Friday will be the 18th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not long after the Wall came down (symbolically came down, I should say, as the majority of the actual Wall was still up), my brother went on a school trip to Berlin. He has a picture of himself shaking hands with an East German border guard through a hole in the Wall. The East-meets-West iconicism of the image fascinates me, not least because it’s my own kid brother playing out the scene with the stereotypically mustachioed German guard. It’s a photo that, to me, has come to stand both for a particular period in my own life and for a remarkable period in history.
Today, on Potsdamer Platz, I paid one euro to have my picture taken in front of a fragment of the Wall with a fake East German guard holding an East German flag on a stick. The very charming young man (student? actor? I have no idea) even put on a “serious guard face” for the picture. I think the photo turned out rather well.
I don’t know if I can explain why I felt compelled to have this picture taken (and it really was a compulsion). I’m not sure I understand the motivation myself. I saw the fake “guard” and I thought of that picture of my brother, and the disparity between the two images and experiences stopped me in my tracks. It was like the real fall of the Wall, the real moment of my brother’s handshake, which had previously felt very present and recent to me, suddenly sped away into the distance—or perhaps I suddenly sped forward, landing abruptly in a new reality where there was no frisson whatsoever in an encounter between a smiling young American and a stern-faced German “guard”.
But the thing about this new reality is that it wasn’t a reality at all—it was a fake. My brother had the real experience; my experience was more hyperreal in the Umberto Eco sense of the word. It was a “reincarnation” of history, a fake that seeks to eliminate one’s desire for the reality by apparently improving upon that reality (e.g., “my” guard was young and handsome, and he had a flag). The falsity of the situation is mutually, tacitly, acknowledged, and on some level it must be the very falsity that provides the fascination. Why else have your picture taken with an obviously fake East German guard?
Well, I guess a normal person would just do it for a laugh. Me, I had to start musing on the passage of time and the universal validity (or lack thereof) of the mental images which represent our personal reality. And while I posed willingly for my picture—and indeed laughed while I did so—I have to admit that a large part of me recoiled from the idea of something so personally meaningful to me being knowingly replayed as something so…kitschy.
On the other hand, it’s not as if a picture of me (or anyone else) and a fake East German guard takes something away from the picture of my brother and a real one. If anything, it makes my brother’s experience more real, if that’s possible. Today I traveled not in reality but in hyperreality, in post-modern, post-Wall Berlin.