Monday, August 20, 2012

Der Geist der Berlin (The spirit of Berlin)

It’s night. We can see only the outline of a hill, which is rough rocky and coarse. This jet black hill is contrasted by the sky, which is red, with thunder clouds threatening menacingly. We hear someone climbing over the hill, loose stones and rubble clattering together, and then a figure appears. A dark silhouette, a woman perhaps, though it is hard to tell at first. Then we make out the figure more clearly, and see definite feminine features animating the silhouette. She, we can safely assume “she” now, is carrying something in her hands. She is obviously struggling with this pile of ... something. When she gets to the top of the mound, she drops it, and stones clatter and shatter, displace and roll down the hill. Music can be heard, simple, haunting, chilling us to the bone. More figures - all women - appear to deposit their noisy baggage on that clattering mound.

This could be a play of sorts, a short performance piece perhaps, an image conjured up for me on a walking tour of Berlin, an image from Berlin’s past. Our guide, Callum from Scotland, was bringing us around the city for an alternative take on that tour of Berlin that we all expect. No mention of Hitler’s bunker, Otto von Bismarck, JFK’s proclamation to the people of Berlin that he was a jelly donut. I was to go on that tour a few days later. Callum’s tour focussed instead on the street art of the city, on a youth culture so vibrant in a city being reconstructed since before the allies bombed it to a cinder, since before the Russian’s came baying for blood with revenge in their eyes.

It is often said that the city is basically one big building site. It is true that cranes litter the skyline, and ruins and derelict buildings can be found almost everywhere. The city almost has a post-apocalyptic feel to it. Communism may have cut the city in two, but reunification cut Berlin into many separate and different parts. A city without a centre, Berlin is perhaps like a manifestation of the scientific theory of the multiverse, where many separate and different universes exist alongside one another. One place is rich with historical buildings, another feels like you’ve entered into a soviet era block of flats. There are shopping districts and places where there are only ruins. Some places are so obviously centres where high-powered decisions of one kind of another are made, while others look like they have been reclaimed by the youth, tagged and sprayed, faceless husks of buildings brought to life through art and colour. Maybe you could say that Berlin is like a physical version of the internet, a decentred place where you can turn a corner and seem like you have stepped into a completely different world, stumbled upon a completely different page.

It certainly can be just as colourful as the internet. If street art has a mecca, it’s Berlin. Giant astronauts float on the sides of buildings. Two strange smiling cartoon mobsters mimic the symbols of the LA gangs with their hands - one east side, the other west side - in a reference to Berlin’s divided past which still haunts the city. And the problems of the LA gangs pale in comparison to what East and West Berliners had to go through.

The L.A. Berlin connection ...

Today all of Berlin is divided; divided against itself in an almost willful attempt not to have a single centre, not to have a king. When I took the regular tour, our guide Jessica told us that the rise of Hitler could in part be explained in part by a long history of strong, authoritarian, patriarchal leaders. The years immediately preceding the nazis saw the German people have democracy for the first time, but this was coupled with political and economic turmoil as the Great Depression brought the country to the brink. In part out of desperation, in part out of nostalgia for monarchy and the stability associated with it, the country turned to that infamous racist Austrian. Berliners seem determined not to make that mistake again. This is truly a city without a king, completely lacking a centre or a singular definition.

The city seems in some ways to be a distillation for those involved in the likes of the Occupy movement throughout the world or in that more broader youth movement that both distrusts authority and that shuns holding on to one over-arching philosophy or ideology for either guidance or sustenance.

One thing that goes hand in hand with youth culture today is a love for partying. And you can certainly do that in Berlin. It seems like the clubs never close. DJ’s play cutting edge techno, dance and trance music and much more besides. Booze is cheap, but there is an exclusivity to certain places, so make sure you have your wits about you. You can queue in line for the Bergheim (said to be the best club in the world - so they say) only to be rejected on the basis of some mysterious criteria that was a topic of much conversation among those of us who tried and failed. That is, most people I met in Berlin. One thing was certain: they seemed to prefer Berliners, gay people and hipsters, engendering a one word response from most people - cooool. If hipsters define cool, and gay people have always been cool, then it is in Berlin where cool has found its place.

At the hostel I was staying at there was this quirky girl from Copenhagan named Sofia who worked at the reception. One day we were all sitting in the sun smoking our cigarettes. Amazed by this hodge-podge place of alternative culture with such a long and troubled history, I mentioned how great I thought it all was. She took a long toke from her cigarette, turning uncharacteristically serious for a moment. “Berlin will break you if you’re not careful.” And perhaps this is the dark underbelly of this place touching some sort of utopia. You know what they say about too much of a good thing ...

After five days I was glad to be leaving. Sofia’s warning is not one to go unheeded, though Berlin has its quieter nooks and crannies also. It really is one of those magical unique places that seems to capture the Zeitgeist of our current moment in time.

But what of that image I painted at the beginning of those women, moving against that red sky, depositing what seems like rubble on a hill made of rubble? It was a mental image I had, which stemmed from a story our tour guide Callum told us. After the dust had settled on a city close to total destruction, as the sun rose again on Berlin after the Allied bombing, it was the women of the city who began to clean up the mess - all that rubble from those bomb blasted buildings. They deposited it at the edge of the city upon a nazi youth training centre. It has since grown over, now grassy with soil, and is known as Devil’s Hill.

Berlin is constantly changing. The kids draw on the ruins of old, new buildings are erected, and the cranes are constantly kept going in the world’s largest building site. But it is the metaphor of those women throwing parts of the city they had once known and lived in upon the site which represented the evil that they had found themselves embroiled which spoke to me the most. It was their sons and husbands that went to fight, only for all that they had ever known to be blown to a cinder. It was out of those cinders that they created something new - a hill, a monument, a tomb. Or maybe a living thing, a natural thing to subsume the unnatural thing that lay there before.

Deis ist der Geist von Berlin, this is the spirit of Berlin.

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