The English patient

Hundreds of metres above the streets of Berlin rotates the sphere of the Fernsehturm. Round and round it goes, chasing day into night and back again. The artist Tacita Dean has spent much of the past year up there, filming, eating cakes, exploring the night-side of her own life. This is a story about sickness, space and time

Autumn had come at last to Berlin. The pavements were covered with leaves, and I noticed for the first time that I could see the Fernsehturm from the platform of Charlottenburg station through the now bare trees. I had arrived in Berlin in June, invited by the Berliner Künstlerprogramm to spend a year there on one of the most deluxe residency programmes available to artists (it was initiated in 1963 by the Ford Foundation to bring artists to the West Berlin enclave). I had been given a beautiful apartment in the western part of the city, a studio on the edge of the Grünewald and money to live on. It was now November, and I had found a cutting room in a private apartment near Friedrichstrasse station where I could edit my new film, but at the same time I was booked in to attend a day clinic at the Charité, the hospital of the former East, to finally ascertain which form of arthritis I had been suffering from for the last nine years.

Autumn had come at last to Berlin. The pavements were covered with leaves, and I noticed for the first time that I could see the Fernsehturm from the platform of Charlottenburg station through the now bare trees. I had arrived in Berlin in June, invited by the Berliner Künstlerprogramm to spend a year there on one of the most deluxe residency programmes available to artists (it was initiated in 1963 by the Ford Foundation to bring artists to the West Berlin enclave). I had been given a beautiful apartment in the western part of the city, a studio on the edge of the Grünewald and money to live on. It was now November, and I had found a cutting room in a private apartment near Friedrichstrasse station where I could edit my new film, but at the same time I was booked in to attend a day clinic at the Charité, the hospital of the former East, to finally ascertain which form of arthritis I had been suffering from for the last nine years.

The Tagesklinik was on the third floor of one of the older buildings of the Charité Hospital, but had been recently refurbished with clean pine furniture and new linoleum floors. Each morning I would walk through a connecting passageway from the newer building to the old - my Bridge of Sighs, I would think, as I looked fleetingly at the Fernsehturm before entering into the strict regime of the day clinic.

You had to be there between 8 and 8.30am for a group Frühstück (breakfast). On the dot of noon was Mittagspause (lunch break): these expressions became like incantations to me over the 12 days of my stay, as I spoke no German and the other patients little English. And between breakfast and lunch, our lives were completely timetabled: group swimming; group ill-gymnastics; group dexterity exercises, and then the visits from the doctor. We all had beds. My ward was empty but for a retired nurse from near Templehof, while the other room was packed full. It soon became obvious to me that we had been segregated: former westerners and foreigners in one room and women from the former East in the other. The Charité was still very much the precinct of the East with most of its patients and hospital workers brought up in the GDR.

I was struck once by the opening words of Susan Sontag's essay, "Illness as Metaphor". She wrote: "Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place." What retrieved the experience of the Charité for me from just being another disquieting spell in "that other place", was the strange insight it gave me into the personality of the former East.

At the same time, I was editing my film just 10 minutes walk away near Friedrichstrasse station, one of the two former crossing points between the East and the West right in the heart of the divided Berlin. The film I was working on was shot entirely in the revolving restaurant of the Berliner Television Tower, known as the Fernsehturm, which is also the title of my film. The tower rises 365 metres above Alexanderplatz and was built between 1965 and 1969 at the height of the Cold War. It has various nicknames like "Telespargel" (tele-asparagus) or "Pope's Revenge", the latter given by those on both sides of the wall because of the huge illuminated cross made by the sphere at the top of the tower when it catches the sun at certain times of the day.

I crossed into the East through Friedrichstrasse while on a college trip to Berlin in 1987, and went up the Fernsehturm then and had tea in the telecafé. I remember the smell: that particularly indefinable smell of the East; of brown coal mixed with cheap tobacco, soap and something else. I could still smell it in the early mornings on my way to the Charité and in the middle of the afternoon, as the light closed in on my walk to the cutting room. I remember also the cloying cakes, and the utilitarian atmosphere of this restaurant above the clouds. I went up there again last August, on a beautiful evening with a full moon and knew that I wanted to film there.

I have since found out that the only significant change that was to come with reunification, or die Wende (the change), as the Germans call it, is that they have doubled the speed of rotation. It used to take an hour to do the full 360 degree turn of the Berlin skyline - which, under the old system, was exactly how long you were allowed to stay there, never allowing for a second look, and which was rigorously enforced by a ticketing system: one cake and you're out. Now it takes half an hour and, of course, you are allowed to stay for as long as you like.

The staff, who are on the whole the same staff, still seem to work under the old system. Your order is taken and delivered with impeccable speed and efficiency, and they move around the restaurant floor as if choreographed, never pausing to show disorientation or doubt as the tables shift and move away from them. I was told that a job in the Fernsehturm was highly sought after before the change, and in that way all the staff were probably "approved by the Party". And here they continue to be: the head waiters and the waitresses, and the keyboard player with his white jacket and bow tie turning up for work every evening to play "Lara's Theme" and his own composition, "Night at the Tower".

