February 25, 2015

1953. Berlin: City Without a Country

See It Now: Berlin
East Berlin in 1949. The banner reads "Freundschaft für immer mit der Sowj. Union" (Friendship forever with the Soviet Union).

The New York Herald Tribune, September 21, 1953:

Berlin Story


"Our thesis, as always, is that what television does best is to take people places," said Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly in a memorandum to their "See It Now" crew of eight reporters and ten cameramen just before they took off for Berlin.

"We want the sights and sounds of the Cold War as it exists in Berlin, where the last war ended and the next one could easily begin. The narrower the focus, the more isolated the sounds, the better the picture. Let's try to get the difference between the East Zone and the west -- the difference in the faces, in the shoes, in the buildings. We want the gnarled fingers of a German woman picking bricks out of rubble. (The biggest business in Berlin is still rubble.) We want Mayor Reuter, possibly scuffling his way through the shell of the Reichstag." . . .

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Naturally, this ambitious enterprise presented some rather special problems. The Russians take a dim view of cameras and Friendly warned the crew that the CBS movie cameras -- the large ones -- cost $15,000 and, for heaven's sake, don't taken them into the East section of Berlin where the Russians would surely take them away. So, Bill Downs and a cameraman promptly took a ride through the Brandenburg Gate, camera and all. I've just seen some of the bootlegged films and they're as graphic a picture of Soviet Berlin as anything you're likely to see.

Like any story, Murrow and his crew started out with a lot of ideas which were tossed out when better ones came along. The Berlin Story, which tomorrow will be televised, I ought to put in right here, tomorrow (Tuesday) 10 p. m., E. D. T. on CBS-TV, will constantly shift from East to West sectors. You'll see a bit of a shot of a fruit store in the West, then a fruit store in the East, a rubble factory in the West, then one in the East.

In other words, the parallels will be as close as possible and the contrast is enormous. Right now Germany -- West Germany -- may be the most prosperous country in Europe (largely, as Adlai Stevenson pointed out, because the Germans don't have to support an Army, Navy, or Air Force as the rest of us do). The shops are full of goods. The people are wearing fine clothes. There is a bustle and flourish to life.

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In the East sector, there is universal drabness, ruin and the sort of nothingness that the Russians seem to spread wherever they go. Much of this has been captured on film. Down Stalinallee, the Russian showplace, some splendid but half-finished buildings are on view. The Russians haven't got any one to work on them since the strike. But the cameras poked furtively behind the splendid edifices; directly behind them is a sea of rubble as if the buildings were exteriors in a Hollywood movie set.

Murrow specializes in the little picture, the littler the better, so his men have taken one block of West Berlin, right on the fringe of the Eastern sector and explored it minutely. They picked up one German girl, Ooshy (a nickname for Ursula), who is shown in her apartment, at the butcher's, at the tavern, a dance hall and in an intimate and very expensive night club.

And, of course, there are the big people, too. They got that shot of Mayor Reuter in the ruins of the Reichstag. "I once told my wife," he says to Howard Smith, "that I would outlive Stalin and I would outlive Hitler -- and I did."

Before the Brandenburg Gate, Murrow interviewed Dr. James Conant, the United States High Commissioner; this sober and illuminating discussion of geopolitics was interrupted by communist youths who began singing the anti-American song, "Ami Go Home."

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Berlin, of course, is a thrice-told tail. As Murrow admitted, millions of words about postwar Berlin have been printed or broadcast. When I asked him by transatlantic telephone the other day, was new, what had surprised him most about this trip to Berlin? He took a while to think it over and then said soberly:

"I think I was most struck by the calmness and the lack of tension in West Berlin. You see less signs of the strain in the faces of West Berliners than you find in the faces of New York or Chicago. I guess that if you live long enough on the edge of a volcano you figure, sooner or later, that it's not going to blow up and you relax."