‘Thirty years of freedom!’ Why David Hasselhoff remains an icon for German unity | Music


Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” David Hasselhoff chants as he snakes his way through the Max-Schmeling-Halle, a basketball stadium erected near where a section of the Berlin Wall once stood. It’s German Unity Day, Thursday 3 October, and Hasselhoff is here to promote his 14th album Open Your Eyes. The date is no coincidence.

As the show begins, the actor and singer is raised on a hydraulic platform above the crowd, and it’s hard not to recall how, on New Year’s Eve 1989 – less than two months after the Wall fell – he was similarly lifted beside the city’s Brandenburg Gate in a bucket crane. “Thirty years of freedom!” Hasselhoff yells today, adding, in a nod to John F Kennedy’s 1963 speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

On that December night almost 30 years ago, in a televised performance that never seems far from his mind, Hasselhoff sang Looking for Freedom, a song that held West Germany’s No 1 slot for two months during the tumultuous summer that led to the momentous East-West reunion. As the Knight Rider star mugged for the camera, Germans from both sides of the border sat astride the hated barricade. Some tossed fireworks dangerously close to Hasselhoff, his leather jacket illuminated by the sparks. “I’ve been looking for freedom,” he insisted, over and over again, “I’ve been looking so long.”

Hasselhoff was still clinging to his anthem the last time I saw him, grinning beneath his trademark coiffure at Berlin’s East Side Gallery. It was March 2013 and he was protesting developers’ intentions to dismantle some of the open-air gallery, which consists of murals on a stretch of the Wall, singing the song a cappella – repeatedly – through a PA strapped to a battered yellow van­. This was a campaign to which he’d stay loyal: in December 2017, he called again on the city’s mayor to halt construction of luxury flats on what was once the “death strip” alongside the River Spree. (Nonetheless, the building went ahead.) For many, this provoked amusement, as Hasselhoff’s actions often do. Most famous in Germany for a kitsch celebration of the Wall’s demolition, he was now battling to keep it standing.

To justify his presence at Max-Schmeling-Halle tonight – as if it needs justification – Hasselhoff offers his resumé before the show. Songs from the new album, as well as his hits, play over the PA while most people are still coming through the doors. A replica of KITT, his talking-car co-star, stands behind the sound desk, and clips of Knight Rider and Baywatch – as well as videos for his many German pop hits – are beamed behind the stage before his show gets under way.

Then for the best part of three hours, he hammers out, with almost unceasing force, a series of cover versions that makes as little sense as his German fame does to the British. An improbably convincing cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On is followed by one of Modern English’s I Melt With You. He perches on a stool for Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, then vigorously owns the pomp of Open Your Eyes by gothic rockers Lords of the New Church. He dons his Baywatch uniform, wielding an inflatable buoy, for theme tune I’m Always Here, then continues with a Rat Pack standard. When he lifts his shirt to reveal a back tattoo of his own face and the legend “Don’t Hassle the Hoff”, the crowd’s squeals are punctuated with disbelieving splutters.

He also offers constant, gushing reminders that we’re commemorating “Thirty years! Thirty years of freedom!”, something he seems to be taking more seriously than Berliners, for whom time has passed as fast as rents have risen. Memories of the Wall have been chipped away at, just as the edifice itself was, before it was then sold in fragments to tourists. These days Berlin celebrates this annual public holiday mostly for the simple reason that it’s one of only nine granted to the city. (Bavaria, in contrast, has 13.)

David Hasselhoff in his Baywatch heyday.



David Hasselhoff in his Baywatch heyday. Photograph: Allstar/NBC/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Indeed, despite a handful of official festivities, the most prominent Unity Day events this year were demonstrations concerning the capital’s rather more immediate problems: widespread gentrification, with its subsequent spikes in housing costs; the growth of far-right extremism across the country, evident in a march involving 1,700 extremists, neo-Nazis and anti-Islamic German Defence League members, with counter-protesters numbering 2,000. Hasselhoff makes no mention of such issues.

In fact, Hasselhoff doesn’t seem to have moved on at all, something reflected in his music. This is what provokes his critics as much as his enthusiasts: to some he’s an embarrassing, outdated reminder of the profligate, superficial nature of much of western culture, while to others he’s emblematic of a coveted future and a goal achieved. He’s a symbol of unresolved conflicts, something with which Berlin is familiar.

As a globally recognisable star of huge shows – in 2011 Guinness World Records named him “the most watched man on TV” – he also provokes snobbery from those who consider themselves more cerebral, although it was he who recognised Baywatch’s commercial potential and invested his own money in the series when it was prematurely cancelled after its first season. He’s been releasing critically derided albums since 1985, some of which have nonetheless hit the top spots in Austria and Switzerland as well as Germany – even 2013’s A Real Good Feeling made the latter’s Top 30 – but prominent roles in musicals like Chicago, Jekyll & Hyde and The Producers, for which he was personally selected by Mel Brooks, have done little to restore his credibility.

