Berlin notes

By CC O'Hanlon

Monday 12 December, 2016

THE TRAFFIC SLOWED to a crawl just east of Tempelhof airport, where the autobahn from Schönefeld made a right-angle turn through Neukölln to skirt abandoned hangars and runways, wide open fields of tarmac and grass. It was around three in the afternoon, in the middle of winter, and it was almost dark. Everything except the road was covered in a foot or so of dirty snow. The buildings were featureless and grey.

Slouched next to me in the back seat of an overheated taxi, my wife looked as if she wanted to make a run for it. She rolled down a fogged window to get some fresh air and a better sense of our surroundings. It was her first time in Berlin.

‘It’s like we’re on the set of an old black-and-white spy movie,’ she said.

We had travelled most of the day to get here. For the past year, our home had been in a small, picturesque village in the Charente, in south-west France, at the edge of the Cognac region’s Petite Champagne. The journey to Berlin involved a local train to Angoulême, a high-speed TGV to Paris Montparnasse, and a somewhat frantic taxi ride to Orly airport, south of Paris. By the time we boarded a crowded easyJet flight to Berlin, we were already missing the aqueous light of the vineyards.

‘Would you be willing to spend a year here?’ It was the second thing I was asked when, unexpectedly, I was invited to become a senior executive at a troubled photographic company. It had just been bailed out by an Eastern European oligarch, so the money was good. I was sitting amid the rubble of an underfunded house renovation when they called. I was trying to figure out how I might replace the roof and rebuild part of a two-hundred-year-old stone wall that had collapsed during a thunderstorm. I said I would come to Berlin to talk.

My wife and I checked into a hotel – industriously chic, exposed brick and polished concrete – at the western end of Kurfürstendamm, a no man’s land of mid-century modern offices and apartment blocks, most as sterile and nondescript as an airport car park. For the next 24 hours, all I saw of Berlin was a dozen or so blocks of high-end retail between our hotel and a more expensive one where the company’s new owner was holding management meetings.

My wife came around to the idea of living here before I did. ‘It’s not pretty, but there’s something,’ she said, at the end of the first day. Venturing away from Kurfürstendamm, she had explored the back streets of Charlottenburg and Wilmersdorf and had ended up at the edge of the Tiergarten, the forested park in the centre of the city. The following evening, we took a taxi across the Spree to Mitte, in the city’s east, where we had coffee in a café crowded with monochrome hipsters half our age peering over their laptops out to Rosenthaler Platz. The buildings around here were older, dowdier and heavily tagged with graffiti, but there was, unarguably, something: a hopefulness, a sense of possibility, but, above all, ease. It felt easy. Snippets of Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English jostled for attention.

And I remember this: half-a-dozen stoned, dreadlocked and feral-looking twenty-somethings tracing a series of long S-shapes with a large trolley along Torstrasse. The trolley was piled high with blankets, old clothes, a canvas tent (with poles), a dozen plastic bags of empty bottles and two lean, mongrel puppies.

A police car pulled up to the curb just ahead of them. Two tough-looking officers got out and stood side-by-side in front of the motley troupe, arms outstretched like uniformed impersonations of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. I expected, at the very least, they would frisk for drugs – an easy bust – or book them for disorderly conduct. Instead, talking quietly, without a hint of intimidation, the police shepherded the troupe off the road and onto the sidewalk. They walked with them a couple of blocks, smiling, patting the puppies. Then they returned to their car.

I took the job the next morning. Two weeks later, my wife and I loaded up a rented station wagon with our luggage, two of our four children and our dog, and drove the fifteen hundred kilometres from the Petite Champagne to Berlin. A one-year contract turned into two and half. When I left the job, we didn’t go back to France.

At the end of this month, my family and I will have been in Berlin for four years. In another year and a half, we’ll be eligible to become permanent European residents. My German is still sparse, as is, sometimes, my understanding of Germans. And yet I feel more at ease in this ugly, emotionally scarred but undiscriminating city than I have nearly anywhere else.

Which is another way of saying it is home.

Monday 31 October, 2016

I HAD LIVED in Berlin for three years before I realised that Bertolt Brecht was buried at the end of my street.

The Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof is three-quarters of a kilometre north of the River Spree, just beyond the junction where the wide boulevard of Friedrichstrasse narrows and becomes Chausseestrasse. Enclosed by high brick walls, mature evergreens shade pale gravel paths and burial plots strewn among unruly, Gertrude Jekyll-ish plantings of sparse shrubs, low hedges and flowers. The arbitrary landscaping gives the cemetery the air of a quiet country garden. Many of the graves are austere, marked by simple headstones or plaques bedded on damp earth, but there are also imposing mausolea and memorials bearing the names and epitaphs of eminent local burghers and their families.

A brick wall separates the original, four-acre graveyard of the eighteenth-century Protestant parishes of Dorotheenstadt and Friedrichswerder at the rear of the property from French Huguenot graves, almost as old, at the front. Brecht and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel, lie side by side beneath this wall. Their names are engraved and painted white on rough-hewn lumps of granite set at one end of a raised, brick-bordered flowerbed. There are only the names, nothing else. The unworked headstones are littered with pebbles left by visitors.

It was a disconcerting experience to stand for the first time at the foot of Brecht’s grave. It wasn’t easy to accept that he’d been dead for more than six and a half decades. I had imagined him still living in the not-at-all-proletarian townhouse, Brecht Haus, right next door to the cemetery, and walking the few blocks to the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm with his wife for a rehearsal or a reading. The theatre has been home to the Berliner Ensemble, the company he founded with Weigel, for more than half a century, and it has somehow survived Nazism, Communism, internecine cultural politics, state ownership and privatisation to flourish today under a new administration.

In no other city does the past haunt the present as persistently as it does in Berlin. It’s easy to put this down to the city’s steadfast refusal to forget the mid-century horrors of Nazism or to redact its grim physical and ideological divisions after the war, but even in earlier, pre-Nazi Weimar years, the jittery angst found an outlet in the occult. We still call on ghosts here and draw them into our everyday.

Brecht has been ‘discovered’ by a new generation and has become as ubiquitous in the first half of the twenty-first century as he was in the first half of the twentieth. He has insinuated himself so deeply into contemporary Berlin’s imaginative recesses that he assumes a kind of corporeal substance: I come across him often – always fortyish, bespectacled, cigar-smoking, in oversized, hand-me-down jackets with the right whiff of thrift-store chic – in cafés in Kreuzberg or Neukölln or at gallery openings in Schöneberg and Mitte. Ironically, for the man who wrote ‘Art is not a mirror. Art is a hammer’, his words are daily abbreviated and turned into social media fodder.

It’s much the same with fierce Rosa Luxemburg, philosopher, economist and doomed Marxist revolutionary. Brecht was a month shy of his twenty-first birthday when, in 1919 in the aftermath of the failed Spartacist uprising, ‘Red Rosa’ was arrested by the Burgergerwehr, or civil guard, then bludgeoned and shot in the head before being tossed from the Lichtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal. The young Brecht wrote the poem ‘Epitaph, 1919’ to honour her:

Red Rosa now has vanished too.
Where she lies is hid from view.
She told the poor what life is about
And so the rich have rubbed her out.

But like Brecht, Rosa Luxemburg never died. She is our bolshie neighbour, alive not just because her words have been forged in bronze and set into local sidewalks, her face stencilled on surviving fragments of the city’s infamous Wall, or her name given to squares, streets and subway stations, but because her passionate, plain speaking is what we hear in our heads when, from time to time, we protest and submit our communal concerns.

‘I was, I am, I will be.’ This was Luxemburg’s postscript to a radical upheaval she hoped to inspire across Germany. The spirit of the statement proved more prescient than she might have imagined. She was and is, everywhere, a ghost in our early twenty-first century machine age, as were and are those who followed her out of the nineteenth century fin de siècle into our modern world – Brecht and Weigel, Walter Benjamin, Albert Einstein, Joseph Roth, George Grosz, even Aleister Crowley. We should listen to what they’re trying to tell us. Because in the uncertain geopolitik of which neu-Berlin is an epicentre, they know, better than anyone, just how much there is to fear.


