Germany Dreaming. IV: Berlin Is Calling
von Michael Bracewell

Deutsche phantasm

[Vorhergehender Teil der Artikelserie hier. Veröffentlichung mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Autors und der BBC.]

It was the week before Christmas, and the weather was cold and raw. Day and night the sky over Berlin had been the colour of wet tarpaulin: a brownish luminescence, where the city’s light reflected off the dense, lowering clouds.

Above the buildings there was a pale and sickly haze, and from time to time gusts of freezing sleet would suddenly blow across the broad streets. Each day, for about two hours in the early afternoon, the clouds would lift and the city would be flooded with harsh, brilliant sunshine. With this, the temperature would plummet; and in the parks and along the residential avenues the branches of the leafless trees stood out in black silhouette against the gathering dusk. And then the clouds would descend once more, and with them the eerie brown light would return.

I remembered how back in the early 1980s, in London, there had been people of my generation who had made a rather dubious cult out of going to live in Berlin. Just as in the late 1960s, hippies had gone to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, there to seek the Mecca of a free love ideology, so a certain kind of ageing punk, dressed head to toe in black, had looked to the then divided Berlin as the ultimate urban wasteland – the spiritual home of punkish alienation.

Looking out of a taxi window, as I drove into town from the old East German airport at Schoenfeld, in the south of the city, I began to get their point. Berlin, on first acquaintance,  did look a bit grim. There was no British equivalent. Rather, the grey vastness of the city’s hinterland reminded me of Los Angeles or Moscow. Mile after mile, it seemed, of dank and dour housing complexes, worn out main roads and elevated train tracks, all punctuated by derelict engineering yards, battered garages, blackened warehousing and lines of long, semi-prefabricated retail units. The whole lot looked as though it had been built between 1955 and the early 1980s, and with an utter indifference to either architecture or planning – a conjecture which turned out to be more or less accurate.

True, we were still on the outskirts of the city, but the mood summoned up by the journey was one of foreboding and depression, as opposed to cheerful expectation.

This was in the winter of 2005, and it was now nearly sixteen years since the Berlin Wall had come down. In a few words, the driver had made it clear that he felt himself to be a member of a younger, entirely new generation of Berliner

He was not remotely sentimental about the Wall and its emotive history, nor even particularly interested in it. The Wall was a part of the distant past – as ancient and irrelevant as the Cold War, black and white television, or punk rock.

But making our way past the massive old Communist apartment buildings, each with an arched, semi-circular gateway in their centre, like a gaping mouth, I wondered again what this place must have been like in, say, 1982, when the punk pilgrims found their way to Berlin: in search of metal-bashing bands, cheap drugs, beautiful girls and the occasional anarchist cause?

What was it the Sex Pistols once sang: ‘A cheap holiday in other people’s misery’?

Back in those days, for many of the citizens of East and West Berlin, life would of course have been neither romantic nor glamorous. People would still try to make it across the broad open space – the ‘death strip’ as it was known – which ran between the Eastern half of the wall and the Western. If such fugitives were shot, they were left to bleed to death where they lay. The last killing of this sort had taken place in February 1989. It seemed almost impossible to believe.

Then the punk squats of the Kreuzberg district had given way to progressive shades of gentrification, and now, around twenty years later, it was the art world that was moving in. To this day, even though rents have risen somewhat, Berlin is considered a cheap place to live in comparison with London or New York.

Indeed, the availability of cheap accommodation and studio space had led to a situation where artists and galleries were leaving other cities – most notably Cologne – and establishing Berlin, alone, as the centre of the German and to some extent international art world.

Of itself, this would be a minor point in the wider history of Germany. But it was Ralf Hutter, founder of the group Kraftwerk, who explained to me how Germany, until  recently, had had no cultural centre. Rather, each of the major German cities – Frankfurt, Hamburg, Cologne, Munich – had contributed differing but significant cultural characteristics. And if Berlin were to become a magnet for all German arts activity, it would succeed at the cost of de-stabilising this refreshingly non-metropolitan model of cultural production.

At the moment, it was the Mitte, central, district of Berlin that was becoming the most culturally fashionable. The big galleries from London and New York had their eye on opening what could only be called ‘branches’ there. And with this – in simple terms – the rents were going up, and many of the artists were moving out.

But I was just a visiting tourist. My excuse for the trip being the opening of a small exhibition of contemporary art at a new gallery. It was typical of the Berlin art scene of the time that this show would include gay pornography, feminist performance art and a large oil painting supposedly by Delacroix, of a gentleman and lady vigorously making love (to put it politely) and which the charming Italian gallery owner cheerfully – if not triumphantly – admitted was probably a fake.

On the afternoon of my arrival – my first time in the city – I had seen a small section of chipped, brightly painted, and battle scarred concrete, and realised that this was a preserved section of the Berlin Wall. Much of the Wall became famous for the graffiti with which it was decorated, and these few metres were adorned down one side with a spray paint rendering of one of the most celebrated photographs of the American singer Lou Reed.

