Architecture on Film: The American Sector + Q&A

The American Sector takes viewers on a roadtrip to visit fragments of The Berlin Wall, scattered across the United States. UK theatrical premiere.


07:00pm, Tuesday, 23 November 2021


08:45pm, Tuesday, 23 November 2021


Cinema 1
Barbican Centre, Level -2
Silk St, London, EC2Y 8DS



AF Members:
£9.60 (Please contact AF for promotional discount code)


Young Barbican:

Tel (9am-8pm):
+44 (0)20 7638 8891

This is a past event

Following the screening we are delighted to host directors Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez in conversation with Dr. Martin Brady, Reader in German and Film Studies, King’s College London.

The American Sector (UK Theatrical Premiere)

Following its fall in 1989, many sections of the Berlin Wall migrated to the USA. A cinematic roadtrip to these transplanted artefacts of geopolitical division becomes a nuanced reflection on ‘the free world’ of the present.

Sumptuous 16mm vignettes offer a material record of these pieces of the Wall in their eccentrically wide-ranging American situ – from behind the Hard Rock Café in Universal Studios to George W. Bush’s Presidential Library, from the entrance of a gated community to Microsoft’s headquarters – whilst collected on and off camera conversations with the relics’ custodians, owners and passers-by allow the Wall’s mute concrete to become a conduit for contemporary discussions of freedom, 'unfreedom', and nationhood.

A film that powerfully evokes the active presence of history in daily civic life – and reveals the politics that inhere in its commemoration. Yields extraordinary results through audacious methods.
– Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Travelling to over 60 of these historical fragments in their current public and private locales – whilst debates over border walls and historical monuments were running rampant – through careful montage and juxtaposition The American Sector weaves a powerful patchwork engaging history’s transformation into symbolism and myth, the artefacts that bind past and present, and America’s ongoing construction of its own identity.

Like the mysterious black monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps The Wall is less a monument to the past than a portal to a shared future, propelling new ideas into focus. Disconnected in space and time, the concrete slabs, and the people who speak for them, are instead linked through the collective imagination of America as it continues to shape itself.
– Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez

Whether public monuments or collector’s trophies, these 3.5m high, three tonne, graffiti-daubed slabs of pock-marked concrete now sit ready to serve their new purpose – their status as components of an architectural infrastructure of segregation now exchanged for that of a “‘freedom charm’ applicable to all sorts of ideologies”.

(USA, 2020, Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez, 70 mins)

Q&A: Directors Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez in conversation with Dr. Martin Brady

The American Sector in Context
Programme Notes by Dr. Martin Brady

We were trying to be exhaustive.
– Courtney Stephens

It’s not quite drama, but it’s that same sort of idea, that there’s some kind of conflict or disjuncture inside the film that energises it... It starts in a way that feels more structured and deliberate and as the film goes it begins to unravel a little bit, or collapse, crumble perhaps.
– Pacho Velez

According to co-director Courtney Stephens, The American Sector (2020) began with the question: “What is the Berlin Wall doing in America?”.In Berlin itself – the Cold War’s “divided city” and capital of the German Democratic Republic – construction of the Wall began on 13 August 1961. By the time of its completion it consisted of around 45,000 panels of reinforced concrete twelve feet high and four feet wide, each piece weighing about three tonnes. At least 140 people died attempting to cross it. It wasn’t so much a feat of architecture as one of civil and ideological engineering, and since German Reunification in 1990 it has gone global – as The American Sector demonstrates. In London there’s a panel in the forecourt of the Imperial War Museum and one in the grounds of the German School in London (donated in 1995 by the European Bank of London and the German Embassy) which is, according to Headmaster Christian Nitschke, voicing the official German line, “a stark reminder both of the inhumane and dictatorial separation of the German people during the times of the Cold War and its demolition in the peaceful democratic revolution of 1989”.

The cinematic potential of the Wall was quickly recognized. 1962 saw the release of both Robert Siodmak’s thriller Escape from Berlin and the Reuven Frank documentary The Tunnel. Sponsored by the Gulf Oil Corporation, The Tunnel, which followed a plot to liberate friends and family, won three Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Documentary. Almost immediately after the opening-up of the border on 9 November 1989 filmmakers from East and West flocked to Berlin to record the surreal events as they unfolded. Perhaps the finest of the resulting films is East German documentarist Jürgen Böttcher’s The Wall (1990). Again and again the film returns to the “wallpeckers” chipping away at the edifice to sell as souvenirs to tourists. In an ingenious move Böttcher also projects black-and-white documentary archive footage of the Wall’s history onto the Wall itself as it is being dismantled: from painful attempts to jump the provisional barbed wire frontier in 1961 through to East German military parades forlornly celebrating the GDR’s fortieth anniversary in autumn 1989. America is also there: standing under the Brandenburg Gate, CNN reporter Richard Blystone keeps repeating a banal tagline to camera until the light and sound are just right: “But the gate going nowhere now goes somewhere, and all of East Germany knows where it goes.”

Böttcher’s film could be termed a phenomenological or “thing” film, like Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), the experimental architecture documentaries of Heinz Emigholz (including Sullivan’s Banks (1993-2000) and Maillart’s Bridges (2001)), or certain films of James Benning. The American Sector is also a thing film, and a kind of complement to Böttcher’s seminal, insider take on the Berlin Wall. If the East German documentarist charted the breathtaking speed with which an historical monument of division could be turned into a lucrative commodity, where better to pick up the story than in the US where so many remnants have found their final resting place?

Stephens and Velez start where Böttcher left off, with signs of creative human activity: traces of paint and graffiti that disfigured, softened, and customised – from the West side only, of course – the panels of brutal concrete over the course of four decades. Böttcher demonstrates how the physical remains of the Wall could, with the help of a few West German bulldozers, disappear overnight, only to reappear somewhere else the next day ready to sell on: in his final sequence, shot in a “wall graveyard”, it becomes clear that a lucrative afterlife awaits the stranded relics of Cold War history. The American Sector finds some of these relics now standing proud across the Atlantic.

The American Sector shows us, with a gently ironic undertow, that the physical remains of the Wall, dotted around US cities, highways, museums, and corporations, have retained a certain charismatic attraction – albeit often weirdly or absurdly estranged – and that the people living with these relics of history have also projected their own stories, anxieties, prejudices, and desires onto them. What the film reveals is a kind of ideological commodification and an appropriation or re-writing of history that is, perhaps, uniquely American. Stephens and Velez take us on a tour of around sixty locations hunting down the afterlife of the Wall across the US. What we learn is that meanings and values just won’t stick to things, however solidly reinforced they may be. For almost thirty years, during the Cold War, the Wall was officially and decorously known in the GDR as the “anti-fascist rampart”, while for those it confined it palpably represented state repression and imprisonment. In The American Sector it has become what might be termed “a free-floating signifier” representing anything from freedom, hope, and American resolve, to brokenness, unfreedom, and migration. The meaning of these isolated monoliths seems to be about as slippery as the curiously similar one that haunts Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or the standing stones of Stonehenge.

It is often said, as inequalities and resentments persist to this day in eastern Germany, that the most difficult edifice to tear down is the “Wall in the head”. The American Sector demonstrates powerfully that the Wall is now, more than anything, a figment of the imagination – American or otherwise – a fragmented screen for myriad projections, fantasies, and desires.