The story goes back to Berlin. That was where Margaret Atwood began to write The Handmaid’s Tale, on a heavy German typewriter with an unfamiliar keyboard. She spent three months there, in the spring of 1984, as part of a program to bring foreign artists into the city. She lived in a turn-of-the-century apartment with her companion, novelist Graeme Gibson, and their daughter,
Jess, now 13. Last week, they were back in Berlin for the first time, to attend the world première of the movie based on The Handmaid’s Tale. In the city for just the first three days of the Berlin International Film Festival,
Atwood, 50, had a busy schedule. There were interviews, receptions, news conferences and photo sessions.
There were premières of the movie on consecutive nights, in West and East Berlin. It was Atwood’s first film festival. And, with autograph hounds waiting for her at the airport, the experience was a startling change from the decorous rituals of the book world. “Everybody seems to want a piece of you,” she said.
Changes: But during breaks from official duties,
Atwood had an opportunity to revive fond memories of Berlin, and to observe the extraordinary changes that the city has undergone. She said that she remembers it as “a very haunted place—it struck one as emptier than it should have been.” The atmosphere, darkened by Nazi ghosts and the Wall’s grey bulwark, was conducive to writing a novel set in a totalitarian future. “The Wall at that time was very intact,” she recalled. “And I went over it, under it, through it—there was a train
that went over, you could go under on the subway, and through it by car.”
Last week, Atwood made the mandatory pilgrimage to the now-crumbling Wall, joining throngs of tourists milled near the 200-yearold Brandenburg Gate, the symbolic centre of pre-partition Berlin. Everywhere there was the sound of clinking hammers as people chipped away souvenir shards of concrete. On
the pavement, hawkers sold pieces of history, fragments ranging in size from pebbles to paving tiles, and costing anywhere from $1 to $50. There were tiny pieces in clear plastic for key chains, chunks sold in bulk by the bag, and substantial coffee-table-sized slices glazed with graffiti. The Wall itself is pocked with gaping holes, the metal reinforcing rods protruding like severed entrails. When selling the larger chunks, hawkers seek to prove their authenticity by pointing to fossil-like imprints that the rods have left in the concrete.
Atwood strolled through the crowds with Jess, sifting through chips and chunks—and making a modest purchase. When her daughter asked where the Wall came from, the author explained its Cold War origins. And she told the story of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s famous Berlin speech in 1963, two years after the Wall went up. He declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner ” to an adoring crowd. “He was trying to say, ‘I am a Berliner,’ ” said Atwood, but “ein Berliner" is also the name of a local jelly doughnut. “But the people cheered anyway because they knew what he meant.” Blizzard: For the screen version of The Handmaid’s Tale, director Volker Schlöndorff, a native of Wiesbaden in what is now West Germany, had a full-scale replica of the Berlin Wall constructed in the United States for the opening scene—an attempted escape at the frontier of the fictional state of Gilead. The wall was an embellishment on Atwood’s original story—Schlöndorff said that it was his idea and it paid homage to her 1984 stay in Berlin. But on the day when the scene was filmed, in the mountains of North Carolina, there was a blizzard—the wall can barely be seen in the shot.
Sardonic: There is another wall in the movie, however, and it is modelled after one in the book. It is a big wall on a college campus where Gilead’s public hangings take place. Women are executed for such crimes as “gender treachery”—homosexuality. And Atwood, whose most chilling ideas often contain hidden jokes, says that her inspiration for that wall was the one around Harvard University, which she remembers as a bastion of male privilege from her graduate school stint there in the early 1960s.
Atwood has a sardonic sense of political humor. And she was in fine form at the news conference following the critics’ afternoon screening of The Handmaid’s Tale, fielding questions along with Schlöndorff, British screenwriter Harold Pinter and American producer Daniel Wilson. When asked if she thought the movie’s scenario of a fascist future was possible, Atwood summed up the various responses to her book: “In Canada people said, ‘It couldn’t happen here.’ In England, people said, ‘Jolly good story.’ In the States they said, ‘How long have we got?’ ” Questioned on the possibility of a fascist regime taking over in stable Canada, she joked, “It’s not likely to happen—except in Alberta.”
Heady: Atwood defended the realism of the movie’s premise, noting that the atrocities in the story are based on real events— including Nicolae Ceauçescu’s brutal campaign against birth control in Romania, which she had cited in the 1985 novel’s epilogue. The author also pointed out that the book’s themes have been echoed by such incidents as the Baby M surrogate mother case in the United States and fundamentalist preacher Pat
Robertson’s 1988 campaign for the White House.