The visual reference was to a record made by Reed in 1973, titled simply ‘Berlin’. It was an album that I had played incessantly as a teenager, despite – or more likely because of – its depressing narrative of romantic disillusionment, marital break down and suicidal despair.

The opening track began: ‘In Berlin, by the wall, you were five foot, ten inches tall…’

And in all its pre-metric weirdness, it was a great piece of song writing; and somehow adhered itself as a statement to the strange iconography that pop music would derive from, and then impose on to the city…

To the newcomer, Berlin is a city quite difficult to navigate.

As in Madrid, its streets and monuments appear to have a knack of not being where you expect them. And it is only after a few long walks that you begin to get your bearings. I was staying in a small hotel in the Mitte district, on a quiet street which boasted at one end a small shop which sold just whisky, coffee and cigars.

At that time of year when some of the smaller shops were burning small, peat-coloured cones of incense, the delicious scent of which was redolent of the interior of a Catholic church, a shop devoted to such pungent products was as seductive as it was festive. Cheroots were sold in beautifully designed flat tins, the printing and typography on which was as bold and exquisite as any industrial art. Their design took one back to a vision of the 1920s, when streets such as these were freshly built, and peopled by busy, prosperous citizens, advancing the various causes of modernity.

Standing on the pavement, at twilight, and seeing the sleet swirl in narrow circles beneath the glow of a street lamp I experienced again the peculiar sense of time travel which I had seemed to encounter since arriving in Berlin. The feeling was of being in a painting of indeterminate period: a  scene in which all the activities of quotidian life – a shop selling cameras, a café with posters in its windows, a pink neon sign – might have been drawn from any date over the last seventy years.

With an hour to kill before the exhibition opening, I went into a neighbouring café  –  the interior décor of which was based on, of all things, Communist Russia. To complete the irony, there was a photograph of Andy Warhol – dressed in a dinner jacket, white tie and dark glasses – fastened on the glass of the door. It was as though Brian Eno, my dream guide, had been travelling ahead of me, marking the route like a paper trail in a cross country race.

To this day, I always think of Berlin – my Berlin, both real and imagined – as summed up by the peculiar circumstances of the exhibition I attended later that evening. Another cab took me through streets that were glistening black in the icy rain, to deposit me outside a block of mansion flats which faced an avenue and trees and the low geometric Bauhaus buildings of the Neue Nationalgalerie – where, famously, the British artist Mark Wallinger had dressed in an ill fitting bear suit and wandered unhappily around, like some depressed Bavarian mascot.

These mansion flats were still occupied by elderly and rather formal residents, who were clearly none too happy – and who could blame them? – at having a funky young gallery opening on the ground floor.

Inside the imposing wooden doors of the main entrance, the sense was a castle courtyard. Just beyond the concierge’s little office, I could see a low blue light burning above a little door in the wall. This turned out to be the headquarters of Berlin’s Magic Circle – the secret guild of stage magicians.

But, of course!

On the other side of the courtyard, where the clatter of empty beer bottles down century old stone steps could be heard, was the private view.

It would be typical, I felt, of Berlin’s entwined relationship with its own darkly bohemian mythology, that the party would later move on – not to a restaurant or to a nightclub, but to a semi-derelict mental hospital, lit only by candles, where intense looking German boys with cheekbones like wing mirrors tapped electronic music from gleaming laptop computers. Standing within this rout, barely knowing where to tread for fear of treading on someone or in something, and seeing the snow blow in through an open window, I realised that this was it: the dream Germany, the Deutsche phantasm; as profoundly romantic as the view from the top of the Empire State Building, or The Golden Gate Bridge at dawn.

Stephen Spender recalled how in Hamburg, in 1929, he went to a party where feminine men and boyish looking girls danced to jazz records while the host projected home movies of the previous week’s party on to the wall behind them. Like a Jazz Age rehearsal for Warhol’s Factory. He felt ill at ease yet fascinated. And I felt as a fellow tourist, like his direct descendant… only he was a young man when he went to discover Germany, and I am in late middle age.

As I turned to leave I heard someone asking for food.

‘Don’t worry.’ came the reply, over scatter-gun pulsars of synthetic drum beats, “There’s Vietnamese take-away coming over.”

I could have been in New York. Germany was my America. Thank you, Brian.



[Vierter Teil der BBC-Serie »Germany Dreaming« von Michael Bracewell. Der erste Teil ging weitgehend in den Essay »Germany Is Your America« von Bracewell ein, den wir unter dem Titel »Deutschland ist dein Amerika« in Heft 4 von »Pop. Kultur und Kritik« in deutscher Übersetzung abgedruckt haben.]



Michael Bracewell ist Schriftsteller und Kunstkritiker. Buchveröffentlichung u.a.: »Re-Make/Re-Model: Becoming Roxy Music«.