Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Berlin Reflections

I recently spent almost two weeks in Berlin. It was a largely-unplanned excursion (let's call it "show business sucks") but a long-awaited return all the same.

I was last in Berlin in 1994. Between 1991 and that year, I think I visited the city at least 5 times. The transformations going on in the city were so profound -- deaths and rebirths played out in front of your eyes. Somewhere in the Balkans via Bohemia archives I still have a small flyer protesting the removal of the statue of Vladimir Ilich Lenin in Friedrichshain. It's an event that also plays a big role in Yugoslav filmaker Dusan Makavejev's Gorilla Bathes at Noon -- his wildly underrated film about Berlin in that tumultuous era. (Here's YouTube clip of a key scene.)

Needless to say 17 years has seen an immense amount of change. The edgy Prenzlauer Berg I knew from the early 1990s is awash with moms and stollers and boasts a terrific farmer's market tucked amidst restored building facades. The best chance you have in the neighborhood to find that post-socialist moment is the delightfully dingy Klub der Republik -- a place that encourages flouting of Germany's smoking laws, demands a 1 euro tithe to the DJ, and is decorated with distinctive lights salvaged from Berlin's now-demolished East German government center and socialist playground Palast der Republik. (The couches were taken from the legendary -- and now rehabbed -- Cafe Moskau.)

Klub der Republik was a really funky place -- and like so much of that alternative Prenzlauer Berg I once knew -- it will disappear next year when the building is rehabbed.

Those looking to satisfy a case of Ostalgie on their own have increasingly little to get their hooks into. On Sunday, I hung out at the Arkonaplatz flea market, which specializes in wares from that era. There wasn't much on offer, though I did pick up a nifty book on East German fashion for a few euros.

The commodification of Ostalgie is felt most keenly at the actual DDR Museum located right in the city's main tourist drag in an underground museum. The place was jammed when I visited -- and every time I passed it, even -- so there was quite an interest. (It could use a bit more room in fact.) The idea of the place is that it is "interactive" -- you open drawers and see bits of speeches or hear music or see fashion or instruments of police persecution. One also couldn't help noticing that the tone of the exhibit was pitched at a sort of exquisite neutrality best summarized thus way: "The people of the former DDR were good. They had their own culture and some of it was even interesting and fun. But the state apparatus was bad, very bad. And you see the evidence here."

The DDR Museum is a balanced -- almost eerily balanced -- approach which is much preferable to Budapest's infamous House of Terror (which traffics in the worst sort of Hungarian nationalism and victimization in grappling with its socialist era), but it left me feeling a bit queasy all the same. History isn't meant to be this easy.

I spent some of the time poking around other bits of Berlin I knew in times past. In West Berlin, Charlottenburg (especially the area around the Schloss Charlottenburg) seems almost somnolent and sucked dry of interest -- as if nothing had happened in the city at all since my last visit.

The real revelation to me is what has filled some of the empty space of demolished Cold War Berlin. So much has been written about the new Potsdamerplatz that I was dreading seeing it and yet felt compelled to go. It was hideous. The mall ("Arkaden")was simultaneously dreadful and nondescript -- and the huge, empty, imperial spaces through which you enter the U-Bahn stations and Potsdamer's underground spaces reminded me keenly of the Death Star. It was chilling, actually, all the waste of space and imagination. A cathedral of commerce that seemed not to link up to any of the neighborhoods around it in any useful way. It seems to exist only to exude economic power and aesthetic sterility

On one of my last days, I wandered over to Ernst-Thälmann-Park (photo above) -- a slightly neglected and overgrown park in Prenzlauer Berg which has a sentimental attraction for me. It features in a bit of my unpublished novel about the early post-socialist 1990s, Luckyboys, because one of the characters is wandering around the wild and newly reopened East Berlin and keeps getting lost, doomed again and again to go past the head and raised fist of Thälmann.

Today, as I say, it's overrun by skate kids and weeds in the cracks of the plaza. The statue of Thälmann is tagged by Berlin's ubiquitous graffiti. It seemed as good a place as any to wind up a tour of a much-changed Berlin.

(Monument in Ernst-Thälmann-Park. Photo by Richard Byrne)


scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

Richard Byrne said...

Thanks so much for the comment!