I grew up in Berlin in the late 60s and early 70s, and returned to live in the East after the Wall fell. One night in the pre-unification summer of 1990, some friends and I went to an illegal rave in an abandoned subway station underneath the border. The streets above were strewn with piles of cobblestones, impassible even by a tank. But a stoplight nearby still worked. After we emerged, at dawn, picking our way through the rubble, my tweaked-out, sweat-drenched, illegal-party-going German friends suddenly stopped. They were waiting at the intersection for the red light to change. It was five in the morning, and there was no possibility of a car (or tank) coming down the street. Yet they obeyed the signal and the law, even as they laughed at themselves for doing it.
I was reminded of that morning by a scene in Jason Lutes’s epic 600-page graphic novel Berlin, which chronicles the turbulent rise to power of the Nazi party in the late 1920s. In an early section there is a flashback to December, 1918, when a fight breaks out between Army and Navy veterans of the First World War, over which will receive their back pay. Guns are drawn, and the soldiers, forced to retreat, run toward a park. At its entrance is a sign that says, “It is forbidden to walk on the grass,” so the soldiers dutifully sprint around the grass along the path, exposing themselves to fire rather than violate the order of things. Lutes gets the Berlin character, its enduring, mordant sense of humor.
Lutes began Berlin 22 years ago, steadily releasing sections as pamphlets, and now they are lovingly collected in an omnibus edition by Drawn & Quarterly. It just so happens that his long project culminates at our historical inflection point, where fascists are again attempting to consolidate power by stuffing the courts, gerrymandering, purging opponents from voter rolls, pursuing the mass incarceration of minorities and the poor, and forcing from the country anyone who doesn’t look like them.
However, Berlin is not polemical. In its focus on the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens—artists, factory workers, policemen, newspapermen, prostitutes, orphans, and cabaret performers—we feel the texture of the city in tumultuous times, as the Communists and Social Democrats vie for power, along with twenty-seven other more minor political parties. The city, and country, were demoralized, only just beginning to regain their footing under the weight of humiliating treaty conditions imposed by the victors of the First World War. After the Black Thursday stock market crash in late October, 1929, the German economy collapsed, making already scarce jobs and food even scarcer. In the ensuing chaos the Communists and Nazis battled for hearts and minds in the broadsheets and the Reichstag, and brawled in the streets of Berlin.
It is against this backdrop that Lutes’s characters try to make sense of their lives. We follow the young artist Marthe Muller from her sheltered life in Cologne to Berlin, where she gets entangled with the disillusioned journalist Kurt Severing. She is trying to make her way in the bright lights, studying drawing and, in the rest of her time, the city’s decadent underbelly: jazz clubs and cabarets, open queerness (homosexuality was illegal in Weimar Germany, and remained so until the late 1960s), and drug-fueled sex parties thrown by the rich. Severing works for the very real newspaperman Carl von Ossietzky, who was arrested for his reporting on the abuses of the Nazi party, received the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison in 1935, and died a year later under Gestapo supervision. Marthe and Kurt both struggle with their crafts, not believing they are sufficient to match the brute forces ruling the streets.
There are, naturally, sexual adventures and explorations, the oblivious decadence of the rich set off against the secret, queer, politically tinged cabarets where black American jazz musicians are all the rage. Along the way we flit in and out of the lives of people engaged in the quotidian tasks of survival. In one such sequence, a family of factory workers is torn apart when the wife embraces the Communist Party while her husband joins the brown shirts, their teenage children dividing with them. Some characters we linger with for only a few frames, much like Wim Wender’s just-pre-fall-of-the-Wall 1987 Berlin movie Wings of Desire, where the angels are privy to the thoughts of the mortals they pass by.
What emerges from all of it is the texture of a moment on the cusp. There are no inevitabilities. There is constant flux and tumult. There are arguments about politics, but also about aesthetics and the use of art, the grotesquery of the realists versus those trying to capture an increasingly rare vision of beauty. And always the futility of words and images against the jackboot and the mob. Marthe and Kurt collaborate to draw and document Berlin’s ordinary citizens, much like Lutes himself, all the while wondering what good it is doing when people are being gunned down in the street. Their project echoes the real-world scholar Victor Klemperer, who kept extensive diaries during the Nazi era. Klemperer, documenting the progressive degradation of morality, wrote of the necessity “to bear witness.” In retrospect, his clarity and purpose in the face of chaos and possible execution were remarkable.
But, as the Nazis move ever closer to consolidating their power, Marthe and Kurt are not so clear, unsure of how to resist the tide of tyranny. Kurt flirts with the idea of joining the street-fighting Communists, while Marthe considers giving up on her dream of being an artist to return to Cologne, and a quiet domestic life near her family. It was a moment to choose sides, or even to opt out, to flee for the countryside or leave the country altogether. This dilemma—whether to stay and fight for what one believes, but in so doing to face the very real threat of death—is heartbreakingly played out by a Jewish family that takes in a factory worker’s orphan. We know what they do not: Kristallnacht is just around the corner.
You can, of course, read our present moment into this Berlin, when desperate times drove many to the clear promises made by National Socialism or Communism, and drove others to resist with rocks, or words, or images. You can see how people rationalized the ceding of democratic ideals for a strong sense of order, while downplaying, or simply refusing to see, what the Nazis, once in power, would do.
Lutes has clearly done his homework, and it shows, with flavors of Christopher Isherwood, Alfred Doblin, and Wings of Desire. What is remarkable is the continuity over two decades of the project. It is an incredible feat of concentration and sustained storytelling, with compelling, complicated characters from beginning to end. Berlin ends with a lack of certainty or conclusion that is nevertheless satisfying. History’s hammer is about to descend, but we know how that story goes. The characters have made their choices. We can imagine how they lived, or didn’t, with their choices.