In the surprisingly informative documentary David Hasselhoff vs The Berlin Wall, pop culture superstar David Hasselhoff meets former East Germans, learning the stories of those who endured and attempted to escape the communist regime. He also recounts his own connection to the Wall’s ultimate destruction. Admittedly this sounds like a fanciful story that someone, (potentially Hasselhoff himself), made up. But a closer inspection of his career helps explain Hasselhoff’s iconic status in Germany and why he’ll be linked to one of recent history’s most significant moments forever.
Of European ancestry but born in Maryland, America, Hasselhoff studied acting in college, landing his first major role in 1975 on popular US soap The Young and The Restless.
Still airing to this day, the show was a success but Hasselhoff remained largely unknown outside the US. This changed in 1982, however, when Hasselhoff quit the soap to star in the lead role of pop culture phenomenon Knight Rider. Following a detective and his computerized car KITT, the global hit was particularly popular in Europe, helping Hasselhoff connect with a vast and growing audience as American television started to broadcast more frequently following the first fall of the Berlin Wall.
Recognisable up until this point for his acting prowess, it was Hasselhoff’s singing that then launched his European career to new levels. Having found little success in the US, it was initially Austria that embraced Hasselhoff’s music, sending his debut album Night Rocker to number one in 1985. While that album and its 1987 follow-up Lovin’ Feelings were also moderate successes in Germany, it wasn’t until 1988 that Hasselhoff struck gold with his single Looking For Freedom. For Hasselhoff, the timing was spectacular. Amidst rising external political pressure and internal unrest from citizens desperate for liberation, the communist curtain over East Germany started to lift. With a catchy chorus and the word ‘freedom’ conveniently in its title, Looking for Freedom became an anthem for the oppressed and a number one hit.
In 1989, as the barrier between East and West was finally removed after close to 30 years, Germany celebrated by throwing a massive public party known as Freedom Night and invited Hasselhoff to perform. On New Year’s Eve at the Brandenburg Gate to a purported crowd of one million newly united Germans, Hasselhoff famously performed the song that had come to embody citizens’ longing for liberty and reunification. Ever since then, Hasselhoff became forever associated with the fall of the Wall.
In the documentary, Hasselhoff recalls the amazing reception at his Freedom Night performance but notes that the response in the US was largely one of derision. Making fun of the notion that he single-handedly brought down the Berlin Wall, US audiences adopted a stance of mockery that has followed Hasselhoff throughout much of his career. With a noteworthy level of self-awareness, Hasselhoff responded, saying, "It was just a song, but it had that message of freedom. I had nothing to do with bringing down the Wall, but the song was important to a lot of people. People in Berlin have told me it was more like a hymn."
After the performance, Hasselhoff’s star continued to rise with the hugely popular series Baywatch but despite enormous ongoing success, Hasselhoff’s career has consistently been considered fodder for ridicule rather than something to celebrate.
In part this has been due to the lightweight, sometimes tawdry, nature of his acting roles, as well as his own actions. This includes his infamous drunken hamburger eating incident. Yet despite often being the butt of jokes, he remains revered in Germany, with many approaching Hasselhoff throughout the documentary to convey their feelings for his work and the impact he has had on their culture. Though such reverence may seem unusual to outsiders, Hasselhoff’s inextricable link to such a momentous and joyful time in German history helps explain his veneration. As one man explains when speaking of Hasselhoff and his song Looking For Freedom: “In East Germany, this was our hymn.”
Playing against his image as a light-hearted popcorn actor, David Hasselhoff vs The Berlin Wall is a look at a serious and emotionally charged part of history. Informative and sincere but also good-humoured, it offers insight into a volatile political period, as well as to a man whose achievements are often overlooked in favour of an easy punchline.
Still popular in Germany today, he may not have single-handedly brought down the Berlin Wall but thanks to his wide-ranging talents, and the fact he had a song with the word ‘freedom’ in it at the right time, David Hasselhoff has left an indelible mark on German and global history.
David Hasselhoff vs The Berlin Wall airs on Wednesday 25 March at 11:20pm on SBS VICELAND and streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand: