Since the Wall fell in 1989 the German capital has been trying to overcome its catastrophic past, to restore the urban fabric destroyed in the 20th century, to build as if life depended on it and cast off the shadows of yesterday’s darkness.

The film shows images of a city in transition, the fascination of rapid change, the beauty of unadulterated landscapes, the horrors of destruction, the spell cast by the void. Prominent architects, developers, politicians and urban planners are seen at work. No interviews, no statements. The music provides the commentary.

It is the drama of real estate, of money and power.

The film uses fantastic images to show the contrasts of the city and the protagonists of hasty transformation. The Babylonian fable of civilization, of the violence of construction, lives on in reunited Berlin. The upheaval turns to stone.

BERLIN BABYLON is a film about construction in Berlin. It begins with a prologue on the Tower of Babylon and Alexander the Great, on power and ambition, on demolition and the problems of building. Twentieth century Berlin knew various decades of architectural upheaval, as did many other cities. But the concentration of construction in the 1990s, the decade after the Wall collapsed, is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. The people who appear in BERLIN BABYLON include those who build and those who hire others to build.

The buildings shown in BERLIN BABYLON are old or still under construction. Some have remained figments of the imagination. Others have been destroyed.

The point of view
The case was unique in the 20th century. The heart of a metropolis had wide swaths of unbuilt space, which, all at once, became expensive development sites. This was the situation in Berlin after the fall of the Wall in 1989. It led to a building boom of Babylonian proportions. A fever that paid little heed to existing structures.

Three angles intrigued me and drew me to the film. First, the fascination of this abrupt transition from one state of urban construction to another. Both the old cityscape and the new skyline were imbued with the atmosphere of fast motion. The old, virtually unscathed, in many places decadent, frightfully open and empty. The new, torn by countless construction sites, which reminded me of the silos of utopian promises as long as the buildings were going up. The film attempts to decelerate this breakneck epoch.

Second, the Babylonian character of the entire Berlin experiment struck me. Civilization seems to be stereotyped since the Babylonian venture. Property owners, developers, contractors and construction workers are always poised to fill any vacancies they perceive in the urban core with structures of unbridled dimensions. The agoraphobic fear of emptiness elevates the rational business acumen of the Berlin real estate sector to new heights of frenzy.

The film contrasts the words and physiognomies of city marketing managers, men who are fast on the draw – architects and investors, politicians and officials – with the lives of the people who use their hands and bodies, who endure the long strain of edification, the construction workers.

Third, the old, new Berlin documents German history astoundingly, layer upon layer, a delicate ambience it creates, which also includes the inglorious periods like the Third Reich and Communist East Germany, an ambience which is considered to be worthless and is therefore easy prey for the urban planning watchdogs. We have to hurry if we want to glimpse the unpainted face of the city before it is lifted and made up.

I shot BERLIN BABYLON from 1996 to 1999 with two cameramen, Ralf K. Dobrick and Thomas Plenert, using 35 mm film. The original cut by Peter Przygodda and Anne Schnee lasts 88 minutes. The film shows the city after the walls came tumbling down. It portrays the agents of radical reconstruction in authentic scenes, edited into a documentary vision. Instead of interviews and statements, the film relies on body language, physiognomies and conversation fragments to show people at work, in their milieu, on the Berlin Construction Project. The images are accompanied and enhanced by a sound track incorporating music, noise and the milling voices of an army of German and foreign builders. The musical score was created specially for the film by Einstürzende Neubauten.

Hubertus Siegert, Director