Tuesday. 28.03.2023

Tales from The Wall #1

Berlin wall

The conversation started innocuously enough. Olaf was informing me that the owners of the property, where his family were to spend the weekend, belonged to an English couple from Brighton. To reinforce the statement he pulled out his I phone and showed me an email from them which gave away their surname.

I nodded my agreement, confirming that it was a very English sounding name indeed. In fact it was a very posh double barrelled one, suggesting that the families regarded themselves to be important enough to maintain both titles, like Tory rich kid Jacob Rees-Mogg for example. Olaf wasn’t completely convinced by my hasty conclusion and suggested that the wife may be a feminist, and not wanting to lose her surname, opted to keep both. Something which he informed me was popular with German women of feminist persuasion. He went on to tell me that if you were of aristocratic decent in Germany your surname might be preceded by Von, which is the title you were given by old Prussian kings when you were knighted.

In an unusual burst of bonhomie, I began to sing the first lines to The Sound of Music. Olaf looked at me curiously, confused even. So I then started on Do Re Mi. Still no effect. Eventually I decided to clear up this musical mess.

“The Von Trapp family… from the musical The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews as a nun!“

My friend was looking at me like I’d gone mad, while I too couldn’t get my head round the fact that he had absolutely no recognition of one of the 20th Centuries most important films; both in terms of box office success and also awards (winning 5 Oscars). This wasn’t the first time for a hole in Olaf’s cultural fabric to be exposed, although there is a very straightforward, yet interesting explanation.

After the Wall had come down in 1989, two major businesses boomed in all East German towns across the now unified Germany: video stores and sex shops

Olaf was born in Dessau, a large industrial town, 100 kilometres to the south west of Berlin, in the then East Germany in 1966; a year after The Sound of Music had been released. He spent the first 23 years of his life living behind the iron curtain under Soviet control. Unlike other films, that one had not made it over The Wall. Olaf’s generation saw West German TV, but due to its Nazi content, ‘The Sound of Music’ never had a chance on either side.

The conversation was now twisting to a far more revealing tangent. Olaf went on to explain that after the Wall had come down in 1989, two major businesses boomed in all East German towns across the now unified Germany: video stores and sex shops. 

Parties were organised where films were watched and beer was drunk. My friend recalled nights when up to seven movies were consumed in one sitting, much like we do today with particularly addictive TV Series. Popular titles at the time were Terminator, Days of Thunder and Conan the Barbarian. The thirst for violence and petrol which they had previously been deprived of was now being fully quenched.

Another new phenomenon began to rear its sleazy head in Olaf’s home town. Black plastic bags were becoming increasingly fashionable in the Dessau high street. Beate Uhse, Germany’s biggest sex retailer had moved into town. The black bag was as good a trade mark as Adidas’s 3 lines. Olaf reckoned that business was good for about three years until predictably the market stabilised and investors moved to other emerging enterprises, which the now ‘free’ East Germans were told they wanted.

Conversations often drift this way with Olaf. In the last 10 years or so I’ve gathered much fascinating information about how it was before and after the Wall came down. And now he can go watch a rather silly but enjoyable film about a singing nun, her adopted Austrian family and their escape from the tyranny of Nazism.

Tales from The Wall #1