I found myself totally seduced by the Fernsehturm: the dramatic shifts of light as the sun sets, the continual movement into shade and out again, the staff and their discipline, the duck and red cabbage, the Sekt, and the Coca-Cola, of course. I was never as interested in the view outside the tower, as I was in the changing atmosphere inside the restaurant. I liked the way, with the progress of night, the space became more and more enclosed, and more and more social.

Most Berliners from the former West have never been up the television tower, and yet large groups from the former East still book long in advance to have dinner there. Despite its consumption by the tourist world, the Fernsehturm has still retained its political edge. At the time of its construction, it was said to be neutral and non-ideological and built purely in relation to its function: to transmit a signal, admittedly over or through the western part of the city to the whole of East Germany beyond.

For me, it has become the perfect anachronism. Built at a time when we believed in space travel, it was futuristic and bold, and yet its decor and optimism is locked in the Sixties. The revolving sphere in space is still our best image of the future and yet it has become a period concept. It felt totally appropriate when the musician began playing the "Blue Danube" on his electric keyboard and the spirit of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey filled the restaurant.

So every day I would wake up at dawn and watch the previous night's disclosures in the Florida Recount saga as I battled with the transition between sleep and wakefulness. I would take the S-Bahn to Friedrichstrasse and walk to the Charité where I would become Frau Dean, the English patient. Never quite in the mood for hospital breakfast, I would only pick the fruit off my tray. This puzzled one old engineer with a finger missing who was anxious that I wasn't eating enough. I tried to explain I'd had breakfast at home. "But it's free here," he said. Of course, that's why it was always packed full when I arrived in the morning.

Half way through my time there, I finished reading Timothy Garton Ash's The File, contentious reading I realised for such a place. The book is an investigation into his own Stasi file, and all those who informed on him. At the end of the book, he tracks down all the Stasi officials who actively worked on his case. Almost without exception, he found that each man was living in the suburbs of the eastern part of the city, and when he came across them, usually without an appointment, they were, to a man, wearing a shell suit. This struck me because, every day at breakfast and lunch I sat opposite a line of men wearing ill-fitting shell suits. It meant nothing of course, as we were all told to wear tracksuits for the various group activities we were requested to participate in; it just let me into the frightening place of prejudice and imagination all the people of the former East must constantly live with.

I tried to start a dialogue with one of my physiotherapists, but language was a problem. He told me that the Charité had been the hospital for Party bosses, and that he remembered climbing up one of the buildings to hear a Pink Floyd concert from the other side of the wall. He'd named his daughters Michelle and Lucy after the Beatles. But the story that struck me most was about the death of his father.

They lived in Brandenburg, and he and his mother and father were eating lunch. After lunch, his father said, he would pick some cherries from the tree in the garden. So my physiotherapist went off to visit his friends, and when he returned he knew his father had fallen out of the tree. He went and found him there. His mother continues to live with the cherry tree in Brandenburg. His telling of the story had the sparseness of a Grimm's morality tale, and affected me deeply. We, of the West, cannot help romanticising the lives of those who lived under the GDR but as Karen, who ran the cutting room, said, things are not necessarily better now. They had wanted a third way between East and West, but the wrong people got to the East first. They miss the security, the camaraderie, the one health insurance instead of the couple of hundred. I did feel very protected in the Charité: the level of care was exceptionally high, and the examination more rigorous than any I had previously known.

My other physiotherapist was a gently spoken man with a look of John McEnroe and a slight cast in his eye. Every day he would work on my joints then tuck me up in bed with a "Wärmepackung", a heat pack to relax the muscles. The fragrant smell of those Wärmepackungs filled the corridor of the Tagesklinik. We would sit as a group in a room that looked towards the Fernsehturm and everyday we would make a different paper animal. On the first day, we made the head of a pink pig - six folds of a piece of paper and then you draw on the eyes. I sat looking up at the Fernsehturm as those around me struggled with their pink pig heads thinking about the surrealism of this current activity in relation to the complexity of the editing that lay ahead of me. But, as the time passed and I'd added a frog, a fish, a dog, a mouse, a sailing boat and another pig to my collection, I realised that one experience was very much furnishing the other with a context.

The Fernsehturm, with its particular history and its strange perpetual movement had become a perfect symbol of progress. As you sit up there at your table, opposite the people you are with, and with your back to the turn of the restaurant, you are no longer static in the present but moving with the rotation of the Earth, backwards into the future.

Tacita Dean's 'Recent Films and Other Works' is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1 (020-7887 8008) from 15 February to 6 May. Film still from 'Fernsehturm 2001' courtesy of Frith Street Gallery, London (020-7494 1550)

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