Monday, 3 October 2016

TOLERANCE, OPENNESS, OCCASIONAL moral ambivalence and a bolshie anti-authoritarian streak pervade the everyday in Berlin, but its administrative processes are much the same as other German cities – which is to say, they require a lot of paperwork.

A simple change of residential address can involve several hours of form filling and queuing, beginning at the local bürgeramt (or city recorder), where every resident of the city, regardless of nationality, is expected to file their current address. Last week, I had to provide an updated proof-of-residence document, an anmeldebestätigung, to my local finanzamt or tax office.

I arrived at the finanzamt, on the ground floor of a drab, ’60s Soviet-style block on the east side of the city, at 8 am but it was nearly 10 before my number was called. I presented my completed form to a stone-faced woman behind a desk in a cramped, windowless office. Without a word, she went through it, line by line, ticking my responses like a grumpy schoolmarm. When she came to the section about my occupation, she paused.

‘You have not answered this,’ she said in English. Clipped consonants made it sound like a reprimand.

‘Um, no. I didn’t know what to say.’

‘Who is your employer?’

‘I don’t have one.’

‘You are unemployed?’


‘So you are self-employed.’

‘Not really.’

‘I see,’ she said. But she didn’t. There was an uncomfortable pause.

‘I should have an answer here, please.’ She handed my paperwork back to me and nodded towards the door.

Later that day, I was having coffee with a friend of mine, an American woman who had worked as an art director and events promoter in the city for nearly a decade.

Lebenskünstler,’ she said.


‘That’s what you should have put down: lebenskünstler. Look it up. It means, literally, “life artist”.’

‘You’re kidding, right?’

‘It’s an acceptable occupation in Berlin. Even for legal purposes.’

The concept of a lebenskünstler does not translate quite as simply as the word itself. Neither a dilettante nor a flâneur, that over-hyped archetype of nineteenth century Parisian literature, the lebenskünstler is someone who has turned living itself into a decadent, artfully stimulating and careless performance – non-art-as-art, a sly hustle, somehow subversively inert. They’re rarely inclined to make or do much; if anything, they prefer to insulate themselves from the stressful sturm und drang of actual creation.

No one I’ve met in Berlin can tell me with any precision quite where the word came from. There’s the slight whiff of the streetwise about it, which suggests it might have first turned up in the Communist east of the city. After the Wall went up, the arts on the wrong side of the River Spree went underground, and hip, chaos-compliant hustlers, who saw themselves as something akin to performance artists, worked the back channels at a few border posts to bring in what they could of Western jazz and rock’n’roll, comic books and poster art. But the first lebenskünstler, in attitude if not name, were around in the Weimar years. This brief, doomed goldenes Zeitalter between 1918 and 1933 was one of the most fertile – intellectually and socially – in northern European history. Radical new ideas in the arts, architecture, industrial and graphic design, science and philosophy were conceived and nurtured not just in Berlin but other German cities, notably Frankfurt, as well as Vienna in Austria. But Berlin was the heart of it.

The lebenskünstler were the first adopters of a polymathic Weimar culture reconfigured as a lifestyle. Participant rather than productive – this is elemental to the definition of the lebenskünstler – they might have been inspired by the unconventional educational experiments of the day. But more likely they emerged, bleary-eyed and debauched, from the ooze of Berlin’s transgressive cabarets (pansexual promiscuity and recreational drugs were no less rife in Berlin then than they are today). Wherever they came from, they were eager receptors of a relentless stream of ideas, adapting them to already colourful, personal, intellectual and creative spectra, then transmitting them to disparate, literally subterranean, cultural fringes.

Today, there is nowhere in the world with quite the same spill of interdisciplinary intellect (let alone the same depth, intensity or originality) as Berlin in those heady, if jittery, pre-World War II years, even if it was eventually staunched – first by the rise of Nazism, then by academia.

Now it has all but dried up.