Few, though, are as earnest about Hasselhoff’s work as he is, and this includes his fans. During an unnecessary – and lengthy – interval, I ask two of them whether they take him seriously. Their response is amusingly ambivalent, and when I query whether he takes himself seriously, their reply is equally equivocal. “Probably,” they reply, adding, “hopefully not.” This, of course, suits a man who sometimes betrays an unusual self-awareness, as appearances in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (in which he plays the German team’s coach) and the droll mockumentary Hoff the Record – not to mention Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! – attest. In February this year, he published an audiobook, Up Against The Wall – set, of course, in autumn 1989 – in which he juggles performing to 100,000 people and saving Berlin from nuclear attack with the help of a doppelgänger CIA agent stationed in east Berlin. “Is this the greatest thing you can ever listen to?” one reader asks on Goodreads. “I’m saying, ‘Probably’.”

But at other times he appears to be the only person not in on the joke. When he tears into True Survivor (the theme tune to cult Swedish time-travel-martial-arts-action-comedy Kung Fury, a short film in which he had a cameo role as “Hoff 9000”), it’s so beefed up it sounds like an immaculate parody of 80s hair-synth-rock. He plays it straight, and it’s this inappropriate sincerity that makes him an easy object of derision.

But his fans are conscious of his absurdity and some, at least, are protective of Looking for Freedom. One local friend, who grew up in the 80s, explained to me that, back then, Hasselhoff and his biggest hit represented “the sehnsucht [wistful longing] for western culture and the weird word ‘freedom’, embodied in a two-metre-tall, leather-clad, chest-haired dude – and, more importantly, a very catchy song that every kid was singing in school”. Explained like that, his status becomes more intelligible, and its longevity more sympathetic. Hasselhoff was in the right place at the right time, for which some will always be appreciative, and they remember Looking for Freedom with the same degree of respect as the English do Three Lions. Perhaps both make recollections of what went before, and what came after, less painful.

In Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste – a critical consideration of the meaning of taste, as seen through the lens of Céline Dion’s career – critic Carl Wilson wonders “whether ‘easier’ music might contain hints for reconciliation with the world into which we’re already thrown. Maybe it deals with problems that don’t require leaps of the imagination but require other efforts, like patience, or compromise.” Hasselhoff’s audience seem familiar with both qualities, while cynics see things in less tolerant, more binary terms, rejecting him on purely aesthetic grounds. Reconciling these two viewpoints seems as much of a stretch of the imagination – especially when faced by Do the Limbo Dance, which tonight inspires a conga line through the stalls – as the idea of the Wall falling once did. But harmony is exactly what, on a smaller scale, the Hoff achieves. The arena is packed with people from across the social divide, and however much Hasselhoff is mocked outside its walls, here there are dreadlocks and mohawks, groups in matching Baywatch T-shirts, late middle-aged couples who’ve come straight from dinner, and others who weren’t even born when the Wall fell. Several fans even wear replicas of the jacket Hasselhoff donned in December 1989.

For them, Hasselhoff is a reminder of an era when division seemed to have been overcome: a time when the world might come together. Indeed, if you listen to his selections, the wildly varied music is of less import than the lyrics. He convinces us that the preposterous Hot Shot City – “You will find her on the street / In her red Ferrari / With her top pulled down” – is an anthem for Berlin, and employs Modern English to remind us to “dream of better lives / The kind which never hates”. Before Air Supply’s Lonely Is the Night, he instructs us to introduce ourselves to the people next to us, “even if you know them”, while the dramatic chorus of Open Your Eyes is spelled out on the screens behind him: “See the lies right in front of you.” As for Sweet Caroline, its message is perfect for a man so desperate for us to be friends, not least with him: “Hands, touching hands / Reaching out, touching me, touching you”.

David Hasselhoff performing at Max-Schmeling-Halle, Berlin, 3 October 2019.



David Hasselhoff performing at Max-Schmeling-Halle, Berlin, 3 October 2019. Photograph: Frank Hoensch/Getty Images

It’s a message he communicates successfully, and it’s especially poignant in Berlin. Tonight, we’re a ragbag of people singing a ragbag of songs, remembering – or, in surprisingly plentiful cases, imagining – how it felt to be so full of hope. Frankly, it’s a relief. This is perhaps what the Hoff wants of us, too: to love and forgive each other as much as he loves and forgives us – which is as much as he wants us to love and forgive him. If we can manage that here, maybe we can take that tolerance away with us afterwards. It’s gauche, but nonetheless admirable and – if you drop your prejudices – rather bewitching. Hasselhoff is a recovering alcoholic, and one suspects that to him, as to many, this city is a symbol of how a “different” lifestyle can flourish after even awful things have happened. A bit more of this compassion, however self-satisfying, might resolve many conflicts, not just his own.

Whether he’s taken seriously or not, Hasselhoff is a unifying force. He’s contradictory, of course: he demands walls stay up which he once wanted torn down; he sings karaoke with a grubby Sunset Strip rock band like he’s changing the world. But even when the Wall tumbled – as Tim Mohr’s recent, gripping history of the 1980s East German punk scene, Burning Down the Haus, reminds us – there were plenty of anti-capitalist DDR citizens who rejected reunification and wished instead to see socialism remodelled. Contradictions are a part of life. Resolving them should be too.

He brings things to a close, inevitably, with Looking for Freedom, and if you pay attention, you realise he understands that the thing about “looking for freedom” is that “still the search goes on”. His relentless optimism is irresistible, and it’s infectious, too. That he keeps persevering is to be applauded – as he is noisily tonight – and there is hope in how so many remain prepared to listen.



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