison. In fact, the complex wasn't even included on maps of Berlin.
No understanding of Hohenschonhausen is complete without an understanding of the organization that ran it.
It's hard to think of a secret police organization more effective and repressive than the Stasi. Though tasked with espionage and covert operations in foreign countries, the Stasi's bread and butter was spying on its own population through its massive network of citizen informants. Coworkers and neighbors and even family members spied and informed on one another.
At the height of its power, the Nazi Gestapo employed 7,000. The Stasi employed more than 91,000.
Hohenschonhausen served as the central prison for political prisoners. After 1960 the Stasi ceased using physical torture in favor of psychological methods. Those methods were taught at the Stasi college and perfected at Hohenschonhausen.
These methods included isolation, sleep deprivation and threats of danger to family and friends. It wasn't a question of confession or guilt, but rather what information you would provide after your inevitable confession.
It was especially jarring to learn that even today former prisoners and guards continue to live near each other in the neighborhood. It's not rare to see the last commandant of the prison shopping at the local grocery store.
This is a reminder that even when the institutions of the DDR ceased to exist, the humanity that both ran it and was victimized by it continues to exist.
There exists a phenomenon called Ostalgie in eastern Germany by which people remember positively life under the DDR. East Germany has struggled since reunification to catch up with the rest of the country economically, and an increasingly globalized world has many nostalgic for the days of zero unemployment. There are a number of DDR-themed bars (many of which I love) in Berlin and Dresden. But a few hours walking around Hohenschonhausen should be more than enough to curb that nostalgia, or at least put it into perspective.
My sincere thanks to Gedenkstätte Berlin-Hohenschönhausen for their accommodation and for granting me access to the facility.