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The Light Box Instillation by Frank Thiel at Checkpoint Charlie

Memory of a Divided City

For many Berliners and tourists, Checkpoint Charlie is one of the city's most famous landmarks. The site is a reminder of the divided Berlin during the Cold War and the tank confrontation of October 27, 1961, when Soviet and American tanks faced off at the checkpoint at the crossing of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße. Today, the light box installation by Frank Thiel is located there. It draws attention to the military presence of the Allies in Berlin and provides a face to the soldiers stationed there at that time.By Claudia Botor and Lene Schargitz

Checkpoint Charlie on a rainy day. On the left is the sector sign with the inscription: “Your are entering the american sector. Carrying weapons off dutyforbidden. Obey traffic rules.” In the middle of the frame is the Mauermuseum. On the right is the control barracks with sandbags. In front of it is the lightbox rising above the street. It shows a larger than scale photo of an american soldier.
The almost six-meter-high construction shows two larger-than-life portraits of young soldiers of the respective protecting powers in 1994. Facing the eastern part of the city, an American soldier is on display. A Soviet soldier, already wearing the dress uniform of the Russian Federation, faces the former territory of West Berlin. The choice of two Allied soldiers refers to the four-power status of the city - and less to everyday life at Checkpoint Charlie. On the West Berlin side, American soldiers were indeed stationed at the checkpoint. However, on the opposite side, there were no Soviet soldiers at the GDR border crossing point but rather employees of the Stasi and customs officials.

Checkpoint Charlie on a rainy day. In the center of the photo is the lightbox rising above the street. It shows a larger than scale photo of a russian soldier. In the background is an intersection and the Checkpoint Charlie BlackBox.
The pictures were taken by Kleinmachnow-born artist and photographer Frank Thiel. For a photo project, he had captured photos of young soldiers before their departure in 1994. During the Berlin Senate's artistic competition "Transitions," the artist submitted a design for the installation in 1996. Thiel's light box was erected at Checkpoint Charlie in 1998. It was later followed by a replica of the control barracks and the sector sign at Checkpoint Charlie, which was further developed into a place of remembrance in the following years. For artist Thiel, the installation is meant to serve as a pictorial translation of the sector signs that marked the border between East and West Berlin.

Why these two were chosen for the light box is unknown. Likewise, no further information about the Russian soldier can be found to date. The American soldier, Jeffrey Harper, came to Berlin in 1989 as a tuba player with the 298th Army Band, the military orchestra of the Berlin Brigade. He was stationed in Germany until the withdrawal of Allied troops in 1994, but never at Checkpoint Charlie. He first learned of the use of his photograph during a visit to Berlin in 1999.

Both Jeffrey Harper and Frank Thiel would like to see an appropriate, more authentic representation and warn against the transformation of the site for commercial and tourist purposes. Historians, but also the state of Berlin and other initiatives, are striving to further develop Checkpoint Charlie as a place of remembrance and make its history tangible for everyone.

This text is published under the Creative Commons license "CC BY-NC-ND 4.0". You may share the text by mentioning the license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 and the authors. Copyright information for the images can be found in the image captions.

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