Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Berlin fragments

Berlin, quintessential postmodern city, city of the fragment, landscape made by bombing and a Wall, Wall that no longer exists (except also in fragments) but has nonetheless left its mark everywhere. Can only be written about in fragments, jagged, sharp, spiky, in-your-face fragments. Brimming with optimism - you wouldn't build that much unless you thought you had a future - a skyline of cranes (one summer night they had a crane dance, swinging around in synchrony).

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The most bleak, desolate, depressing fragment - not at all representative of the city as a whole, but then nothing is in the city of fragments. Not the Jewish Museum itself, which was the last thing I visited, and which is not the harrowing experience one expects it to be. Partly this is because it isn't exclusively a Holocaust Museum like the one in DC, but aims to provide a glimpse of two thousand years of Jewish history in the Ashkenaz region. For someone with pro-Palestinian sympathies, navigating the museum is a complicated, disorienting experience. Not that the Palestinians have anything to do with any of this. But. But. But. You can see the persecution build, gradually, relentlessly, not inexorably because you can also see thriving, triumphs, achievements, the Jewish contribution to the German Enlightenment. But you can see the sorts of things that make voices like Herzl persuasive in the 19th century. The attempt to assimilate (we can be German and Jewish) and how dismally that fails. And when I come out at the other end, my pro-Palestinian inclinations are intact, but it's harder to be as monochromatically anti-Zionist as I have been in the past. Must read Michel Warschawski to see how he does it. Also, mental note to give Adorno more head space: there's a searing quote from him somewhere in the museum about how no one can be critical of Jews in post-Holocaust Germany. No the most depressing fragment isn't the museum itself, but Daniel Libeskind's zigzag addition to it, and not even that but the absolute dead-end in which the axis of the Holocaust culminates: the Holocaust Tower. Not very large in its floor area, weirdly shaped, but going up, up, and high up, very high up, is a little chink of light, a narrow slit through which a razor sharp sliver of light cuts tantalisingly, cruelly into the darkness. I can hear the sounds of traffic outside, voices, other people having fun, living their lives, but there is no way I can reach that chink of light. There is something that looks like a ladder going up, but it is on another wall, and it leads nowhere in particular. It is all worse than reading a Coetzee novel where you are at least not offered any false hope. I stare, transfixed, at the chink of light, but it is remote, unattainable, mocking, sort of like God. Buildings don't usually make me cry.

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The Reichstag, on the other hand, gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling. It was actually a very huggable sort of building. Who gets off the plane and visits the national parliament? Most tourists to Berlin, apparently, and I was no exception. There was a queue to get in, but anyone could get in, subject only to the most perfunctory frisking. No questions asked, no ID demanded, it didn't matter who you were or where you were from, you were welcome to enter the Reichstag and climb right up to the top of its Norman Foster dome to see all of Berlin. The geography of this city begins to make sense: to the East, a traditional grand European city; to the West, some kind of mix between Chanakyapuri and the Mall in DC - experimental buildings around a big patch of grass (the west really didn't get much architecturally, although great numbers of weird and wonderful post-unification buildings now dot the landscape...he trails off vaguely...I really didn't see much of the west). There is an exhibition about the fraught history of the Reichstag up in the dome - they are very proud of the fact that Hitler never set foot in this building. But it has been through a lot - burnt down by the Nazis, neglected for much of the Cold War, and the seat of a unified Germany's parliament only from 1999. The building has vast expanses of glass, meant to reflect the theme of transparency: you are supposed to be able to see ministers at work. They are trying to get as far away from a lot of their history as possible. And they have succeeded. One night sometime around midnight, C, M and I happen to be in the area, admiring the complex of new federal buildings that have sprung up around the Reichstag. Enormous buildings, but conveying an impression of lightness and flexibility with strength (it's the ultra thin columns and the long, narrow steps and the large pools of water in between that do the trick I think). There is a group of language students (M says - she should know: she teaches German and English) singing songs and getting drunk in an amphitheatre-like space that nestles on one side of the parliament building. As we round a corner, we notice that someone is trying to climb up the outer wall of the Reichstag using nothing but his bare hands and feet to grip the large, protruding blocks of stone, while his friend watches, laughing, from below. There is no exclusion zone around this parliament, there are no cops, no CCTV cameras. Or if there are, we can't see them and whoever is watching has chosen to do nothing. I'm having difficulty understanding this: some random dude is scaling the wall of the Reichstag. Just for fun. And that's ok. This country has clearly moved on.

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One day we found a squat. Right in the middle of everything else. Decrepit grey concrete with bright graffiti on the outside, spacious, magnanimous on the inside. There was a bar where all the accessories seemed to have been scavenged off the site of an automobile accident. Some part of the bar was made of a piano. Outside, a children's play area made with car seats on big springs. A very wide staircase with prominent notices asking squatees not to urinate on the walls, in five languages, and promising delicious punishment to anyone found violating the rules. Upstairs, a room full of papier mache models of female genitalia, two artists conversing through a haze of something, another room full of startling images: a nun wearing a crucifix to which are also attached a pair of tit clamps - she pulls it forward and throws her head back in ecstasy. We ran away past the World War 1 helicopter parked near the exit, down a side road where we found a gigantic human skeleton suspended in the nave of a decommissioned church. Wtf?!?

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I was reminded of how incomplete this was by the last scene of The Lives of Others, which appears to have been filmed on Karl Marx Allee. Formerly called Stalin Allee, this is the central urban feature of East Berlin - the showpiece boulevard of the showpiece satellite state in the entire Communist bloc. The road is so wide that ten or more tanks might have been able to advance simultaneously, menacingly, down its length in a show of strength, and it is lined with massive, anonymous buildings (no names, only numbers) that seem to go on forever. One gets a sense of how massive everything is from the diminutive size of the parking bays for cars on either side. Today, capitalism's neon signs scream choice (if you have money) out of the ground floor windows. We turned off the main road into a neighbourhood that could not have been more different - the streets are narrower and lined with cafes and restaurants, including a surprising number offering 'indische' food. There seemed to be parties at every corner, young people smoking up and dancing, reclaiming the street, watched warily but politely by police. This has always been the story of communism - assailed from the right by capitalism, from the left by anarchism.

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