Helene Sommer

Das Gelände

Das Gelände[1] follows the construction of an indoor tropical amusement park in a former airship hangar, localized on what was previously a Soviet military base.

Briesen-Brand is a small area in the state of Brandenburg in former East Germany. Forestry was its main area of industry until a pilot school and military airport for the Wehrmacht was established there during World War II. After the war, the Red Army took over and established one of the largest Soviet military bases in the GDR and thereby erased it from all maps until the fall of the wall, at which time the area was returned to Brandenburg. In 1998 it was bought by Cargolifter AG, which built the largest hangar in the world in the middle of the former airfield. There they planned to construct the world’s largest airship and thus revolutionize transportation. The hangar, which is the size of eight football fields, won several prizes for its construction. In 2002 Cargolifter AG filed for bankruptcy and the facility was put up for sale. It was bought by a Malaysian businessman, who in 2004, started to construct a tropical amusement park inside the hangar. Tropical Islands opened its doors in 2005.

In 2004 I walked off the train for the first time in Briesen-Brand on my way to attend a local event I’d come across in the paper; the symbolic planting of the first tree in an airship hangar about to be transformed into a tropical paradise. A palm tree, of course. There were sausages for everyone and a local Bruce Springsteen cover band to set the mood. In the air were small blimps and the hangar opened and closed its massive doors for the last time.

The first time I arrived, I walked through woods, passed a ghost town of barracks, saw old Soviet hangars and as I turned a corner and walked down a former runway I saw an enormous, shiny structure that looked like it had been photoshopped into the landscape. The bankrupt Cargolifter AG had installed web-cams in the hangar, whose images they updated every day on their still existent website. When the site closed down, Tropical Islands took over the web-cams and continued using them. For nine months, I downloaded web images every single day, following the landscape’s transformation from a completely empty 66,000 square-meter hangar to a tropical scene, like frames of an animated film. At regular intervals I visited the place, and each time I documented new layers added to the inside and outside landscape.

As the facilities shifted functions, the layers of history became evident. The airship hangar turned into a tropical landscape, the runway into a parking lot and the main access road changed its name from LK 11 to Tropical-Islands-Allee. The visible recycling of the landscape triggers the question whether the amusement park trivializes, camouflages, or clarifies the place’s history.


Despite my predictions of an imminent closing, the amusement park is still operational today. It boasts the world’s biggest indoor rainforest, Europe’s largest tropical sauna, a spa complex, a tropical sea with a 200-meter sand beach, and a shopping mall. Open every day, all year long, 24 hours a day.

Das Gelände, 2004/2005

DV, 7:50 min.

[1] The title Das Gelände is sampled from the title of the historical documents I obtained when I first started researching the area in 2004. For the lack of a better description, it was simply called: Das Gelände—the area or the land.

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