What was it like to peer over the Berlin Wall?

Looking over the Berlin Wall into East Germany must have been ominous. Artist Stefan Roloff is giving visitors a chance to experience it. He's installed original images from the 1980s where the Berlin Wall once stood.

Over a length of 229 meters (751 feet) along the longest stretch of what remains of the Berlin Wall, German-American video artists and filmmaker Stefan Roloff has set up gigantic video stills representing what it was like to peer across the Berlin Wall in the 1980s, across the so-called no man's land, and into communist East Germany.

The stills, which also include silhouette images of East Germans who witnessed that era, were reproduced from videos Roloff had taken of the area in the 1980s. 

The exhibition is already visible to passers-by but officially runs from August 13 through November 9. Those dates are no coincidence as they mark the start of the Wall's construction on August 13, 1961, and its historic fall on November 9, 1989.

 Read more: What Germany was like when the Berlin Wall was built

'Some things you never forget' 

"I always remembered those videos," Stefan Roloff, 64, told DW. In 1984, he filmed East Germans at the border, while standing in West Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he later spoke to 70 contemporary witnesses of the era for a deeper look at life behind the Iron Curtain.


Now Berlin visitors can take a selfie with an East German border guard

"There are some things you never forget, and it was a very intense situation," Roloff said of his video forays. 

Watching the videos again took him right back. "You remember what it was like, even what the weather was like, how you felt," said the artist.

Roloff, who actually sprayed some of the original graffiti on the West Berlin side of the Wall when it was still standing, said he welcomed the opportunity to put up images of "what the place really looked like, what a horrible death machine it was, the electric fences, the lights, German shepherds and armed guards, everything that was enclosed in this strip between two walls."

'What it really was like' 

People today aren’t aware of what it was like, he said, criticizing that so much of the Wall was completely dismantled, pointing out that some people look at the bits of Wall left standing and say it doesn't look that bad. 


The artist said it took him a year and a half to create the images from his video archives

Getting his images ready for the installation was not an easy task, Roloff remembers. "The challenge was to blow up video stills that were made in the 1980s to a size of 3 meters high."

Related Subjects

Developing a technique that let the image appear like a painting took him and his printer a year and a half, he said, adding that he was particularly pleased with the outcome. "You won't see pixels, all the lines are sharp and clear - but it looks like a painting. Once you step away from it and look at it, it looks like a photorealistic image." 

Read more: Iranian-German East Side Gallery artist invites Trump to visit the Berlin Wall

The outdoor installation "Beyond the Wall" is set up along twhat is known as the West Side Gallery, which is the unadorned backside that faces the Spree River of the world-famous East Side Gallery.  

At 1,316 meters, the East Side Gallery is the longest outdoor gallery in the world and once formed part of the border between East and West Berlin. It was covered in large-scale graffiti artwork in 1990 and attracts millions of visitors every year.


Berlin icon

It's one of Berlin's most visited locations. Numerous artists have immortalized their thoughts on German reunification on a 1.3-kilometer stretch of the Wall. Among them was Dimitri Vrubel, an unknown art student from Moscow when the East Side Gallery was created in 1990. He painted the famous brotherly kiss between the Soviet and East German heads of state, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker.


Reminder of the victims

The East Side Gallery is located near what used to be a so-called death strip lined with watchtowers. The patrolling soldiers in that area had orders to shoot at those attempting to flee from East into West Berlin.


Protected monument

On September 28,1990 - days before official reunification on October 3 -the East Side Gallery was opened to the public. Since then, many of its paintings, printed on postcards available in souvenir shops all over Berlin, have become world famous. Among them is Thierry Noir's "Homage to the Young Generation." In November 1991, the East Side Gallery was listed as a protected historical monument.


Controversial renovation

As the Berlin Wall is exposed to wind and weather, tourists and souvenir chiselers, it needs to be repaired regularly. In October 2008, the artworks were to be completely refurbished. Some of the artists refused to so, but most agreed and a large number of the paintings could be restored.


Art flash mob

In 1990, German pop artist Jim Avignon created his painting "Doin' it cool for the East Side." In 2013, he came under fire when, together with some art students, he painted over his original painting - without official permission.


Investor pushes through partial demolition

In 2013, parts of the East Side Gallery were displaced for the construction of high-rise apartments.The resulting gap of six meters served as an entrance to the construction site. That stirred protests - without success. Now, the residential tower has been nearly completed and 80 percent of the apartments have been sold. The construction is expected to be completed within the next half year.


Signs of time

Although some artists have already renovated their works several times, other paintings are fading or have been disfigured with graffitti. Artist Thomas Klingenstein has lamented that the outdoor gallery is in a "pitiful state." A former member of the East German opposition, he designed part of the East Side Gallery.


On the silver screen

In January 2015, the documentary "Berlin East Side Gallery" by filmmakers Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies was released, covering the various changes which the outdoor gallery has had to endure since its renovation in 2009. Artist Thomas Klingenstein said he hopes "that this film will help protect that special stretch of the Berlin Wall for the future."