Saturday, May 23, 2009

Berlin Falling

This November (the 9th, to be precise) marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember watching live television coverage with my roommates in our apartment on Spadina Circle, during my final year as an undergraduate at U of T. I don’t know what’s more frightening: how much the world’s changed, or how much I’ve aged, in the interim. Certainly the city of Berlin has itself undergone a phenomenal transformation since 1989, perhaps nowhere more evident than in its gleaming new Potsdamer Platz, dominated by its huge Sony building and expansive new boulevards, leading to the Reichstag and connecting east and west. But for a few random slabs preserved for the tourists, the inlaid cobblestones denoting the path it followed, and the hawkers selling souvenir kitsch, one would be hard pressed to imagine the no man’s land of weeds and barbed wire this area once was.

It’s hard not to feel the weight of history in Berlin. Take, for example, that date of November 9th. It’s also the anniversary of the end of the 1848 Revolution, when King Friedrich Wilhelm marched his troops back into Berlin and suspended the National Assembly. On November 9th, 1918, FW’s brother, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, leading to the end of WW I, and the establishment of the Weimar Republic. Five years later, in Munich, Adolf Hitler attempted his Beer Hall Putsch on November 9, 1923. And, finally, on that day in 1938, Hitler’s followers carried out the Kristallnacht pogroms.

Speaking of important dates in German history, I am writing this (May 23, 2009) on the 60th anniversary of the formation of the Bundesrepublik, or Federal Republic of Germany (what was formerly West Germany). Big celebrations are planned later today outside Branderburger Gate. I hope to catch some of the festivities.

The Germans have a big long compound noun to refer to the country’s coming to grips with its past: it’s called Vergangenheitbeswältigung. It’s used most often in the context of the Nazi era and the horrors of the Holocaust. But it can be applied to virtually any era of German history. Starting with the Prussian monarchy, and that regime’s weird mix of militarism and aestheticism. We have been in Potsdam for the past few days, where Richard is attending a conference. Left on my own, I have been exploring Frederick the Great’s rococo architectural excesses at Sans Souci and the adjacent Neue Palais. When not launching military campaigns against Austria or Russia, the Francophile Frederick had rather refined artistic tastes (a friend of Voltaire’s, he was also a composer of some repute, and a great patron of German arts and crafts, particularly in the areas of porcelain and marquetry).

But mostly I have been boarding the train and heading back into Berlin, where everywhere one turns, one sees visible traces of Germany’s troubled past, especially its bloody 20th century: from the plaque that marks the spot where Rosa Luxembourg’s body was found floating in the Landwehr Canal; to Eisenmann’s Holocaust memorial and Liebskind’s Jewish Museum (the one seeming to respond to the other); to the fragments of the wall that remain to remind us of how recently the Cold War ended (if, indeed, it has ended at all).

The divisions between east and west Berlin remain evident (architecturally, economically, socially, etc.), and there’s nothing like walking through Prenzlauerberg, Friedrichshain, and Kreuzberg to get a sense—notwithstanding the inevitable inroads of gentrification—of the politics of place in Berlin. Start at the Fernsehturm, the giant TV tower in Alexanderplatz (unrecognizable, thanks to Erich Honecker, from the descriptions of Döblin, or the images of Fassbinder), and walk south-east along Karl-Marx Strasse to the edge of Friedrichshain (now the artsy, bohemian centre of the city, it seems), and you’ll see what I mean.

Performance-wise, I fulfilled my one desired goal in coming to Berlin—to see something by Brecht at the home of the Berliner Ensemble, the baroque theatrical pile in Mitte, on the north side of the Spree, that Bert and Helene made their own in 1954, following their return to the city five years earlier. We chose well: Robert Wilson’s production of Brecht and Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper. It helped, of course, that we already knew the story. We could thus relax about not catching all of the German (very little, in fact, despite the language classes we took this spring), and concentrate instead on Wilson’s wonderfully minimalist/expressionist staging, and the magnificent performances and voices of the leads (particularly the women: Polly, Jenny, Mrs. Peachum, and Lucy). I’m still too overwhelmed to dissect it fully, so the following photo will have to suffice.

An interesting irony re the Brecht show: down the street, Mel Brooks’ musical confection, The Producers, with its parody of a musical-within-a-musical, Springtime for Hitler, has just opened at the Admirals Palast. The news has been filled with all sorts of stories about what this signals about German Vergangenheitbeswältigung: is an embracing of a comic satire that deals with Nazis and the Holocaust a sign that historical expatiation has finally been achieved? Perhaps a partial answer to this question can be found in the fact that on the banners used to promote the production, and meant to represent Nazi heraldry, pretzels have been substituted where normally one would find swastikas. This because of a still-in-effect constitutional ban (dating to 1946) on the public display of the symbol in the country.


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