History of "Berlin" on BBC TV

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Late last year, the New York Times travel blog, In Transit, posted information about tours of the German capital. Since 1997, the Berlin Underworlds Association has been offering regular tours into some of the most important underground structures in the city.

Berlin is a city most of us think we know well. Rest assured, however, guided tours of WWII bunkers, around remnants of “Germania” and inside escape tunnels under the Berlin Wall offer an unusual perspective on its political history.

Before you book your tickets, though, it’s well worth purchasing a DVD copy of Matt Frei’s Berlin series (BBC Two) for the plane journey.

After all, the BBC news anchor guides viewers to the marker pointing out the most notorious underground site in the city: the Fuehrerbunkher, the fortified shelter where Adolf Hitler spent his final days in 1945. But that’s not all the German-born, American-based journalist does. He surveys vast tunnels which offer a glimpse of Albert Speer’s megalomaniac vision of a new architectural centre for the capital of Nazi Germany before interviewing those who made the subterranean escape from East to West Berlin.

Yet, more importantly, its Frei’s three-part history of matters above ground that helps us to understand those underground.

Unlike earlier BBC news presenter-led documentaries, Gandhi and The Making of Modern Britain (to name but two recent commissions by the Corporation), Berlin isn’t written in a chronological fashion. Rather, it’s a rollercoaster ride back and forth through the years - much like Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity (BBC Four), as a matter of fact. What’s more, unlike Mishal Husain and MacCulloch, Frei’s history deserves its billing given his thought-provoking and revelatory thesis: Berlin as a schizophrenic city of two sides.

The German Confederation’s double-headed eagle was not just a national emblem between the years 1848-1866. It was a symbol of the nation’s schizophrenia, more generally. So, Frei certainly hits a chord when he says at the outset “The story of Berlin is one of a clash of ideas that would shape the modern world.”

And he encapsulates Berlin’s contradictory character with fantastic prose: “Iron fist of rule and the gloved hand of elegant ideas,” was his verdict of Frederick the Great (1712-1786) in Dangerous Ideas. Some may regard footage of his summer residence as not worthy of inclusion. Yet, as Frei reiterates, “To understand Frederick is to understand Berlin.”

As significant a figure as Frederick the Great undoubtedly is, though, it’s another Frederick who we must understand to understand Frei’s subsequent two programmes: Ruined Visions and Ich bin ein Berliner. To be sure, Elector Frederick Wilhelm of Brandenburg’s (1620-1688) desire to turn his Prussian backwater into a European capital coupled with his offer to the continent’s beleaguered minorities greater freedoms in return for residency go to the heart of this contrasting and controversial city.

Moving from both Fredericks to both fascism and then freedom, Frei chronicles the city’s architectural history to reveal a story of “visionary creation and terrible destruction, of human ambition and delusion.” His use of alliteration (“rubble and remembrance, mortar and memory,” for instance) here, for me, at least, proves an ingenious tool when attempting to illuminate two centuries of construction and destruction.

Through the medium of archive footage and interviews, Frei illustrates how “The Jews of Berlin have a history of oppression and freedom, of exile and belonging.” “Theirs”, the genial but authoritative presenter reminds viewers not yet cognizant of his grand thesis, “is a story typical of Berlin’s two-sided nature.”

With only one eagle depicted on Germany’s federal coat of arms today, however, the country’s split personality appears to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Who says two heads are better than one? Frei certainly doesn’t. But it makes for good history. And even better guided tours!

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