The impossible picture

I went to Berlin for one reason only:  to retake one of Richard Halliburton’s iconic photos from 1919.  It seemed like an easy project in theory—just pose next to the old statue and ta-dah, done!  In reality the task proved much trickier, namely because the statue no longer exists.

The picture in question is shown below:  Richard at age 19 comically imitating a statue of a Roman figure.  I love the picture.  It’s so innocent, a casual snapshot, like something we would take today with a camera phone.  The caption under the photo—which was published in a book of Richard’s letters—reads “More amused than impressed by the sprawling grandeur of a mythological warrior, Richard mimics his pose in Berlin.”

berlin

Richard Halliburton’s 1919 photo with an unidentified Berlin statue

Starting a few months ago, I combed the internet for Berlin statues, searching for keywords like “Roman” and “warrior”, but nothing came up.  Next I sought help from my followers on Twitter and, to my amazement, received an answer pointing me to a website called The Judgment of Paris.

The website described the National Monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I, a massive construction in front of the Stadtschloß Palace.  The monument was constructed in the late 1800’s by artist Reinhold Begas.  It miraculously survived both world wars, but then was intentionally destroyed by the GDR in the years following WWII.  The palace was systematically eliminated as well.

The National Monument to Kaiser Wilhelm circa 1900.  Source unknown. Red circle indicated the figure Richard posed with, and the blue line shows the river behind the monument.

The National Monument to Kaiser Wilhelm circa 1900. Source unknown. Red circle indicates the figure Richard posed with, and the blue line shows the river behind the monument.

Richard's warrior figure in the middle of being destroyed.  Source unknown.

Richard’s warrior figure in the middle of being destroyed. Source unknown.

I was saddened to read the news, not just because my picture was ruined, but because something so beautiful had been torn apart, stone by stone.  But then I realized what an opportunity I had:  showing Richard’s photo side-by-side with a modern-day photo would help illustrate the time that has passed since Richard roamed the Earth, and provide an example of the kinds of losses Berlin suffered during and after WWII.

With renewed vigor I determined the exact former location of the statue.  None of the resources online were much help, so I used landmarks in the photos to guide me.  I knew from the photos below that the statue had been placed in a plaza of some sort and that it backed up to a river of some sort.

Using Google maps, I started in the center of Berlin and moved out along the only two waterways in the city until I encountered the exact outline of the former monument’s base.  The terrace jutting into the canal, the artistically carved corners—it was unmistakable.  Zooming in closer I confirmed what I already knew—not a scrap of the old monument remained.  The plaza was all torn up with construction, but it seemed well clear of my little terrace.

The distinctive section of plaza on the canal where the monument used to stand.

The distinctive section of plaza on the canal where the monument used to stand.

Fast-forward to July 2014.  I’d arrived in Berlin the night before, and, eager to take the picture, I headed to Museum Island first thing in the morning.  As I approached I felt a wave of giddiness—I was about to take the first photo in my series of re-creations and it was sure to be a good one, very dramatic.  Then I turned a corner and my heart sank.  Instead of a plaza there was a construction site, and instead of a sidewalk leading to the terrace there was a fence!  I was crestfallen.

Where the access to the terrace should be.

Where the access to the terrace should be.

I paced along that fence for nearly an hour, staring at my goal, so close yet so far away.  There was a gap in the fence that I eyed closely.  Perhaps I could squeeze through the gap, sidle the 20 meters to the terrace, snap the picture and leave!  But there were policemen, security guards, construction workers, and endless waves of pedestrians.  Chances were slim that I could get away with it.  In other words, I chickened out.

The terrace from a different angle.  Still inaccessible.

The terrace from a different angle. Still inaccessible.

