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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

David Hasselhoff, pop culture and Berlin Wall

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

David Hasselhoff's trajectory is a strange one: the pop star has come through the events of the fall of the Berlin Wall to become a national icon.

The American model of the 1980s

David Hasselhoff has an impressive body.
Hasselhoff is charismatic

David Hasselhoff is an American actor best known for his work in television series. His charismatic physique and his terribly virile, not to say macho, charm make him a stereotype of the American model that was emerging at the beginning of the 1980s. He is, so to speak, the equivalent of a Schwarzenegger on the scale of the small screen.

He benefited above all from the incredible aura that certain emblematic series gave him, which now belonged to pop-culture. He played a charming doctor in the series The Young and the Restless, an adventurous pilot in Knight Rider, and a body-built lifeguard in Baywatch. These roles brought him international fame and a substantial fortune. However, he was only a B-movie actor and his acting seemed to be far from the classical standards of theatre or cinema.

The man who dreamt of songs

David Hasselhoff is an actor as well as a singer and songwriter.
Hasselhoff is a multi-faceted artist

Hasselhoff is certainly not an upstart, nor is he an opportunist who has simply built his career on his impressive physique. He is a true artist who trained to be one. He studied theatre at the prestigious California University of the Arts from which he graduated. It is also a true calling for him and since his early childhood he has dreamed of Broadway musicals, even hoping to perform in them one day.

His post-graduation roles brought him financial security, stability and the mockery of certain cultural elites. Hasselhoff had other artistic ambitions, however, including becoming a singer. Building on the popularity of the Knight Rider series, Hasselhoff produced two first albums in 1985 and 1987. His pop-rock style was unoriginal and in keeping with the canon of the time. He was successful, but this was more due to his personality than to the intrinsic quality of his music. In June 1989, Hasselhoff produced a third album entitled Looking for Freedom. Five months later, the Berlin Wall opened and Hasselhoff was to take clever advantage of the event to become a legend.

Soon the fall of the Berlin Wall

In May 1989, the borders between Austria and Hungary were opened, creating a gap in the Iron Curtain between West and East. In September of the same year, Hungary allowed East German citizens present on its territory to cross the border. The movement quickly gained momentum and tens of thousands of East German refugees took advantage of the opportunity.

The situation in the GDR was catastrophic. The opposition mobilised against the government and questioned the very foundations of the regime. In contrast to 1953, the GDR could no longer count on the unconditional support of its Soviet ally, which was itself in serious difficulties. The isolated East German government awkwardly announced the possibility of free travel to the West, leading to the opening of the borders and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At the heart of historical events

At the same time, in West Germany, Hasselhoff was promoting his third album. Very intelligently, he spoke less about music than about symbols. The formulas were conventional but the themes were unifying. The sales of his album exploded, the success was not critical but popular. His song Looking for Freedom became the anthem of the historical event that the Berliners were going through.

The consecration and the apotheosis came at the New Year's Eve concert in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where Hasselhoff performed in front of almost half a million people. The enthusiasm was real, both for the crowd and for Hasselhoff himself. For a long time, Hasselhoff was convinced that he had been one of the driving forces of history, one of the elements that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This episode was to mark him for the rest of his life, so much so that he was one of the few important personalities to have defended one of the last vestiges of the Wall, the East Side Gallery, which was at one time threatened by building projects.

History is selective

David Hasselhoff is a pure product of pop culture.
Hasselhoff loves people

David Hasselhoff's trajectory can be compared with that of cellist Mstilav Rostropovich. History and the sublimated national narrative have mainly remembered the latter playing at the Wall in November 1989; the former being regularly mocked for his alleged vulgarity or supposed intellectual limitations.

Rostropovich represents the Soviet exile, the cultural elites and more respectable codes than Hasselhoff, an American B-movie star and average singer without originality and some would say without talent. It could be argued that Hasselhoff's energy was mainly used to promote his album, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Germany at the time, and that politics was never even a minor theme in his songs.

Nevertheless, one thing is certain: Hasselhoff loves people. Dreams of glory perhaps, but glory shared with ordinary, simple, everyday people. Such a character could only inspire disdain from the cultural and academic elites, symbolising their rejection of popular culture. The main person concerned may rightly regret that there are no pictures of him in Berlin's museums evoking the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Peaceful Revolution.

Like Rostropovich, Hasselhoff has become part of Berlin's collective memory. On his own scale, at his own level and with his own artistic forms, he took part in the effervescence of the time; an effervescence that was above all popular. He therefore belongs to this legend, whatever the prejudices of some and others. Today, influential groups in the German capital are mobilising for the opening of a museum space paying tribute to him and for a street to be named after him.

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