Berlin - High ramparts, dense forest - this once secret place is still well hidden and unknown to most Berliners. Yet millions of people all over the world, almost three million in Germany alone, have seen it on screen. In autumn 2008, Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino shot various scenes for his Oscar-nominated movie Inglourious Basterds here, just outside the city limits.
In Inglourious Basterds Tarantino cheekily rewrites history. He has Adolf Hitler perish with other Nazi bigwigs in 1944. Brad Pitt plays the leader of the „Basterds“, a Jewish guerrilla force. Behind enemy lines they hunt down Nazis, scalping and massacring them as a deterrent. One of the film's most memorable scenes was shot at Fort Hahneberg in Spandau.
Just outside of town on the B5 highway, on the left side of the road, up an almost treeless hill, a straight track leads directly to the fort's gate. From a distance, the structure is almost entirely invisible except for the gate. The fort is protected by ramparts, walls and moats on all sides.
Beyond the gate, the place gives the impression of abandoned army barracks: two storeys, red bricks, trees growing on roof. The Nazi eagle still hangs above the entrance though the swastika has been missing for decades. "After their victory, the Soviets probably pointed their Kalashnikovs at it," assumes Robert Houben, a member of the Fort Hahneberg Work and Protection Association, whose almost 60 members are dedicated to preserving the monument.
The principle behind the construction of such a fortress is simple: A huge pit is dug, then a thick, fortified fort is erected in the hole, which is finally covered to a large extent with a thick layer of sand. The 63-metre-high Hahneberg hill was "decapitated" in 1882 to make way for the hexagonal structure. Its dimensions are impressive: 450 metres by 170 metres.
The location was chosen because Spandau was home to one of the most important state armouries in Prussia at the time. And after the Franco-German War of 1870/71, the newly founded German Reich feared a French attack at this location for another reason. War reparation payments were stored in the nearby Julius Tower - gold that the French had to pay after they lost the war. "The gold would be worth about €1.3 billion today," Houben says.
The 52-year-old is a staff officer in the German army and works nearby, at the Military History Museum at Gatow Airfield. He discovered the fort years ago when his four children wanted to take part in the traditional Easter egg hunt there. "Until then I had never been here, but then I became so interested I now chair the association."
Inside, it's much cooler than outside the gate, about five degrees Celsius colder. Hahneberg is one of the last forts built in Germnay's short imperial era. In just six years, 2,000 workers laid 28 million bricks.
To illustrate that number, Houben has a comparison up his sleave: "The average old building in Berlin has about 100,000 bricks per storey. The number here would be enough for 280 storeys," calculates the tall man with the calm, deep voice.
Despite the superlatives, the fort ended up being useless to the German military. Such fortresses were supposed to protect troops from enemy cannonballs, but even before completion it no longer offered sufficient protection. Just one year after construction began, the bulwark was made obsolete by new military technology.
Houben tells us that beforehand, cannons still used black powder. The projectiles flew pretty low and would have fallen into the layers of sand covering the fortress, which were up to eleven metres thick. But then new explosive grenades were developed that were so destructive they would have penetrated even the fort's thick walls.
Fort Hahneberg was however used as barracks. After the First World War, a club built gliders there. Under the Nazis it was turned into barracks once more, and then a military hospital. After the fall of the Nazi regime, the fortress was forgotten. Later it was situated in the border area between West Berlin and East Germany and could only be entered by GDR border troops.
Houben points to a brick wall next to the entrance. "That's where the border guards carved their names shortly before they were discharged." The oldest one is from 25 April 1966 by a man named Manfred Bade. There is a name on almost every brick.
Inside, Houben talks about the marvel of fortress architecture, an eerie labyrinth of chambers, rooms and small halls, but above all of tunnels, some of which are so long that the famous light at the end is very dim. The whole thing is impressive, intimidating and mysterious. It hard to grasp the point of the many chambers and spaces.
A marvel of fortress architecture
A room with high windows and a dome feels like a tiny chapel. But it was not a place of prayer, explains Houben, but a room for firing canons at the enemy.
Puzzling features keep appearing. At one point the floor because wavy. "Melted asphalt," says Houben. "It shows the tremendous power of fire." The fort served the Nazis not only as a military hospital, but also as an archive for military medicine. Most of the files were stored there on microfilm, or highly inflammable celluloid. When the military hospital was relocated, the archive was destroyed. The film reels were set on fire. "The fire must have raged here for more than two weeks," Houben explains. "The fire was so hot that even two metres behind a wall the asphalt melted."
Popular bat hotel
The story continues with new fascinating details. For example, in a wall deep underground the clever arrangement of interior windows ensures that a single lamp illuminates several rooms at once. After 1945, in a Berlin that had been devastated by war, there were "demolition permits" for citizens that specified how many bricks they were allowed to take and where in the fort they were allowed to take them from, so that today many of the outer walls and floors are missing.
Another fun fact: the fort is one of Berlin's largest bat hotels.
When we asked about the famous Hollywood film for at least the fifth time, Houben points to a small semicircular vault in the wall, then points to tiny dowels in the ceiling of the arch. "That's where Tarantino had the prison cell built for Til Schweiger. Here were the cell bars, there was the cot." It's an interesting experience. Visitors see a two-metre-high, completely empty alcove. But those who know the film will remember exactly the prison scene shot there.
From 1930, the fort was used as a film location. Sometimes it was a French fortress in a war film, sometimes a dungeon, sometimes a villa. A Canadian science fiction series was filmed here, as was German soap Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten. At some point Tarantino showed up with Brad Pitt.
Usually, the guided tour lasts an hour and a half, but with our many questions, it takes us more three hours. Shortly before the end of the grand tour through the almost one-and-a-half-kilometre-long moat, Houben points to an inconspicuous stone that looks like had been blasted out of the fortress wall.
"So now you may pay homage to this stone," he says. "That's where Brad Pitt sat in the famous baseball bat scene. Til Schweiger stood up there looking grin with his machine gun."
- Address: Fort Hahneberg, Hahnebergweg 50, 13591 Berlin, Tel 030 319 519 20, www.forthahneberg.de
- Public transport: Buses M49 und M37 to Hahneberg