Friday, June 18, 2021

The American Sector: The Berlin Wall in America

In 1987, Pres. Ronald Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. He declined to do so, so the Germans did it themselves. The remnants of the Wall are like relics, sanctified by the blood of East Germans who were literally killed trying to scale, jump, or in some way circumvent it. Many of the surviving panels ended up in America, but it is not clear how many people who see them every day understand their significance. Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez document the many American displays of the Berlin Wall in their cinematic essay, The American Sector, which opens today in New York, at the Metrograph.

There are obvious reasons why many sites in America proudly display monument-sized portions of the Wall. For instance, we see panels installed at Eureka College (Reagan’s alma mater), the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, MO (where he gave his prescient “Iron Curtain” speech, coining a metaphor that took physical shape in the Wall), German Armed Forces Command in Reston, VA, and the Wende Museum in Culver City. Whereas, we hear but do not see the Wall display in CIA headquarters, for obvious reasons a press officer duly explains.

However, the 
coolest display might very well be at the George H.W. Bush Presidential library, where elements are incorporated into Veryl Goodnight’s The Day the Wall Came Down, a statue of horses breaking through the Wall to freedom. Rather aptly, we also see a panel outside the Friends Suwanee Grill, because the enterprising owner bought it at a liquidation auction (sharp-eyed viewers might also notice the Shen Yun sign in his window).

Unfortunately, much of the accompanying hit-or-miss commentary lacks the insight viewers would hope for. It is particularly disheartening to hear young people’s disinterest in the Wall’s historical significance, which is arguably reflects an insensitivity to the suffering of those who died trying to escape its confines.

Still, the visuals are intriguing and sometimes quite arresting. Perhaps the best sequence features a stark video history of the Wall from the Military Intelligence Heritage Museum in Arizona, accompanied by Cecil Taylor’s “Nailed: Last,” an unlikely pairing that works brilliantly. In fact,
American Sector might inspire a lot of road trips to place like the Bush Library and the Churchill Museum (temporarily closed for renovations). It is short (not quite 70 minutes) and flawed, but American Sector is worth a look from those who appreciate essayistic cinema or armchair travel. It opens today (6/18) at the Metrograph.