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Setting the Scene: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Spy Film Genre22 min read

28 January 2021 14 min read


Setting the Scene: The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Spy Film Genre22 min read

Reading Time: 14 minutes

‘Setting The Scene’ is a column where we examine how a country’s culture, economy, history and politics all come together to shape its hit films, and what they may reveal about the subconsciousness of its people.

As Singaporeans, especially for those born after the 1980s, it can be hard to imagine that not so long ago, the world was embroiled between the struggle for ideological supremacy between two superpowers, where fears of nuclear armageddon constantly lingered in the air. Recent US-China tensions have ignited rumblings of a second Cold War — but what exactly was the Cold War? 

For most, the Cold War, approximately between 1947 to 1991, may just be a chapter in our history textbooks to regurgitate for exams. Unlike our Southeast Asian neighbours, especially Cambodia and Vietnam where the scars of the resulting proxy wars are still fresh, the tension and paranoia apparent throughout the Cold War are completely foreign for Singapore’s younger generation. 

This detachment may come doubly so with the Berlin Wall, a physical and ideological divide that partitioned Germany into two: East and West. Football fans may be familiar with the storied rivalry between the two sides, with their 1974 World Cup match dubbed the “ein kampf zwischen brüdern” or “a struggle between brothers”. It’s an apt description that would embody the pain felt from the forced division.

For close to four decades, the wall physically separated families, loved ones and friends in Berlin while symbolically representing the same divide across Germany.

The espionage world was one of the main battlegrounds of the Cold War with each superpower constantly tussling to gain an edge over the other.  Berlin was the frontier of this battleground, known throughout the Cold War as the spy capital of the world.

An air of suspicion constantly hung beyond both sides of the wall, where anyone could be suspected as a spy for the other side. East Germany was one of the most surveilled regimes in history with its dense web of spies, informants and secret police. Suspects were subject to physical and psychological torture. Countrymen spied on countrymen, Germans turned on Germans — all to survive the intense rivalry between two superpowers.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Cold War Berlin has fascinated filmmakers in both Germany and Hollywood, particularly with the spy genre. The Man on the Other Side joins this pantheon of spy films. However, given the cultural distance, it might come as quite a surprise to find out that the spy thriller is directed by a Singaporean, filmmaker Marcus Lim.

(Check out Sinema.SG’s interview with Lim here where the award-winning director shared the inspiration behind his film and the production process.)

The Man on the Other Side will be screening in EagleWings Cinematics on 30 January, 5 February, and 20 February 2021. In anticipation of the film’s Singapore premiere, we take the opportunity to give a brief introduction to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, and how the spy genre saw its peak popularity while the world was on the brink of destruction.

An Extremely Brief Background of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall

From the ashes of the Second World War, two superpowers emerged. While significant in their contribution to the war, the US were relatively unharmed domestically compared to the rest of the world. This put them in the unique position of being an economic and military superpower. 

On the other side, there was the Soviet Union (USSR), the then-largest country in the world land area-wise consisting of Russia and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. While they bore the brunt of the war’s damage (the Battle of Stalingrad was one of the bloodiest conflicts in history), the Soviet Union remained the dominant military power — land-based wise — in Europe. 

Both superpowers were allies during the Second World War but long-standing tensions between the two remained after its conclusion. The Soviets were resentful of America’s late entry into the war and how the USSR was shunned by the international US-led community prior. The US were long wary of the Soviets, their ideology, and how they seemed adamant in spreading their influence across Europe.

The Cold War would come to term the rivalry between the two superpowers throughout the 20th century. Although the war never boiled over to direct conflict (thus, the ‘coldness’), the rivalry would be played out in the fields of culture, science, technology, ideology and through proxy military conflicts throughout the world. For everyone around the world, tension and fear were at a historical high as a ‘hot’ war between the two superpowers may have meant an all-out nuclear war.

Shortly after the Second World War, it was decided that Germany and its capital would be divided between the war victors to facilitate demilitarisation and denazification. The Soviets held the east of Germany and Berlin (which was part of their zone) while France, the UK and the US held the west. Tensions surged between the West and the Soviet East, eventually spilling into a similar division of Germany. In West Germany, capitalism and democracy. In East Germany, planned economies and communism.  

The West is home to the Rhur Valley, a key industrial district in Germany. Without it, the East was significantly handicapped industrially and economically. Seeking a better life, floods of refugees fled from the East to the West throughout the Cold War’s early years. Most fled not because of ideology but because of economic survival.

