Thirty Years Later … Berlin Festival of Lights

In a few days, Germany will celebrate the remarkable feat of 30-years of reunification. The Berlin Wall came crashing down in November 1989. It fell after months of turmoil and protest across Eastern Europe that saw communist regimes swept from power. Yet even as Poland and Hungary convulsed with democratic reform, and Russia struggled to control the forces Mikhail Gorbachev had unleashed, East Germany stubbornly refused change.

When Erich Honecker was finally toppled in October 1989 it actually came as a surprise. A few weeks later the Berlin wall was gone and Germany dared consider the previously unthinkable. Despite domestic and foreign misgivings, reunification came swiftly less than a year later on 3rd October, 1990. It was a momentous achievement and, despite having many doubters, has thrived for three decades.

Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Marking such an era-defining event would, you might reasonably imagine, inspire Berlin’s Festival of Lights to be extra special this year. Yet, what should have been an cheerful and emotional event turned out to be underwhelming. I’m not saying it wasn’t worth walking around the city in the middle of the night searching out some of the more remote illuminations, but the previous two festivals I’ve been at were more creative.

How, in a city of creatives, could there be such a failure of artistry to combine with technology to produce a show stopper? Did Berlin run out of money? We may never know. While I might gripe about it, the sight of buildings and monuments illuminated and (in some cases) animated with light art is still one of my favourite things in Berlin. Plus, there were far fewer than the near three million people who came to see it last year, which made the main sights a bit more pleasant.

I started off in Potsdamer Platz, normally one of the best places to see some of the more impressive light shows, but this year much more subdued. There was a big red heart attracting selfie takers, but the rest seemed a little underpowered. Not to fear, a short walk would bring me to the US Embassy and the Brandenburg Gate. The crowds of people heading in both directions gave me confidence that these would be worth the effort.

The US Embassy was clearly vying with the German Finance Ministry for the prize of dullest display. Not only was it visually boring (top tip, a static picture of fireworks is rarely as good as the real thing), but the slogan that accompanied it was a bit patronising. Congratulating Europe’s biggest economy for 30 years of “unity, peace and freedom”, felt a little like code for “well done for not starting any wars recently”.

Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany
Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

I’d like to say the Brandenburg Gate redeemed this terrible offering, but it didn’t. I made my way down Unter den Linden to Babelplatz and Humbolt University. This was better, but not a patch on last year – the university clearly decided not to join in celebrations this year. It was a similar story on Museum Island, with a single static image projected onto the Berliner Dom and the Bode Museum. Where was last year’s fantastic display on the James Simon Gallery?

Alexanderplatz and Nikolaiviertel were much the same, although at least they were on my way home. The one redeeming light show came in Invalidenpark, where a projection onto the Mauerbrunnen water sculpture created a perfect reflection. As I made my weary way home after kilometres of pounding the streets, a group of young people were getting riotously drunk in the warm glow of the illuminated St. Elisabeth’s Church. It seemed like a metaphor for the festival.

10 thoughts on “Thirty Years Later … Berlin Festival of Lights

  1. Not too bad though. (No point of comparison). A – very old – friend of mine (college) is a consultant. He bid and won a contract to redesign Lyon’s Fête de la lumière. He told me that City Hall higher-ups were… “difficult”. Put any number of bureaucrats in any venture, they will dry up the best creatives….
    All well, Paul?

    1. Hi Brian, sorry for the slow response. I’ve been on vacation in Italy (it’s still just about possible, although probably not for much longer) and decided to have a largely digital-free few weeks. Back now and already missing Italian food. Hope all’s well with you?

      1. Good. One has to disconnect form time to time. we are fine, thank you. Still missing our aborted Paris trip, and hoping solutions will be found by Q2 or Q3 next year. 🤞

  2. What a shame it wasn’t as good as previous years. Do you think it may have been stymied by Covid?

    1. That may have been the case. Some last minute budget cuts wouldn’t be a surprise. Sorry for the slow response, I’ve been having a holiday. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but the situation got progressively worse as time went on and by the time we got home Berlin was considered the epicentre of Germany’s second wave!

  3. The festival of lights might have been a bit underwhelming for you, but for someone who has never been there, this looks pretty special! Love the colors and images. And I can only imagine what the crowd reaction would be. Thanks for posting these interesting times in Berlin.

    1. Thanks, and sorry for the slow reply. I went to Italy on holiday just after posting this and was having a bit of digital detox. Hope all’s well?

      1. All is well. Hope your trip was all you needed it to be.

  4. It is a very creative event that invites you to go out and extends the day into the night. In a world full of turmoil and anxiety, German reunification is a fine example that hope must overcome fear.

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