Collapsing (New) Buildings: Town Planning, History and Music in Hubertus Siegert's Berlin Babylon (2001)

Andrew Hurley


Hubertus Siegert’s impressionistic documentary, Berlin Babylon, illuminates the demolition and urban renewal of Berlin during the mid-late 1990s. This was a critical phase in the city’s history, as it prepared, amidst a flurry of excitement and anticipation, to become the united Germany's seat of power. Siegert's film seeks to give pause for thought, but deliberately eschews a “voice of god” voiceover, opting instead for a poetic audiovisual montage. This includes shots of the cityscape (and its lacunae), archival footage documenting the wartime devastation and subsequent dynamiting of buildings, observational cinema of the city’s busy building sites, and of verbal snippets from various architects, developers and politicians––following the film title’s cue, the agents in a rerun of the construction of the Tower of Babel––as well as epigraphs from the Bible and Walter Benjamin, and a prominent soundscape and musical score. As this article will demonstrate, the film’s (mostly) sombre soundtrack plays a critical role here, commenting on the footage, and beyond that on the whole project of the new ‘Berlin Republic’ and its attitude to architectural heritage and twentieth century history. Re-figuring the theme of this volume, Berlin Babylon’s music is a form of writing about (collapsing, old) architecture and history. And yet, the soundtrack is not as unambiguous as a voiceover might have been, and thereby allows creative space for the audience’s interpretation, a matter that was very important to the film’s director. This article will focus, in particular, on three elements: the use (and treatment) of historical recordings in the film; the use of silence; and finally the way in which tracks from the Berlin band Einstürzende Neubauten use music, noise and text to comment on the project of the new Berlin.


German Cultural History; German Film; Soundtracks; Berlin Republic; Town Planning; Memory

Full Text:



Augstein, R., et al (eds.) 1987, 'Historikerstreit.' Die Dokumentation der Konstroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtung. Piper, Munich.

Berliner Zeitung. Review of Berlin Babylon, precise date and page number not known, quoted on the DVD cover of the film.

Borchardt, K. 2003, Einstrzende Neubauten. Hannibal, Hfen.

Colomb, C. 2007, 'Requiem for a Lost Palast. Revanchist Urban Planning" and "Burdened Landscapes" of the German Democratic Republic in the New Berlin, ' Planning Perspectives, vol. 22 (July), 283323."

Cooke, P. 2005, Representing East Germany Since Unification: >From Colonization to Nostalgia. Berg, Oxford.

Dax, M. & Defcon, R.T. (eds.) 2006, Nur was nicht ist, ist mglich: die Geschichte der Einstrzenden Neubauten. Bosworth, Berlin.

Einstrzende Neubauten 2000, Silence is Sexy. Zomba Records/Rough Trade.

Einstrzende Neubauten 2001, Berlin Babylon (Original Soundtrack). Grand Harbor.

Freud, S. 2005 [1917], 'Mourning and Melancholia, ' in The Future of an Illusion, (ed.) S. Freud, trans. S. Whiteside, Penguin, London.

Ledanff observes that by the time the vote was taken in 2002 to demolish the Palast der Republik, the old arguments of Berlin as a city of dissonances, the cult of wounds in the fabric of the city, were briefly raised in the Bundestag debate and swept aside' (2003: 60).

German Politics & Society, special issue, vol. 17, no. 3 (Fall 1999).

Hillman, R. 2005, Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music and Ideology. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Huyssen, A. 1997, 'The Voids of Berlin, ' Critical Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 1, 5781.

Kater, M. 1997, The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich. Oxford University Press, New York.

Large, D.C. 2001, Berlin. Allen Lane, London.

Ledanff, S. 2003, 'The Palace of the Republic Versus the Stadtschloss: The Dilemmas of Planning in the Heart of Berlin, ' German Politics and Society, vol. 21, no. 4, 3073.

Mitscherlich, A. & Mitscherlich, M. 1975 [1967], The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior. Trans B. R. Placzek. Grove Press, New York.

Neill, W.J.V. 2005, 'Berlin Babylon: The Spatiality of Memory and Identity in Recent Planning for the German Capital, ' Planning Theory and Practice, vol. 6, no.3, 33553.

Ockman, J. (ed.) 2002, Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban Reinvention. Prestel, Munich et al.

Panofsky, E. 1939, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance. Oxford University Press, New York.

Schlter, C. 2000, 'Als Ruine vollendet. 20 Jahre Einstrzende Neubauten: Ein Gesprch mit Blixa Bargeld, ' Die Zeit. April 20. Online, available: [Accessed 18 September 2009].

Siegert, H. 2009, Telephone Interview with Andrew W. Hurley. Nov. 6.

Siegert, H (dir.) 2001a, Berlin Babylon. Absolut Medien.

Siegert, H 2001b, 'Blickwinkel, ' Online, available: [Accessed 18 September 2009].

Siegert, H. & Stern, R. 2002, 'A Discussion of Berlin Babylon, ' in Out of Ground Zero: Case Studies in Urban Reinvention. (ed.) J. Ockman. Prestel, Munich et al. 12631

Stern, R. 2002, 'Berlin: Film and the Representation of Urban Reconstruction Since the Fall of the Wall' [Introduction], in Out of Ground Zero, (ed.) J. Ockman, 11724.

Taberner, S. 2005, German Literature of the 1990s and Beyond: Normalization and the Berlin Republic. Camden House, Rochester, NY.