Those who don’t get neu-Berlin’s gestalt might dismiss the twenty-first century lebenskünstler as con artists, role players or poseurs. But this ignores their enduring presence and influence – as club promoters, social provocateurs, pop-up entrepreneurs, rogue programmers, artful muses, cultural ‘influencers’, salonistes and street hustlers. Their essential equanimity copes with a post-Wall pace of development that is so fast everything feels aleatory and impermanent.

Then again, I like to think that all of us who live here are, to some extent, lebenkünstler.

Ich bin ein Berliner. Ich bin ein lebenskünstler.


Monday, 5 September 2016


WE WERE SITTING outside a ‘bespoke’ coffee house on Schönhauser Allee – Anton Newcombe, the late-middle-aged leader of cultish psychedelic band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and me – when the music started.

It sounded like Marlene Dietrich, singing in German against the background crackle of an old acetate pressing. We both turned to find its source and saw two women sitting at a table nearby; on a spare chair between them was a small, leather-veneered suitcase which housed a turntable and speakers. The women were as unlikely as the music: both pale skinned, in their late twenties maybe, wearing 1930s-style calf-length, short-sleeved floral frocks, white ankle socks and wide-brimmed straw hats, they sipped espresso as they shuffled through a dozen or so vinyl 45s in a canvas tote that one of them balanced on her lap.

They paused when they noticed us looking at them. ‘I’m sorry,’ one said. ‘Are we disturbing you?’

We shook our heads. Anton managed a small smile. ‘It gives the place a sort of early Weimar vibe,’ he said. They smiled back a little uncertainly, as if they didn’t really get what he meant.

But I did. There’s a sort of early Weimar vibe to a lot of what’s going on in Berlin these days.

Twenty-seven years after the wall dividing the east and west of the city was torn down, and the grimmest memories of it turned into fodder for tourists, Germany’s down-at-heel capital is transforming itself into a shiny example of Euro-modernity. The city’s bohemian character, formed by two centuries of revolution and transgression, is still strongly evident, but it’s diluted and somewhat more aqueous than it was even half a decade ago. Forests of high cranes have risen across the centre and every major street has been excavated. Other old walls are crumbling too and with every truck load of bricks and shattered concrete carted away to landfill, a little more of the city’s history is discarded.

It is still a very human place: laidback, with a reassuring mix of rational, adult forbearance, hedonism, and an inclination to adhere not to the letter of the law but the spirit of it – which is to say it relies on those of us who live here to exercise common sense and consideration. For the most part, the powers that be, notably the police, don’t interfere much.

As a very funny TV ad for the city’s U-bahn (or underground rail network) conveys, you can do or be anything you want on the ride, but you have to pay for the ticket.

This tolerance can be risky. Berlin was the first major European city to open its arms to the first waves of Syrian war refugees, but while its welcome of them was heartfelt, the city wasn’t ready, physically, emotionally, for the massive numbers to be processed and cared for, let alone assimilated. Worse, it gave long-dormant strains of right-wing extremism something to sink their decaying teeth into, and the renewed sense of relevance and confidence within an ugly German minority has coincided with vehement nationalist sentiments overtaking governments in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, from the north-east, there are daily rumours of Russian troops, tanks and aircraft massing on the borders of southern Ukraine, a country Germany tends to think of as the canary in the coal mine of its current realpolitik. The youth of its capital, Kiev, are enjoying an optimistic, creatively fecund period that, as The Guardian newspaper put it, ‘evokes late ’90s Williamsburg, not the capital of a crisis-wracked country at war’. Looking further back, to 1968, it may be more ‘Prague Spring’ than Haight-Ashbury’s ‘summer of love’.

Berlin, like Vienna to the south, is something of a mittel-European melting pot, in which well-understood, if no longer synced, Euro-US notions of ‘the West’ and a still-fermenting, multiethnic identity of a ‘new East’ are being stirred. Right now there is uneasiness, uncertainty. And neither is assuaged by a recent German government recommendation that every household should stockpile ten days of food, water and essential supplies for an unspecified ‘attack or emergency’.

Tonight, Anton sent me a direct message via Twitter: no words, just a photo of his booted feet beneath two overloaded shopping trolleys at REWE, our local supermarket. Also attached, a Google map on which he’d marked the fastest route out of the city.


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