In August 1961, East Germany’s Communist government started construction on the Berlin Wall to stem this flow. The wall’s official reason was to keep “Western fascists” away from the city. Lined with guards and guard towers, the Berlin Wall made it incredibly difficult to get to the other side, with those caught attempting to cross arrested or shot on sight. 

It wasn’t too long ago when the Berlin Wall finally fell in 1989, signalling the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The implosion of the Soviet Union sparked by a series of revolutions in the Soviet satellite states in November 1989 finally brought the walls down. Over two million East Berliners visited West Berlin to participate in the “greatest street party in the history of the world”.

Baywatch and Knight Rider actor David Hasselhoff performed at the wall, making him a cultural icon in Germany, and never again would there be efforts by a major power to separate families with a concrete wall. 

How the Cold War Contributed To the Popularity of the Spy Film Genre

Filmmakers have been making spy films since the silent era. The genre saw its popularity peak during the Cold War when tensions were at a historic high and the enigmatic world of espionage was the war’s main battlefield. The world was divided into two sides and the fear of an enemy was omnipresent. The evil communist or capitalist could be your neighbour, your friend, or even your lover. Media from both superpowers made sure that the paranoia was always apparent, especially when they occasionally turned out to be true.

Adding on to the stakes are the fears of the Atomic Age. Never before in human history had there been a weapon as destructive as nuclear weapons. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed that entire cities can be levelled in the blink of an eye. Yet despite the dangers and destruction made so apparent, the two superpowers only worked to increase their nuclear stockpile in an arms race.

The worst came when nobody knew for sure how to protect themselves from a nuclear attack. Fallout shelters? Duck and cover? There was so much uncertainty in the air that hiding in a fridge probably might have been promoted. Even if officials knew the extent of what a nuclear war would entail, it was in their interest to obscure the facts from the public. A nuclear attack was not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. 

These two fears would deeply inform Cold War cinema. Spy films were popular as they demystified the espionage world that has seemingly infiltrated their everyday life. How it was deeply relevant to the everyman meant that the genre also had the byproduct of being effective vehicles to promote ideology. The differences between how the West and Soviets approached the genre is deeply fascinating but we will only briefly dwell on Western cinema for its resonance in popular culture today.

The early days of the Cold War saw spy films take on sombre and realistic approaches to the genre, such as with 1965’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. There was also room for action thrillers, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest but they mainly emphasise how everyday people are affected or even see them unwillingly dragged into the spy world. 

Perhaps as a response to the absurdity of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine which emerged in the 1960s plunging the world to the brink of nuclear war, some spy films in this period matched the tone with over-the-top, suspenseful thrillers. Reality was getting so absurd that media had to be off the wall to entertain and be worthwhile escapism for audiences. This would birth the spy-fi genre, synonymous with the adventures of early Bond films.

A genre previously dominated by British filmmakers saw Americans join in by the 1970s, furthering the iconic style and aesthetics now synonymous with the period. One of the most recognisable aspects is tight zooms, a byproduct of the growing affordability of zoom lenses by the 1970s, which gave a sense of claustrophobia perfect for the genre. Due to fatigue, thawing of global tensions, and a war in a galaxy far, far away, the popularity of the genre would wane by the 1980s. 

Throughout the changes to the genre, romance remained key in contributing to the spectacle and suspense as well as furthering their relatability. Tales of loved ones being spies weren’t uncommon in the US either, such as American defector Robert Lee Johnson. Nevertheless, romance and passion tend to be spicier with a hint of danger and guesswork anyway. 

Films Set in Cold War Germany

One of the first films that depicted the Berlin Wall is the aforementioned The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Due to Hollywood’s obsession with spy-fi by the wall’s construction in 1961, not much would be dedicated to the capital. German media of the period would offer a much more detailed look into the life of a divided Germany. 

If the Berlin Wall could be seen as a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain, Berliners were no doubt at the frontier of the Cold War. While Germans were culturally homogenous, East and West Germany, including the two Berlins, were worlds apart in most other aspects. 

Parliamentary democracy was established in West Germany and West Berlin was dubbed the ‘island of freedom’. West Germany’s rapid reconstruction and momentous economic growth were dubbed the “Miracle on the Rhine”. Meanwhile, East Germany was hardly able to match the economic growth of West Germany. It was under Communist rule: planned economies, no freedom of the press and strict surveillance. Germany was ground zero of the clash between ideologies, pitting countrymen against countrymen who simply wanted to survive.

Spies from both sides were everywhere, continually working to find any information they could beyond the Iron Curtain. These included Romeo Agents, spies from East Germany sent to West Germany to seduce secretaries in ministries to attain top-level information.

