Judge Victor Valdivia is so sensitive that he's built a wall—around his heart! Nah...actually, he's just a jerk.
The rise and fall of one of history's most dramatic symbols of the Cold War.
On August 13, 1961, the government of East Germany began to erect a simple barrier to prevent the flood of Germans rushing out of the Soviet-controlled region of Berlin into the areas controlled by the Western allies. It began as just a hastily assembled jumble of vehicles and barbed wire that was initially conceived as a temporary stopgap measure.
Twenty-eight years later, when the Wall was finally removed, it had expanded to encircle all of West Berlin, as well as the border between East and West Germany. Moreover, by that point it had become a fearsome and nearly impregnable behemoth of anti-tank barriers, land mines, automatic weapons, motion detectors, guard towers, bunkers, dogs, and billions of deutschmarks' worth of concrete and barbed wire. During those twenty-eight years, thousands of East Germans attempted to penetrate it; several hundred died in their attempts or were captured and imprisoned. Finally, in the waning days of the Cold War in 1989, the East German government lifted travel restrictions that had kept the Wall in place, leaving East Germans free to travel to the West without any constraints. The Wall was torn down shortly thereafter, and Germany reunited one year later. Germans, however, would never forget the painful scar the Wall left in the country's consciousness.
Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall gives an excellent account of how the Wall was built and expanded into the most feared and hated symbol of Cold War oppression in history. It's fascinating to see how the Wall was initially built solely to stop the loss of educated East Germans to the West, but was never intended as a permanent solution. The East German government initially felt that the problem of emigration would disappear once the country received international recognition and was then allowed to grow and prosper. When East German leader Erich Honecker assumed power in 1971, however, he viewed the Wall as his defining legacy. It was he who expanded it into an intricate labyrinth of terrifying punishments and unyielding obstructions. One of the show's best sequences is when it demonstrates, using CG, how Honecker planned to expand the Wall into a futuristic nightmare of computer sensors and laser-guided guns and wasn't afraid to virtually bankrupt the entire East German government to do so, had the Cold War not ended.
The show also includes some extraordinary stories of East Germans who embarked on spectacular missions to cross the border, risking their lives and futures on complicated plans. There are balloons, tunnels, rope bridges, cars with secret compartments, and even a light aircraft. One soldier steals an armored personnel carrier and rams it into the wall, while another man and his family hide in subway tunnels and stow aboard a train that travels into West Berlin. These are gripping stories told with a minimum of sensationalism. In this case, the typical History reenactments aren't nearly as obtrusive as usual because they actually capture the fear and desperation of the people involved. Many of these extraordinary stories had been kept secret until only recently, so just for these segments alone, this DVD is worth watching.
The only flaw is that the show doesn't tell the full story. There's plenty of information on how the Wall was built, how it evolved, and many of the plans needed to subvert it. What's missing is a detailed explanation of why it fell. The arrival of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 is mentioned as a turning point, and the show does mention that there were significant differences between Honecker and Gorbachev. What, however, were they? How did Gorbachev's strategy of reform force Honecker to change his policies? The show includes a clip of Honecker proclaiming, literally days before East Germany revoked any travel restrictions and essentially rendered the Wall meaningless, that he envisioned the Wall lasting until eternity. What changed his mind? What exactly happened that led to the end of East German sovereignty and the fall of the Wall? This is not a small omission, given that the DVD is called Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall, so for the show to shortchange this aspect is a deep mistake. The last 5 minutes of the documentary seem rushed and sketchy—more time taken here to explore this section would have helped immeasurably.
Nonetheless, despite this failing, Rise and Fall of the Berlin Wall is an important DVD. The detailed history of the wall and the stories of Germans who risked their lives to cross it are so enthralling that they make the program worth watching for anyone interested in this period of history. It's just a shame that the show couldn't be as thorough in discussing the end of the Wall, but at least what's here is interesting enough.
Presentation is typical History: non-anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer, Dolby Stereo mix, both acceptable. There are no extras.
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Studio: History Channel
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