At midday on 17 August, 1962, Peter Fechter and Helmut Kulbeik, two teenage citizens of the GDR, jumped into ‘the death strip’ – an area of no-man’s land leading up to the Berlin wall. As they reached the wall, they were fired upon 21 times. Helmut made it over to safety, but Peter was hit a number of times. Seriously wounded, he lay a few yards short of the wall shouting for help. Having seen what had happened, hundreds of citizens of West Berlin gathered, shouting demands at the guards to help Peter, though they did nothing. First aid kits were thrown over the wall but were of no use to Peter. After 50 minutes of calling for help, he fell silent. More than an hour after the attempted escape, GDR guards finally removed his dead body from the death strip.
This is the story to which artist S Mark Gubb turned his hand in the ICA’s re-enactment of “The Death of Peter Fechter,” the latest example of “site-specific theatre,” a phenomenon discussed by Chris Wilkinson in the new issue of Prospect. The audience were taken to an industrial site near Belmarsh prison, a location kept secret until the end. As we stepped off our coaches, we saw guards/actors in 1960s uniforms patrolling a makeshift wall.
The ICA’s re-enactment is very much in line with a fashion that has been growing in Germany since the post-wall years, one I call Mauerpark, after a Berlin park that occupies part of the old wall’s route. Mauerpark is a “theme-park” approach to the wall and the fission created by its 30-year history, one where terror turns curiosity. The souvenirs of Mauerpark are GDR insignia such as gold-framed portraits of party leader Erich Honecker, always with a particularly stern pair of shell-rimmed glasses. Mauerpark’s celebrities are those who tried to escape over the inner-German border, with defectors using hot air balloons or secretly dug tunnels with a whiff of Indiana Jones about them.
Yet the most famous escapees remain two young men who ran for it, perpetuated in grainy black-and-white pictures: one is Conrad Schumann, an East German soldier who in 1961 seized his chance while on duty at the Bernauer Strasse border. A camera caught him as he jumped over what was then still a barbed-wire fence, and the resulting photo (see left) turned him into a symbol of defiance. The other is young Peter Fechter, a limp body being lifted out of the death strip by border guards.
The ICA play, while well intentioned, turned the story of Fechter’s escape into a didactic play on civil courage (with a continuous undertone of ‘What would you have done?’). The over-the-top acting of the West Berlin civilians, who were planted in the crowd, and the focus on one tragic story without real historical context, meant that “The Death of Peter Fechter” felt exploitative, somehow anti-historical—and completely Mauerpark.