Both sides continued to create films and television programmes throughout the Cold War. They too hopped on the spy film craze. With most of the film infrastructure in the East, a significant portion of West German cinema consisted of international co-productions. They approached the spy genre in two main ways. On one hand, there were pensive takes inspired by German auteur Fritz Lang. On the other, the Eurospy genre was born — flashy, over-the-top thrillers that imitated James Bond’s adventures. 

Even East Germany hopped on Bond’s popularity. However, much like most of its media, there may be similarities in style and aesthetic but they deeply differ ideologically. East Germany produced spy films such as 1963’s For Eyes Only and 1979’s Coded Message for the Boss which were ideologically inverted with the West. These box office hits in the East often portrayed the West as horrifyingly excessive, and the East German protagonists as stalwart heroes of freedom. Worried that Bond’s popularity would infiltrate the hearts of its youth, Werner Bredebusch, their version of the British spy, was born, a Stasi agent protecting the country from the evil CIA. 

The reality of the Stasi is not as peachy as these films and television programmes suggested. In the West, the agency was feared for its deep web of spies. Their collusion with terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction wreaked havoc in West Germany throughout the Cold War. Former East German officials residing in the West were known to be kidnapped by the Stasi to be forcibly returned and executed. Domestically, the Stasi, officially known as East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, created one of the most surveilled and repressive regimes in history. 

Just about every aspect of everyday life was under the Stasi’s watch through wiretaps, bugged homes, and informants — all to stamp out any traces of dissent. Blackmail and psychological and physical torture of suspects were widely known and feared. By the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stasi files on more than one-third of the East German population were found. The Stasi Records Law passed in 1991 allowed Germans and foreigners to view their Stasi files and many found that their neighbours, close friends, and even spouses were Stasi informants. 

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the lingering effects of a forcefully divided country lives on. Many East Germans suffered long-term psychological trauma from the oppressive tactics of the Stasi. For others, nostalgia or “Ostalgie” among East Germans of their recent past remains strong; near the end of the Cold War, East Germany was the most economically developed out of the Soviet bloc.

While reunification was celebrated on both sides, it also meant that a significant portion of East Germans lost their previously secure jobs having to compete with their Western countrymen. Eastern Germany still trails behind economically, with both sides further divided by their views.

Divided Germany has been expressed and remembered throughout contemporary German cinema. 2003’s lighthearted tragicomedy Good Bye, Lenin! chronicles the rapid changes East Germans experienced shortly after reunification. 2006’s award-winning film The Lives of Others reveals the frightening reach of Stasi surveillance in East Germany during the Cold War, where Stasi agents may know more about their subjects than they know themselves. Several films, such as 2001’s The Legend of Rita and 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, are based around the Red Army Faction’s operations in West Germany.

Outside of Germany, Hollywood recently showed a brief spark of interest in Cold War Germany. However, with the exception of 2015’s Bridge of Spies, most blockbusters would only give a cursory introduction to the period, using it as a backdrop for action spy-thriller fares, such as with 2015’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and 2017’s Atomic Blonde.

The Man on the Other Side

Spy films continued to be a mainstay genre throughout the world, each with their own perspectives and themes, although they would not be as popular as its heyday in the 1960s. Despite the lack of resonance from Cold War tensions, there was just something about the genre — the deceptions, the betrayals, the world hidden from everyday view — that has remained exciting for audiences. 

The Cold War continues to be a popular setting for spy films not only because of the virtually limitless depth of stories from the era to tell but also with how data was handled compared to modern times. Technology plays a huge part in intelligence gathering today, compared to the impermanence of information and the personal touch that the espionage world afforded during the Cold War. It is exactly this human dimension that informs The Man on the Other Side.

For a multitude of reasons, the term “Singapore spy film” is virtually nonexistent despite our brushes with espionage throughout the years; the closest we have to an on-screen spy is Malaya’s Jefri Zain. Even if it is set in Cold War Germany, having a spy film to call our own is one key reason the team at Sinema.SG is excited about The Man On The Other Side. The other reason is exactly with the film’s intriguing context, serving as the perfect backdrop for any thriller. 

After all, there seems to be no better place for Singapore to make its first steps into the genre than with the former spy capital of the world.

Check out the film’s trailer below:

The Man on the Other Side will be showing in EagleWings Cinematics on 30 January, 5 February, and 20 February 2021. Director Marcus Lim will be present for post-screening Q&As. 

And stand a chance to win the tickets to the film in this giveaway! Tickets are selling fast so this may be your only chance to catch the spy thriller. The giveaway ends TOMORROW, Friday, 29 January.

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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