Berlin diary entry 3

Saturday 21st May 2005 – Kreuzberg

Yesterday was a great day. For the first day of the schedule it felt like a re-sounding success. But what made the day rewarding was that it was such a success – even though it didn’t go exactly to plan.

At 11am we were due to meet Steffen Leide at the old Department for State Security building – also known as the Stasi Museum.

Due drinks the previous night, we weren’t the sharpest film crew in the world. We were slow to get ready, slow to pack and we didn’t leave ourselves enough time. Then we jumped on the right S-Bahn, but in the wrong direction. It took me all the way to Friedrichstrasse before I realised.

We arrived at the Stasi Museum twenty five minutes late. As part of my preparation for this trip I tried to learn some German. It has been quite something. I learned maybe 0.001% of the language (if that) and it has proved invaluable.

I was able to explain to the Stasi Museum receptionist that I had a meeting arranged with Steffen. A few minutes later, someone came to tell us that Steffen was in the middle of a tour and asked us to come back in an hour. It was perfect. We were late, hassled and ill prepared. Phil was feeling unwell/hungover and I was reprimanding myself for losing my focus on the very first morning.

Being late meant that we had no time for any pre-interview pieces to camera, no time for any set up shots. Waiting another hour for Steffen was a big reprieve.

After a while outside, we went to the café on the second floor and waited for Steffen. The place was amazing. It was the old staff room for the Stasi’s top brass and the 60s/70s Soviet style interior was completely untouched. There was a feeling about the place – a sense of the clandestine nature of the Stasi activity that went on in there. We walked through a meeting room that felt, as soon as you walked in, that decisions had been made in there that affected people’s lives – who to watch, who to arrest, who to lock up and who to let out.

Steffen appeared at about 1pm. He looked like he needed a break. As soon as he sat down, his pouch of rolling tobacco came out, he got a drink and we started to chat. It was instantly clear that he was a good person to talk to.

His English was excellent and his knowledge of the subject (of the Stasi but also of the whole DDR political system) was superb.

Steffen asked me a few questions about the film I was trying to make – then we went into an office for the interview.

One of the reasons I was so irritated about being ill-prepared earlier in the day was because I didn’t know whether the project had any credibility outside my head. On the way to the Stasi museum, I found myself wondering, ‘what am I on about?’ and ‘who cares about My DDR T-Shirt?’ I know the subject of east and west is fascinating to loads of people, but what was the point of the T-Shirt thing? I wondered whether I’d got all these people involved in some kind of folly.

Instead of being laughed out of the place, the interview with Steffen was excellent. It lasted about 1hr 40 mins and we covered just about everything. It was a great confidence booster. The research I had done proved valid and useful and that I could ask informed questions. It helped to an enormous extent that Steffen was so efficient as an interviewee, and the interview is great, but it was the kind of success I needed and put me back on track.

After the interview, Steffen gave us a brief guided tour and after about 4 hours in the building we left, our tails in the air.

The next arrangement was to meet Sven Kubala in Wilmersdorf. I tried his number on my mobile – ‘Call Failed’. I tried another number but again ‘Call Failed.’ This was worrying. I had used my mobile the day before to call Henning and it worked fine. So I tried to call Henning as a test – ‘Call Failed.’ Okay, so no big deal. We just need a call box. We quickly found one. I tried to call but couldn’t get through. I couldn’t read the instructions on the display and it was giving me options of various number prefixes I knew nothing about.

No matter what, whenever I tried Sven’s number it didn’t work. Maybe I need more credit? I got a phone card but it still didn’t work. The only explanation was that I had somehow copied his number incorrectly.

After all the help he’d given me, it was horrible to think that the arrangement to meet might fail. Plus, I knew that he was at home waiting for my call. The only other option was to send him an email. It wasn’t ideal as there was no guarantee that he would get the message but we were running out of options.

Using the directions learnt in the ‘Rechts oder Links?’ chapter of my German language book (learned a couple of weeks earlier), I was able to pop into a shop and ask for the nearest internet café – and perhaps more importantly, understand the reply.

While walking there I remembered that I had the numbers for both of the contacts Sven had put me in touch with. I can call them and ask for the correct number, I thought. I tried Erika, answer machine. I got through to Ursula and tried to stretch my German a little too far. I think she understood what I wanted. She understood who I was, she went to look for Sven’s number but I couldn’t understand what she came back to the phone and told me. It wasn’t a number anyway. Eventually we confirmed our meeting at 3.30pm on Monday and hung up.

So, back to the email idea. We found the internet café and booked one of the PCs. It was a bit of a shady looking place. It didn’t help the slight feeling of trepidation to see that our PC had a hijacker virus. The title bar read, Microshit Internet Explorer.

The internet connection was rubbish and it took ages to sign into an email account. After a few failed attempts, I eventually sent a message. There was nothing more we could do but make our way to Wilmersdorf and hope Sven checked his emails.

We jumped on an S-Bahn, slumped down in our seats and travelled through Berlin. As the stops went by I began to feel like the bahnhof names were a little too unfamiliar. As the train waited at one of the stations, I got up and glanced at the network map. I wasn’t able to find where we were. I had to suppress that little feeling of panic and looked elsewhere in the city. I suddenly found it. Yet again we’d jumped on the right line but in the wrong direction. We were heading south west instead of south east.

“Phil, c’mon!”

As soon as I said it, the doors started to bleep their ‘doors closing’ signal. We grabbed the bags, used our shoulders to hold the doors open and scrambled onto the platform. Admittedly, we probably looked pretty stupid. I would gauge our loss of cool as more or less complete.

A change of platform and we were back on the right track, literally. Twenty minutes later we were outside Heidelberger Platz bahnhof asking for directions. Before long we were ordering some drinks at Strassenbahn Kneipe – the agreed meeting point with Sven – our fingers crossed that Sven got the message.

Twenty minutes later a smiling man approached.

“Sven?”

“Ian!”

“Oh, wow! You got the message!”