Cold War films
The Wall as an international threat

Billy Wilder (right) and his leading actor Horst Buchholz from “One, Two, Three” 1993 in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Billy Wilder (right) and his leading actor Horst Buchholz from “One, Two, Three” 1993 in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin | Photo (Detail): Wolfgang Kumm © picture-alliance / dpa

The construction of the Berlin Wall – the physical manifestation of the separation of West and East Germany – also had a direct impact on cinema. And on how a secretary in Leeds or a factory worker in Michigan perceived the division of Germany. Let’s take a trip to the 1960s to learn more. 

When Billy Wilder began shooting One, Two, Three in June 1961, he was unaware that his fast-paced postwar comedy would be overshadowed by a gigantic construction project. Or that the construction in question would pass right through his filming location, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Yet during the early morning of August 13, 1961, this nightmare for any executive producer, and for a whole generation of East and West Germans, suddenly became a reality. Where it had previously been possible to quickly pop over to East Berlin, the path was now blocked by the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart – better known as the Berlin Wall.

For the remaining on-location scenes, a mock-up Brandenburg Gate had to be crafted out of cardboard at the studio in Munich’s Geiselgasteig neighborhood, but the damage had already been done. “Suddenly, our jokes about East and West weren’t funny anymore,” Wilder remarked a quarter century later, something that the box office sales in December 1961 dramatically reflected when his movie One, Two, Three premiered and proved far less popular than Wilder’s other films.

Nonetheless, this first cinematic victim of the Wall probably portrays the relationship between East and West Berlin – and between the Russian and American sectors – more accurately than almost any other film. Before the Wall went up, the black market was thriving – people knew one another and generally felt that any ideological divides could be overcome. Indeed, this was true to such an extent that C.R. MacNamara, the director of the West Berlin branch of Coca-Cola played by James Cagney, goes to great lengths to export his product to East Germany. This sacrilege prompts the Russians to demand that they be given the recipe for Coca-Cola in return. An almost greater sacrilege.

Until that fateful day in August, however, people were still able to laugh about things like that.

Yet, it soon became clear that this was no longer a laughing matter – as Martin Ritt’s 1965 film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold illustrates. There were no problems with the filming location this time around as all the Wall scenes were shot in Dublin. However, the oppressive atmosphere of this spy thriller based on the novel by John Le Carré speaks volumes about how entrenched positions had become over the previous four years. We had already seen pictures of the Wall being built at the beginning of One, Two, Three – a scene added subsequently by Wilder so that his comedy would not seem outdated – but now we are suddenly confronted with threatening images of mortar and razor wire. The Cold War was now in full swing and at its lowest possible temperature – and a thaw was neither expected nor realistically hoped for.

In the first scene of the movie, Alec Leamas (Richard Burton), head of the British secret service in West Berlin, is waiting for a defector near Checkpoint Charlie. It is night, it is cold, and his nerves are on edge. Suddenly, a cyclist appears on the “enemy” side of the border crossing. His papers appear to be in order, but then a siren sounds. The border police aim their weapons and fire. The defector dies in front of Leamas’ eyes on the open street, in the no man’s land between the East and West.

A clear shift is apparent here in the way the Western Allies viewed Germany’s separation. And this was also from quite a unique viewpoint, as John Le Carré – the author of the novel on which the film was based and whose real name was David John Moore Cornwell – was himself a British spy, albeit not in the frosty atmosphere of a divided Berlin but in the occasionally sunny and provincial-seeming Bonn. His view of East Germany is different from that of Billy Wilder and his co-author I.A.L. Diamond. John Le Carré is a soldier in her Majesty’s service and his front line runs right across Germany. Checkpoint Charlie is like the fence in a wild animal’s enclosure behind which the evil Russian bear does what it pleases. And it is on the other side of the Wall that the film comes to an abrupt and tragic end, one which is entirely free of any illusions.

Filmed just one year later, Funeral in Berlin adopts quite a different tone and reveals that the relationship between the two Germanys was beginning to settle down – though The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was not shot until 1965, the novel was written back in 1963 – and that there was certainly scope to approach this serious subject with (admittedly cynical) humor.

This time, the movie was shot not in the United Kingdom but on location in Berlin. And it was none other than Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton who set about turning Len Deighton’s humorous spy novel into a film.

Right from the start, the first scenes are full of local color. West Berliners are depicted strolling along the Ku’damm, sitting in the city’s cafés, and ice-skating in the summer. However, we also see how mines are laid along the no man’s land on the border known as the death strip and how a young pianist escapes to the West in breathtaking fashion. None of this has any particular relevance to the plot of the film; it primarily serves as a portrait of the city to which Secret Agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is sent to help a high-ranking Russian defector come to the West.

By now, the two sides have long since come to an arrangement in the casual style typical to Berlin. According to this set-up, one can never be sure who is spying on whom or whom one can trust – or rather whom one should distrust more. The Russian defector (Oskar Homolka) is namely the officer responsible for the security of the Berlin Wall, while his adversary (Günter Meisner) is the architect of successful escape attempts. To add to the chaos, we also have an Israeli agent (Eva Renzi) and the mysterious underwear importer Johnny Vulkan (Paul Hubschmid).

In other words, the Western powers’ perception changed within just five years, or at least the perception of the filmmakers and movie-goers in the West. There was a shift from an amusing culture clash of ideologies to a deadly serious state of war that was never publicly declared to a breeding ground for profiteers and spies of every conceivable stripe. 

The conditions for filming also changed. First, a wall was built right through Wilder’s filming location (though presumably not on purpose), then Checkpoint Charlie had to be relocated to Ireland for Ritt’s movie. While Guy Hamilton’s Funeral in Berlin was being shot, the East German police on the other side of the Wall took pleasure in using mirrors to disrupt the filming, beaming concentrated light on the cameras. In response, the director’s wife Kerima (whose real name is Miriam Charrière) asked the border guards to wave nicely for her camera. This worried Hamilton, but he couldn’t do anything about his hot-blooded wife’s temperament.

And the border soldiers couldn’t either. They smiled and waved back. The Wall would remain physically intact for a long time – and it would continue to haunt our thoughts for even longer. But it was there now, just like the two separate parts of the country that would develop in very different ways.

However, the shock was contained for the time being, at least in international cinema. And because movie-goers in England and the US would not necessarily want to see movies about the Wall, filmmakers turned to other subjects.



Karsten Kastelan Autorbild © Karsten Kastelan

Karsten Kastelan has been a Berlin-based correspondent for a variety of news-outlets since 1991, which have included The Hollywood Reporter, Screen International, Moving Pictures, and Die Welt. He has served as a jury member at the London, Dubai, Munich, Cairo and Palm Springs film festivals, among others.