First Run Features // 1991 // 88 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // October 20th, 2009
"Who are the only three people in the world who are sad that the Wall
has come down?"
"East German Communist party boss Erich Honecker, Ross, and Marilyn."
-- A joke told by friends of the filmmakers
I never ducked under my desk in an atomic bomb drill, but I at least encountered the occasional Civil Defense shelter sign. The Cold War was still icy, but I never quite knew the fear of the Cuban Missile Crisis or other tense situations of the '50s and '60s. I did know the Berlin Wall, though, and I'll admit I was surprised when it fell in 1989.
Still, I wasn't as surprised as Ross McElwee and Marilyn Levine, who had just completed their documentary on the Berlin Wall shortly before it came down, its absence symbolizing the end of the Cold War, as its presence symbolized the Cold War. They went back to Germany, adding new footage to create Something to Do with the Wall. Twenty years after the Wall came down, it's out on DVD.
There's occasional narration, but it's mostly a cinéma vérité look at Checkpoint Charlie, which they called "an intersection not only of East and West Berlin, but of German and American culture." Allied and Communist guards patrolled there, protesters made their points there, and tourists took pictures. I was most surprised by the signs that normalcy had grown up around it by the time McElwee and Levine visited in 1986, the graffiti that covered the wall by that point or the lack of concern as kids played at the site. They encounter protesters, particularly John Runnings, who tried to take a sledgehammer to the wall, and soldiers who described the rules both sides followed, but looking at this footage years later, it's the normalcy that hints that, even as the world had taken it as an inevitable, permanent barrier, the Berlin Wall's days were numbered.
The added footage, in which the documentarians capture souvenir hunters and go back to talk to people they met a few years before, is interesting, but it's taken too soon after the Wall's fall to carry the full impact of the Cold War's end.
Something to Do with the Wall isn't slick; the film is grainy, with the shadows you'd expect from natural lighting. Ambient sound works for the most part, but Levine's portion of the narration is too soft-spoken.
Given that it has been nearly twenty years since Wall was released in 1991, I'd have liked more extras. The filmmakers' text notes were informative (the two quotes above came from the notes), but it would have been nice to go back one more time to take a look around or to discuss the changes over the long term. There's also a biography of the filmmakers.
Something to Do with the Wall feels more like a fragment than a complete picture of the Wall's impact. Thus, it would make a poor introduction to Cold War tensions, but would interest the fervent student of the subject.
I can't find the filmmakers guilty for failing to predict the fall of the
Wall, but I would have liked to have seen an update for the DVD release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Film Notes
* Text Bios