Students in Jennifer Taylor’s Freshman Seminar, “The Berlin Wall,” are researching cinematic and literary depictions of life in the former German Democratic Republic and finding some surprises. Many texts they are reading paint a bleak picture of oppression and state control behind the iron curtain that is familiar to readers in the post-Cold War era. Other texts, though, suggest that, for many East Germans, life was in many ways the same as it is anywhere. Reacting to Peter Schneider’s 1982 West German novel about life in the divided Berlin, The Wall Jumper: a Berlin Story, freshman Abby Hunter expressed her surprise that one character moves from West to east Berlin, “This part was interesting to me because… history classes have painted East Berlin as a horrible, awful, dark place that no one wanted to live in.” The students in the seminar are exploring the kind of contradictions Abby points out as well as questions about representation and textual authority; everyone is engaged in writing a 10 page research project on a topic connected to some aspect of the GDR.
“It’s funny, the last time I taught a class on the Berlin Wall, all of us had been alive during the wall’s ‘lifetime’; I was born in 1961 when it was constructed and they had all been born in 1989, when it was torn down. I had traveled in the former GDR as a twenty year old and remember it well. The freshmen students in my current seminar, though, were all born after East Germany ceased to exist,” Taylor said. For these freshmen, 1989 is a long time ago, and the research involved has meant many trips to the library and to the digital databases. Swem Library has played a huge role in helping everyone to get started on their research projects. “(Librarian) Paul Showalter and I met before the semester started and blocked in two whole class periods for him to work with the students, and it has been extremely helpful,” Taylor said. “Being able to use the resources of a research library gives the students an enormously important tool in the 21rst Century.”
Student research projects are focused on texts including the first German film made about the Nazi past, Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers are among us (1946), GDR films such as Gerhard Klein’s Berlin Schönhauser Corner (1957), Konrad Wolf’s Divided Heaven (1964) and post-Wall texts including Florian Henckel von Donnermarck’s The Life of Others (2006) and Anna Funder’s Stasiland. The topics include the role of the circus performer in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987), the depiction of technology in East German cinema, the problematic relationship between memory and trauma in depictions of the East German Secret Police and the relationship between West German capitalism and the Nazi past as depicted in film and literature.