Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 23: Escape from Berlin

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 23: Escape from Berlin

Article excerpt

Most Americans in Europe, fictional or otherwise, eventually return to America, but narratives set in Berlin show an especially high thematization of their departures as escapes. The Berlin Wall invited escape narratives between 1961 and 1989, perhaps fueled by earlier descriptions of the city's claustrophobic atmosphere prior to the war. Fictions set during the war often depict urgent flights from bombings, invasion and the flaming terrors of "Fortress Berlin." Tales set in the contemporary city still resonate with the trope of escape. While John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came infrom the Cold (1963) showed British agents attempting flight from East Berlin only to be shot dead on the Wall, American narratives almost always depict happier escapes, even as they dramatize their difficulties.

In James McGovern's The Berlin Couriers (1960), an American kidnapped and tortured in Berlin's Soviet sector flees to West Berlin twice, first amid street protests, then by swimming the Spree, leaving his captor to drown (then marrying an East Berliner and taking her to the United States). In Ross Thomas's The Cold War Swap (1966), Americans rescuing defected spies from behind the Wall find themselves trapped in East Berlin. Their elaborately-devised plans to scale the Wall failing, they escape through an underground passageway only to be kidnapped by the Chinese, then swim to West Berlin, donning elaborate disguises to fly to Bonn. Over-Wall, under-Wall and underwater escapes roll out in dramatic succession in such narratives. Car chases through checkpoints are common, as well. In Charles W. Thayer's Checkpoint (1964), an American pursued by Nazis in a harrowing night-time car chase speeds his lover to safety across the Danish border. In Donald Lindquist's Berlin Tunnel 21 (1978), an East Berliner escapes entrapment behind the Wall in a dramatic car chase to a bridge. In W.T. Tyler's The Man Who Lost the War (1980), as Soviets close highways into West Berlin, the American protagonist, attacked by spies in Treptow after his car is disabled, steals a car and speeds through Checkpoint Charlie, breaking down both sides of its barriers. Joseph Kanon's The Good German (2001) climaxes with a high-speed car chase out of East Berlin, ending in a dramatic crash at a bridge. Classic narratives of the siege of a walled city (and, in more than one case, a woman within it), these are even more resoundingly tales of escape from one. While most of these overseas dramas were published in a period when many Americans were fleeing cities for suburbs, fantasies of breaking through a wall binding one within foreign space also paradoxically fulfill desires to act in foreign space-or, in historical fictions, even in foreign time-by compelling one to.

Themes of a male American aiding a female Berliner's escape from the city were common from the beginning of the Second World War. Upton Sinclair's 1940s Lanny Budd novels offered repeated themes of sneaking troubled Berliners out of the city and over the German border, depicting a dramatic escape necessitating disguising a heroine and sneaking her out under Hitler's own very nose. Thayer's Checkpoint had an American helping his German dissident lover escape Berlin, then showed the protagonist years later helping the same former lover escape from socialist East Berlin, with two dramatic attempted passages through underground tunnels before a diplomatic release though Checkpoint Charlie finally rescued her. Lindquist's Berlin Tunnel 21's plot was based on multiple female (and male) rescues made by enterprising Americans (and Germans). Fletcher Knebel's Crossing in Berlin (1981) likewise treated the trials, tribulations and repeated rescues of a German lover by an American. In Rebecca Cantrell's A City of Broken Glass (2012), similar to Sinclair's wartime saga but with a female protagonist replacing the male figure, Hannah, trapped in Nazi Berlin, fights her way out by delving into a den of Nazis, escaping out the back door with her adopted son. …

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