Germany — Oct 19, 2015

Berlin from above

My favorite kind of visitors are ones who travel to Berlin with suspicious carry-on luggage and spend their free time negotiating foreign air space with flying cameras. Eric is a hobbyist drone pilot from San Francisco who’s filmed aerial footage in cities around the world.

When he takes the drone for a spin in the Bay Area, locals geek out over the technology and are generally enthusiastic about a spider-legged robot the size of a birthday piñata buzzing overhead.

I was fairly sure that wouldn’t be the case in Berlin.

Germans take privacy very seriously. The attitude is largely a relic of two recent regimes — first the Nazis, then the former East German state — using mass surveillance of the public to blackmail and silence dissenters and target citizens for interrogation, imprisonment, and torture. Today, most Germans don’t see relinquishing privacy in the name of enhanced security as a good tradeoff. As a result, there is very little CCTV around Berlin, and street photographers must tread with caution to avoid offending public sensibilities.

So I warned Eric that locals may not take kindly to his four-prop flying machine. It doesn’t help that the design of this particular model is rather militaristic. Its sleek black metal frame, loud air-whipping whir, and mosquito-bobbing motions lend to a downright menacing aesthetic. Even the black plastic casing looks like trouble.

It turned out to be a conversation starter, to put it mildly. We set up in Kreuzberg by the Landwehrkanal, a canal that runs parallel to the River Spree. Passersby immediately stopped to ask, often somewhat accusatorially, just what Eric was up to. Within minutes, an older woman had half-jokingly lobbed accusations of NSA involvement.

Once Eric showed them the footage being relayed back to the ground in real time, though, everyone relaxed. The view of their city is stunning, and filmed from too high up to collect much detailed information.

Nonetheless, I decided Tempelhof would be a better venue for flight. The airport in the former American sector was turned into a public park after closing in 2008, and hobby pilots are often out on the tarmac maneuvering toy planes or helicopters.


Eric, me, and a black suitcase on the set of a spy thriller, featuring the Cold War airlift at Tempelhof.

Based on the footage he filmed there, I think it was a good call.