Wallpaper

Woken by the dawn, Dietmar Riemann rose listlessly from the mattress in his dank apartment, struggling to clear the weight that held his eyes shut. As he became more alert and his focus cleared, the surrounding landscape of propaganda photographs lining the walls came into definition. Their stare enervated him, sapping his spirit, leaving him tired and despondent; shameless, blatant images where even the smiles were lies.

In 1961, Riemann had, like many others, found himself trapped behind the curtain. As a freelance political photographer, “the party” had treated him as a radical, a danger to the cause. However, seeing his skill and potential, he was employed to “photograph the essence and power of the people”. He became a cog in the indoctrinating machine.

Over the years, Riemann had become accustomed to his life in the East, even mildly grateful at times, for he was provided shelter, food and employment which was much more than many others could claim. The high rise apartment he occupied was close to the border and faced so he had a clear shot of the divide. The wall ran into the horizon, each morning, framing the rising sun as it shed light across the East. He had stayed on occasion to watch the light escape over the wall and illuminate the world beyond. But now it was too much. To hope had become painful. These days he left before the light could barely begin to touch the divide. The West was his wallpaper.

Two hours later the sun provided a glary but cold light as Riemann trudged along the street donning a camera around his neck under his grey coat. The crumbling brick façades punctuated by splintered windows and doorways which lined the city’s corridors gave one the impression of lifelessness, so much so that Riemann could easily have missed the figures of workers making their way to the ration halls had he not seen it countless times. Today he watched them gather like ants informing each other where the best offerings of the day were, then dispersing in all directions, somehow each with a different information.
This would be him most days too; however, today he had been informed where to go so he could take the best photos of people enjoying bounties of communist life. He arrived at the station nearest to the West side and had to check his directions. But there was no mistake; he was at the correct location. Like at all ration stations, mostly families stood in the queue to collect bread, milk, soup and even perhaps a precious bit of meat, and certainly today there was a little more food than usually, but nothing especially notable. A muted anger welled inside him when it dawned on him. There was no “best source”; each location most likely was given the exact same amount of handouts. The party liked to keep him, keep the people, hungry, an incentive to keep going. With growing dismay, he drew together a family of seven from the line. For the photograph, the rations master gave the family extra food and Riemann lined up a shot of the broad collective smile that flashed across their faces. The photo was filled with warmth and prosperity, their grins resisting the cold, but only so far as the edges of the frame. Beyond it, starving faces remained sullen and cheerless, a contrast too real for Riemann who quickly capped his camera and plunged his hands into his coat for warmth.

As he traipsed across the city centre, Riemann tried to keep his mind in his pockets hoping the warmth would ward off the disquieting shadow of the morning’s images. Arriving on the outskirts of the factory district he walked slowly among the many men and women lining the factory shop fronts. Their crowd made them seem as though they had always been there, an inveterate contour of the landscape.
Riemann wandering until he found a low doorway above which hung a sign: “VEB Trabant Automobile Assembly.” As he entering the building, strong odours met him, instantly dulling his senses. He greeted the men operating the assembly of the brakes, informing them of his job, showing them his permission form. The men were covered in grease and a fine dust that came off the brakes which gave the surreal impression of a band of snowmen constructed of slush from the gutter. As he took photographs, Riemann felt a little easier, for here at least he was honest. There was a certain truth in the industrial nature of the East. Finishing the last shots, he thanked the men for their time and began to leave. As he did he noticed one man run towards the back of one of the large machines. Before Riemann reached the exit the man had stopped in his tracks, wheezing and spluttering up a bloody mucus concoction. ‘The East is Red’, Riemann muttered to himself.

It was nearly six thirty in the evening by the time he neared his apartment block and the few surrounding shops were beginning to shut under the curfew laws. Dinner would be what meager provisions he had picked up that morning. Riemann crossed into the local park as he headed for his building, the crunching the gravel path disrupting the silence the Lenin statues held over the night air. A family trudged in the opposite direction to him, probably headed home also however, Riemann stopped them and offered them bread if they would pose for a shot feeding the birds. He had the shot set up quickly but the youngest child in the family began to cry and kick gravel. The noise set the birds into flight, his reactions only catching them as they sailed over the wall.

Disheveled, Riemann re-entered his building and ascended to his room. He removed his outer layers of clothing and sorted ritualistically through the days work over cold vegetable soup, pinning up any discard shots into the fibro wall. Once finished sorting he began reading through an old half of an art magazine he salvaged from an old library. He read it countless times and knows each page as if the images were his own. Perhaps tonight they keep his dreams sacred.
Riemann is woken from his sleep by intense light. He squints at the hands of his watch, but they claim it to be barely past midnight. Now he sees the light comes from the flood lamps that line the wall, their glow like a seeping radiation. At the window, Riemann witnesses the gathering down the line under the lights’ gaze. There are thousands, many of whom are probably in his photos. They begin to pass through the checkpoint and as they do, they chant, “the wall is gone, the wall is gone!” and although the wall remains stubbornly present, he knows they are right. As he focuses his camera to the scene, the multitude spill into the West and he feels freedom flood into the East.

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