Next I asked Uli, my Couchsurfing host, to go with me to speak with the foreman.  She asked if I could access the terrace briefly just to take a historical picture, and he answered with an unrelenting “no”.  That evening I planned to return once all was quiet, sneak in through the gap in the fence and take the picture in the half light.  But I was enjoying myself so thoroughly with Uli and her friend Sophie that I didn’t tear myself away from the hard ciders soon enough.  I arrived at Museum Island in the pitch dark, and that wouldn’t make a very good picture.

On my last day in Berlin I finally acknowledged what should have been apparent all along:  I was going to have to take a different picture.  And so began my hour of photographing a construction site while passersby shot me weird looks.  I sat my camera on railings while I posed on pylons and I sat my camera on pylons while I posed on railings.  Nothing worked.  Finally, I unfolded my wrinkled print-out of the scanned photo for the hundredth time, held it at arm’s length and took the picture.  It would have to do.

So here you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the result of four trips to Museum Island to take an impossible picture:

Richard's photo held against a backdrop of construction where the National Monument to Kaiser Wilhelm used to stand.

Richard’s photo held against a backdrop of construction where the National Monument to Kaiser Wilhelm used to stand.

As you can see, nothing in Richard’s picture lines up with the background!  That’s because there’s absolutely nothing left of National Monument to Kaiser Wilhelm or of the palace behind it.  Not a staircase, not a window, not even the base of a pedestal.  The mighty monument that withstood the bombs and bullets of two wars was brought to its knees by a political movement.

My picture taken, I reclined against a streetlight and stared at the would-be monument, somber, lost in thought.  But then I imagined 19-year-old Richard handing the camera to an unknown friend, calling over his shoulder as he scampered up the steps, “Take one of me with the warrior!” Then, “Do I have it?  What should my right arm be doing?”  A flash of light, a puff of smoke, and the two friends ran off to terrorize the rest of Berlin.

And so did I.

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11 Comments

  1. You’ve found yourself a particularly wise travel muse. Love the story!

  2. Hi Sarah, I am so very happy for you that you managed to take that pic of the area (no matter what). I can’t wait to follow you along the way. Amazing story, I am hooked. Safe travels. Hope we will meet again one day. Cheers Doro

  3. Nice bit of sleuthing to even find where the picture was taken, and to locate the the place, if not the actual monument.

  4. Hey hey! Looks great. It’s almost an even more interesting story than if you’d just been able to take the picture as planned :) And yes, well done on figuring out where it was in the first place. That photo above of the original statue is AMAZING.

    May I just point out (because I owe it to my parents) that technically the GDR wasn’t communist, it was more like a failed attempt at a socialist state. So maybe it should read “destroyed by the GDR” instead.

    Have a great journey onwards!

  5. What a great story, Sarah! I mean, it didn’t end in anything like the way you (or I) would have initially thought or hoped, but you uncovered the truth all the same. And as I know you know, peace comes with that.

  6. Dr. Detlef E. Langelüddecke

    Hey Sarah,
    nice article about the disappeared National Monument. As a resident of Berlin I recommend the German Wikipedia about “Kaiser-Wilhelm-Nationaldenkmal”.
    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser-Wilhelm-Nationaldenkmal
    There you will find many historical facts, plans and pictures about the monument.
    By the way, the construction site is the rebuilding of the former Town Castle where the emperor family lived until the end of WW I in 1918. So Richard Halliburton posed 1919 in front of the empty castle.
    My great-grandfather worked as a sculptor on this lost monument.
    Instead there are plans discussed to build a memorial for the peaceful reunification of Germany.
    sincerely yours

    • Hi Dr. L, thank you so much for your comment and information! Wonderful to know more about the monument’s history and future. And how cool that your great grandfather worked on it–an amazing piece of sculpture. Cheers! Sarah

  7. Whata really neat old monument w/so many things going on! A true shame it looks now lost

  8. I have a picture of my father in front of this statue in 1941 and had looked for years for this very statue. Please watch this video at the 2.10 minute mark:
    https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1722430454457878&id=100000728197198

    Of Berlin in 1945. Please email me at hoisingtonc@live.com and I will share the picture of my father.

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