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“I still have a suitcase in Berlin”
“I still have a suitcase in Berlin”, said Ronald Reagan during his 1987 famous Tear Down This Wall! speech, at the Brandenburg Tor, with the goal to call on Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall. Ronald Reagan tried to re-create John Kennedy’s memorable statement: “I take pride in the words: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’” by alluding to Marlene Dietrich’s song Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin (I still have a suitcase in Berlin).
The song is about a suitcase full of pleasures and memories of days gone by in Berlin, as highlighted in the refrain:
I still have a suitcase in Berlin
That's why I have to go there sometime soon.
The joys of days gone by
Are all still in my little suitcase.
I still have a suitcase in Berlin
It stays there, too, and that makes sense.
In this way it's worth a trip,
Because whenever I'm homesick, then I go back.
As in Marlene Dietrich’s song, the film The Mirror Suitcase Man by Rui Calçada Bastos depicts a suitcase as simultaneously a travel object and a container of memory, used to symbolize and transport relevant moments for him, which I will discuss further on.
In the long time between Dietrich’s song, written pre-Berlin Wall in 1951, and Reagan’s repetition of it, Berliners had to learn not only how to live but how to think in terms of a divided city, a divided world.
One of the best ways to understand and love Berlin is to think of it as a city undergoing permanent transformation as portrayed in, for example, Wim Wenders’ film, Der Himmel über Berlin (English title, Wings of Desire) first presented in 1987. In this film, an old man has trouble finding his way to the old Postdamer Platz. In the past, the square was the border between the Russian and American military sectors, and a meeting point between the Western Allies and the Soviets. The old man could not relate to the huge empty wasteland that still physically divided the city in two – as it is shown in the film – nor, I imagine, could he relate to Postdamer Platz as it is today: a central economic and commercial hub, for Berliners and tourists.
Wim Wenders also highlights reinvention as the key to living in a city divided in two when he depicts the fall of an angel in front of the Wall as a consequence of wandering through the streets of the city listening the Berliners’ thoughts. It is a tradeoff: with the loss of his immortality Wenders’ angel acquires a new vision of the city from ground level and with a human perspective.
In the recent film Oh Boy! (2012), by Jan Ole Gerster, its main characters wander through the streets of the city and this reveals itself again to be the best way of relating to it. This exercise establishes a strong connection between the private sphere – the temporarily lost individual – and the ‘found’ public space. Berliners or foreigners (with their suitcases) can discover or rediscover the city if they surrender to its urban spaces as those that have been reshaped throughout history.
The suitcase mirrors the city
Rui Calçada Bastos has lived in Berlin since 2003. In 2004, the artist left his artist residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien and decided to stay on in Berlin. In this first year, he explored the city and the people of Berlin on foot in his super-8 film, The Mirror Suitcase Man. The other videos that Calçada Bastos made in the same year – Studio Contents or Left (L)overs – are pieces which represent the idea of a memory of objects and feelings, that the artist transports with him or inside him. His works are a self-representation containing a highly personal biographical background.
The Mirror Suitcase Man focuses our attention on the object of the suitcase, made from mirror carried by an anonymous man. It frames and reflects the city of Berlin and its people, the landscape gardens, the trains and the streets. Calçada Bastos reinvents the city using the reflection in the mirror: it’s a city in flux, an inside and an outside space, as for example, the solitary woman standing in the metro, with her thoughts, just waiting to get to a final destination.
The transitional, and physical passage within the urban space is also a metaphor for a reflection of memory: running imagery in The Mirror Suitcase Man is traced in cars, trees, public transport. The parks in Berlin are also reflected in the mirror, representing daily life, we can admire the Spree river, and see the Künstlerhaus Bethanien at the end of a street. We only see his mirror, the outside (but also symbolically the inside) of the suitcase. And this suitcase represents travels, in this case, a walk in Berlin, an unfinished city. This is a less stressful city compared to Paris, London or New York, as sung by Dietrich. In the end, the suitcase will travel again, but in other hands, on a different walk, a dissimilar travel in another “dysraphic city”.
The slow framing of the characters captured in the suitcase’s reflection and the man without a face carrying the suitcase refers to the film noir genre. They particularly remind me of the Cold War movie Kiss Me Deadly (1955) in which a glowing suitcase, also of undisclosed content, reflected the characters’ fear of an imminent threat or their doubt about their – and mankind’s – destiny.
The “wandering” visually documents the collective memory of the city itself. This allusion to collective memory is echoed in the soundtrack, which creates a mysterious environment, seemingly disconnected from the black and white moving image: the sound of a typewriter, static, a man whispering French words, the sound of a church organ. These all give a nostalgic and solitary atmosphere to the film.
The French anthropologist Marc Augé examines his concept of “non-places” . These are contemporary places of transience, where each person is alone, and acts alone; where there is a lack of place and memory, or enough experience for the place to be considered significant. These non-places included in The Mirror Suitcase Man can be: bus doors that closed, metro station platforms, passing cars, the empty bench in the park. They always induce a state of being “between” something. They are the entrances and exits where gods and citizens meet, people have encounters and unencounters, where history is made, like a mirror in a suitcase.
In Dysraphic City, Berlin: Node Center for Curatorial Studies, August 2013.