A kiss; that most intimate of personal connections, especially in public venues, has always brought with it an emotional reaction.
Some kisses are so iconic as to be instantly recognizable; Rodin's Carrera sculpture, Klimt's guilt embossed painting, Michael Corleone marking his brother for death, and the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ day, 1945.
But there is one enduring kiss that divides people like the wall it is painted on used to.
Its official title is "Fraternal Kiss" or Bruderkiss in local German and it depicts two men in the named act. It is often criticized for lack of originality as it is an almost exact copy of a photograph. Despite the subject matter, it has nothing to do with homosexuality, or sex at all for that matter.
It is represented in a mural measuring just over 11 by 15 feet. It is one of 105 paintings that share space on a 1.3 kilometer long wall, painted by as many artists from all over the world. It is on the longest existing section of the wall that once divided Berlin like a jagged knife scar, effectively encircling its inhabitants in a metropolitan concentration camp not much better than the ones its builders had helped to liberate two decades prior. This is the final and largest remnant of what the world has come to know as "The Berlin Wall."
The Socialist Fraternal Kiss, as it is formally called, is a somewhat dated and rarely used greeting once quite popular throughout Eastern bloc countries that involves a mutual kiss to the cheek repeated three times by each smoocher. Its history is shrouded in the mystical past of the Eastern Orthodox Church, where it was particularly employed during the Easter season. The sex of the kissers is irrelevant and enjoyed in various combinations by both. It was and is an accepted public means of expressing strong emotion and in extreme cases an open mouth to mouth kiss would not be uncommon, unless the lip lock happens between two world leaders.
1979 was the thirtieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, and its postwar fuhrer was Erich Honecker, a Soviet functionary extraordinaire; the same man who gave us the all but useless Trabant motorcar, Stazi secret police, and curried schnitzel, not to mention a massive food airlift and Checkpoint Charlie. Berlin had been divided for 18 years by a zig-zagging, barbed-wire-coated monstrosity, constructed overnight, so haphazard in design as to be laughable had people not been dying to get over the top to freedom. The official death toll of those risking their lives for a taste of that freedom stands at 138 but that depends on who you are asking. Many think it to be much higher.
It was Honecker that ordered anyone attempting to escape into the west to be shot. The Soviet premier of the moment, Leonid Brezhnev, was the guest of honor at his indentured country's coming out party and was ambushed for a photo op by his German counterpart with a full on tongue down the throat smacker that was captured for posterity by photographer Regis Bossu. At least Brezhnev claimed to have been ambushed but the enthusiasm shown in the photo seems a bit much for a simple man crush.
Even in a land where public displays of affection between men are common, the Bruderkiss still manages to shock. Perhaps it is the advanced age of the participants or simply the gusto with which they are going at it, but whatever the reason it hits many visitors like a Bosch vision from hell. It seems not a photo of two friends kissing but Lucifer making a pact with himself.
The photo went viral long before such events were called viral and garnered the kind of attention neither despot desired, not just on the world political stage but for talk shows and late night comedians. As often happens with images carrying the potential to embarrass, the photo had legs, and became a front runner in the pantheon of poor taste political screw-ups, at least in the western press.
Fast forward to 1989. Both of the subject matters are long gone, and the wall is coming down, but not without saving a symbolic chunk in hopes of history honoring George Santayana by not repeating itself. This 1.3-kilometer section, the longest standing section of the original wall, is today known as the East Gallery. It has hosted numerous international artists, and the mural of the kiss is its iconic showpiece.
Originally painted by Moscow born Dimitri Vrubel in 1990, the painting suffered from graffiti, sunlight, and petty vandalism until it was re-painted by the artist. The latest incarnation contains two graffitied passages, one on the upper left and the other on the lower right. Together they say, "My God, help me to survive this deadly love." That has become the painting's popular name while making it one of the most iconic images of this infamous city. It ranks right up there with the Adlon hotel balcony from which Michael Jackson dangled his infant son over thin air. It resides on T-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, postcards, and every other item capable of shaking down a tourist for a euro.
Most Berliners seem repulsed by the image as a reminder of the past while remaining a warning about the future. They recognize its historic significance, however, and thus assure its preservation. The mural has become ground zero as a media star and a backdrop for anyone wishing to make a public political statement in front of cameras. For those still mired in the sixties, it is popular with musicians singing Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. The denizens who haunt the area bring to mind San Francisco's Haight Ashbury of that era.
This traveler stood at the wall, watching much of Berlins' young pass it by, heads buried in their electronic screens, oblivious to their own history crying out for attention from mere inches away. That is normal as history is usually wasted on youth, especially those born between wars. For those who have not personally lived through a horror, conceiving it is at best an abstract idea so Berlin's young should not be faulted for being indifferent to an image they may see every day of their lives. For them it is just a cool spot to take selfies.
Of course there is always the tourist who will walk right past with no idea of what he or she is near but no real traveler will ever be guilty of such an omission. It is the elderly who remember that bear watching in its presence.
Even those who are ignorant of post-World War Two Berlin's sufferings cannot fail to be moved by this larger than life image, but by the time you have worked your way through the various city sites, you are aware of what an allegory of evil it is. Many Berliners claim an inability to view the wall for the memories it stirs while others seem unable to stay away from it. During an afternoon I followed an orthodox Jew who walked the entire length running his hand along the wall the whole time as though he was shaking hands with his memories. I watched a woman in burka sobbing with heaving shoulders and a man in laborers' blue overalls remove his watch cap to gently touch the wall as though verifying its existence. The wall has charisma, be it good or bad.
There are small, graffitied sections of the wall scattered throughout the city, but they have been reduced to curiosities. Pieces of it are even sold as mementos in the tacky tourist shops around Check Point Charlie, but to take in almost a mile of swirling color and history at once is a hammer blow between the eyes and the Bruderkiss is the final coup.
It stands there every day silently screaming at all of Berlin, "Don't let this happen again."
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
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