Dissolves of Past and Present:
Mapping 'The Empty Centre' of the Berlin Republic
Dr Deniz Gokturk

"Die leere Mitte/The Empty Centre" (Germany 1998) is the title of a documentary essay film by Hito Steyerl, which reveals layers of history underneath the construction site at Potsdamer Platz/Berlin. Where Moses Mendelsohn was once turned away at the former gate by customs officers, and prevented from entering the city for being Jewish, today a woman from Jamaica, herself a temporary resident of Germany, is selling pieces of the Wall and GDR transit visa as souvenirs. In the Weimar Republic, the music hall Haus Vaterland used to be located nearby, housing a Turkish Cafe, a Japanese Teahouse, a Bodega Bar and providing a stage for many jazz bands with black performers. For Siegfried Kracauer this temple of exotic locations and delirious entertainment was already haunted by darker forebodings: "Die Geographie der Obdachlosenasyle ist aus dem Schlager geboren." Through dissolves of archive material with present day images the film engages the viewer in an archeology of the present. The question occurs whether the selective, exoticising appropriation of 'foreigners' in the past bears any resemblance to present-day spectacles of multiculturalism.

At the heart of the new Berlin Republic, multiculturalism has become almost trendy these days. In spring 2000, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt housed an exhibition titled "Heimat Kunst", accompanied by various events and performances, all devoted to displaying creative work by 'strangers within', namely writers, artists and filmmakers of 'foreign' origin, working in Germany, who are increasingly being celebrated as an enrichment of national culture by cultural institutions and dispatched as ambassadors to help Germany compete on a global market of consumable differences. (Steyerl)

The hype around ethnicity and hybridity in the realm of culture remains, however, rather disproportionate to political representation and participation. Like in other European countries, it goes along with a growing number of racist attacks as well as xenophobic and protectionist debates about immigration and the integrity of national culture. In fall 2000, Friedrich Merz, the general secretary of the CDU, coined the rather nebulous and controversial concept of a German "Leitkultur", a dominant culture which all immigrants were supposed to adapt to. Around 9 % (7,5 million) of Germany's resident population today is "foreign" (although not necessarily foreign born), i.e. does not hold a German passport, a figure considerably higher than in other European countries, due to a dated and never fully reformed citizenship law which has made it difficult for immigrants to become citizens. Incidentally, the temporary labour recruitment agreement with Turkey was signed in 1961, the same year as the Berlin Wall was built. Since the fall of the wall in 1989, the status of minorities in the reunified Germany and their place in the national narrative is being negotiated in new, even more riddled configurations. (Leslie Adelson)

Hito Steyerl's film examines the rhetorics of inclusion/exclusion, borders/territories, hereditary claims/immigrant rights, and the controversial mobilisation of concepts like culture, identity and diversity. Rather than taking ethnic, religious or cultual identities for granted, it argues for an exploration of the frameworks and platforms upon which differences are articulated. The film illustrates the important role of history and memory for our understanding of how margin and centre, minorities and majorities are conceived in Germany today.