A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Berlin Wall goes up, 1961
On this day in 1961, Berliners woke up to a Berlin divided by a wall.
The capital of Berlin had been partitioned in the aftermath of the Second World War. Like the rest of Germany, but in microcosm, Berlin was parcelled out between the victorious powers – US, UK, USSR and France.
However, Berlin was entirely surrounded by Soviet territory, the allies’ parts of Germany being in the west of the country, and the fear amongst Berliners was that all of the city would be swallowed up by the Soviets.
Stalin had already tried this before, in the Berlin Blockade of 1948, when the Soviets shut the roads which connected West Germany through the Soviet sector and into West Berlin. The allies had responded with a massive airlift and in 1949 Stalin had capitulated.
However, the tone had been set and a huge brain drain out of East Berlin (and therefore out of the whole of the Soviet part of Germany, and indeed the whole of the Soviet Bloc) got underway with anyone who wanted to leave simply having to make it to Berlin.
On 15 June 1961 Walter Ubricht, effectively the GDR boss, had stated that “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten.” (“No one has the intention of building a wall”). On the night of 12 August the border between east and west Berlin was closed and by the next morning workers had erected a physical barrier of fences and barbed wire along the 27 mile (43 km) barrier between the two zones.
The following day the concrete arrived.
One, Two, Three (1961, dir: Billy Wilder)
It’s said that after Billy Wilder debuted Sunset Boulevard, Louis B Meyer was furious with him for showing the ugly mechanical workings of the Hollywood dream machine – “You bastard,” Meyer reportedly shouted. “You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you.”
Wilder’s films always seemed to have that edge to them, of it not being entirely clear whose side he was on. One, Two, Three is his take on post-War Berlin, a farce played out lightning speed, so fast in fact that it takes two or three viewings to catch it all. It’s worth more.
Jimmy Cagney, 62-years-old but moving like a cat, plays CR MacNamara, the ambitious regional boss of Coca-Cola forced to babysit his American boss’s teenage daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) for two weeks.
She’s a dizzy thing, attractive and has soon fallen for East German communist Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz). No problem, thinks big Mac, I’ll incriminate the Kraut by planting the Wall Street Journal on him and get him arrested by the secret police.
It’s at this point he discovers that the girl is in fact pregnant with Piffl’s child. Going to Plan B, cobbled together on the run, Mac now has to somehow get Piffl out of jail and turn him into a Coke-swilling capitalist worthy of the young woman before Scarlett’s daddy arrives.
Strangely overlooked when Wilder films are discussed, perhaps because it moves so fast that a lot of people can’t follow it, the film does suffer from a topicality so current that a lot of the jokes are gone with 1961’s newspapers. But a lot aren’t, and the energy of Cagney is astonishing as he charges around Berlin, getting deeper and deeper into trouble, barking orders, entering scenes and then leaving before his presence has even properly registered.
Wilder was shooting on old turf – in Berlin where he’d lived before the war, and in studios in Munich where he’d also worked after transitioning from journalist to film-maker and before fleeing Hitler for Hollywood.
It’s possibly this journalist’s streak that gives the film its verve – tell the story straight and clear and don’t hang about is what the best sort of journalism is about, after all.
Though as with the best Wilder films there is a knot at the centre that Wilder is exploring along with the neuroses of his subjects, in this case American cultural imperialism, Cagney running all over Berlin like the gangsters he so famously used to portray, because he represents Coca-Cola and can do what he wants. Meanwhile, the East Berlin Wilder depicts is dour, flat, joyless.
Wilder was shooting as the Wall was going up, and while Andy Warhol was creating his iconic Coke bottle pop art. Coke, the great equalizer, in a city where, in the Soviet part of it at least, equality was supposed to be the biggest show in town.
You could dig around like this for hours, finding cultural significance. Luckily the film is so funny you probably won’t want to.
- A great and overlooked Billy Wilder comedy
- A great and overlooked James Cagney performance
- Horst Buchholz, one of the Magnificent Seven
- A fine Cold War product
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© Steve Morrissey 2014