Pinter, as blunt and terse in person as in his writing, also supported its sense of political urgency. He offered reporters a grim prognosis of the West’s future. “I’ve just come from Prague,” he said, “and there they are liberating themselves. But in all the Western democracies, the vise is tightening.”
Schlöndorff, who has shown his movie to private audiences in both Paris and New York, said that Europeans find it harder than Americans do to envision a United States without freedom. But a fascist America would have no brownshirts, he said, in a reference to Nazi stormtroopers—“It would be designed by Madison Ave.” The costumes in Handmaid’s
Tale were from the Sears catalogue style, he said. “We had budget problems, so we decided whatever the future will be, it will be cheap.” After the heady political discussion at the news conference, the West Berlin première that night was a sobering experience. When the movie ended, there was light applause, which warmed as Atwood, Pinter, producer Wilson and cast member Elizabeth McGovern stepped onstage. But Schlöndorff’s entrance elicited a chorus of boos from his fellow West Germans. Because the director has spent much of his time in the past few years working in the United States, many of them regard him as a sellout. Later, at a midnight reception, Schlöndorff said: “My American friends were so nice to me, and my European friends treat me so badly, that I think I will go to the Wall tomorrow and say: ‘Ich bin Amerikaner!’ ” The reception was held at the smokey Paris Bar, a favorite all-night bistro for Berlin intellectuals. It has rich ochre walls covered with a
gallery’s worth of good art. Günter Grass, author of The Tin Drum—which Schlöndorff made into an Oscar-winning, 1979 film—held court at one table, sucking on a pipe that had the same Bavarian curve as his moustache. Atwood sat next to her daughter, who said she liked the movie but had not yet read the book. Actress McGovern looked jet-lagged and miserable, her features puffy under black horn-rims. “I can’t stand all the festival hoopla,” she said later, walking back to her hotel.
Spellbound: The next night, a Sunday, the hoopla hopped the Wall. In a minibus, The Handmaid’s Tale entourage headed into East Berlin. Everyone laughed as the border guard waved the vehicle through with barely a glance. “They’re making this too easy,” said
Schlöndorff. “It’s the most amazing thing, isn’t it, Margaret? This used to take half a day. Remember all that scowling and searching?” The movie was presented at the Kosmos Cinema, a strange hybrid of tacky art deco and swooping Soviet modernism. An elderly woman greeted Schlöndorff and company at the door as if they were guests at her home. She wore a pink Steel Magnolias sweatshirt, a coveted souvenir from the previous night. The film-makers slipped into the back of the theatre towards the end of the Handmaid’s screening. The audience seemed spellbound—not a cough marred the silence. When the house lights went up, Schlöndorff was warmly applauded. Later, explaining the difference, he said, “Here they think I’m a foreigner.”
The movie’s Orwellian vision of a Western society that enslaves women struck a deep chord with some of the East Berlin viewers. As she filed out of the theatre, Susan Klost, a chemical engineer who works in a cosmetics factory, said, “I liked the movie, but now I’m very unhappy—I don’t want such a future.” Nina Stillmark, 23, also found the film disturbing. “There are hundreds of parallels here in our world,” she said. “It fits for the U.S. but also for Europe, because we carry so many burdens from the past.”
Status: Berlin—capital of the Third Reich and, until recently, symbol of the Cold War—is still haunted. But as the city turns into a superhighway of East-West commerce, new fears will replace the old. For Atwood, the city holds fond memories. Late Sunday morning, after the East Berlin screening, she, Gibson and Jess walked to the apartment where she spent part of 1984. They had no trouble finding it. There is a large star, a mosaic of cobblestones, set into the walk leading up to the front door.
The author found her own star in Berlin, where she began writing the novel that placed her in the top ranks of the literary world. Her status is hard-earned. And, at her first film festival, the veteran of countless book tours seemed wary of the movie world. “Books are respectable,” she said, “but movies are glamorous and people are impressed by them in a different way, and that’s somewhat discouraging to a book writer. They’ll say, ‘Oh, did you get to meet Faye Dunaway?’ There is a sort of shimmering aura around the whole activity, which you know isn’t real.” But Atwood, who takes an active interest in adapting her novels to the screen, appreciates the power of the medium. “Everyone thinks they can write a book,” she said, “but everyone secretly wants to be in movies.”
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