Berlin by the Book : Writers Have Always Dwelled on the City's Dark Side. Don't Expect Things to Change Now Just Because the Cold War Is Over

By Nagorski, Andrew | Newsweek International, April 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

Berlin by the Book : Writers Have Always Dwelled on the City's Dark Side. Don't Expect Things to Change Now Just Because the Cold War Is Over


Nagorski, Andrew, Newsweek International


Leamas went to the window and waited, in front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop of a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war.

--JOHN LE CARRE, "The Spy Who

Came In From the Cold"

Think of Berlin in the literature of the 20th century, and the images that spring to mind arealmost always chillingly ominous. From the Weimar Republicto the Berlin Republic, a dark, brooding atmosphere infuses even the zanier, wildly licentious scenes. It's a sexual revolution (before the term was coined) coupled with rampant violence and looming repression. It's total freedom joined to total desperation one moment--followed by both brands of this century's totalitarian horrors the next. And then there's Berlin as the centerpiece of the cold war, the setting that consistently beat out all others for maximum drama.

Christopher Isherwood, a British writer who later became an American citizen, immortalized the Berlin of the late 1920s and early 1930s in "The Berlin Stories." He reveled in the city's decadence and produced a host of dubious, amoral, likable characters like Sally Bowles--who would later be reincarnated onstage and in the movie "Cabaret." And Isherwood foreshadowed tragedy in the making. "But isn't there a natural instinct for freedom?" his fictional hero (also called Isherwood) asks. Another character replies: "Yes, you are right. But the boys soon lose it. The system helps them to lose it. I think perhaps that, in Germans, this instinct is never very strong."

Both the real and the fictional Isherwood were attracted to Berlin's outlandish reputation. In his novel "Down There on a Visit," the hero is lectured by a distant relative who lived in Germany about Berlin's "vilest perversions" and "nauseating" sexual practices. "That city is doomed, more surely than Sodom ever was," the relative warns. "Those people don't even realize how terribly low they have sunk." Which only convinces Isherwood to get to Berlin as soon as possible. That was the Berlin where, according to Bertolt Brecht's lyrics, there's a rationale for letting loose. "Do everything tonight that is forbidden," his song urges. "When the hurricane comes, it'll do exactly the same."

Most fiction of the period offers up less appealing characters than Isherwood does. In his classic German novel "Berlin Alex-anderplatz," Alfred Doblin presents a parade of primitive lowlifes. Chief among them is his antihero Franz Biberkopf, "that rough uncouth man of repulsive aspect" who emerges from prison after serving time for killing his girlfriend--and promptly gets mixed up with the wrong crowd again. Vladimir Nabokov, who lived in Berlin for much of this period but never learned German, observed the city's inhabitants with icy detachment. He described the sunbathers in the Grunewald, an affluent district with a forest and lake, by pointing out "the pimply shoulder blades of bandy- legged girls; the sturdy necks and buttocks of muscular hooligans; the hopeless, godless vacancy of satisfied faces."

Nothing, however, could lessen the magical pull the city exuded in the 1920s. German playwright Carl Zuckmayer tried to convey Berlin's allure by comparing the city to a woman. "Some saw her as hefty, full- breasted, in lace underwear, others as a mere wisp of a thing, with boyish legs in black silk stockings," he explained. "The daring saw both aspects, and her very reputation for cruelty made them the more aggressive. To conquer Berlin was to conquer the world. …

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