Letter from Berlin

In 1929 Walter Benjamin wrote that records of Berlin can be like “an Egyptian dreambook for the waking.” In the 92 years since, even as the city has emptied, Berlin’s dreamscape has intensified, its latent content accreted, its internal tensions grown. On the skeleton of Weimar Berlin lies the National Socialist Germania, over which the division of the city and the Wall was erected­—and out of whose ruins takes form today’s Berlin, a one-time city of artists and dissidents tending toward a tech hub. It is in this city that prizes its multikulti identity that Germany relearned nationalism, cheering on its national team at the 2006 World Cup, creating the conditions for the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland, still only a tiny presence in Berlin, to become a national force. In the city’s center the Maxim Gorki Theater seeks to restage German identity by disintegrating it, while the resurrected symbol of imperial Germany, the Prussian City Palace, sits atop the memory of the Palace of the Republic, which was once flooded with 300,000 cubic liters of water and boating visitors could travel among various islands inside.

Now, the rebuilt Stadtschloss houses Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. The neighborhoods to which Turkish guest workers were restricted have become the most in-demand and though now former guest workers and their descendants choose to live there, it’s becoming ever more difficult. In the name of the Jews German bureaucrats in the Reichstag accuse left-wing Jewish activists of anti-semitism. Here a city-wide citizen’s initiative to expropriate the largest landlords must be considered by the city council after receiving nearly sixty percent of the vote, though the ruling Social Democratic Party has declared it would never do so. The contradictions are almost always too much. I can only record a few of the images of the dream as they appear to me here in my home in Neukölln in the hope that you too can find yourself in the strange present history that is the dream of Berlin.

A pale woman with perfect skin and a platinum pompadour, framed by the pale blue sky. Her lips turn up slightly in a gnomic smile, her dark eyes, far-seeing. Germans laze on a beach, reading, joking, scrolling through their phones. Boys run past, their feet splashing in the water, their steps in concert with a terrible heartbeat whose intensity is, with every passing moment, increasing. Old men, wading into the water, look to the sky. Pamphlets with Hebrew lettering fall from the heavens.

“I used to be a political scientist; I used to work for the government,” a woman tells me. Her English is better than my German, better than my Spanish. “But since I came to Berlin—just one month—I’ve been cleaning houses.”

“You should write about Chile,” she tells me, after I explain why I’m reading Propositions for Non-Fascist Living: Tentative and Urgent by the river. “It’s not good. We have a fascist running for President.”

The blond woman’s face returns, now the Siegessäule, Berlin’s “Victory Column,” a nineteenth-century monument to nineteenth-century wars, behind her, at whose apex stands a goddess. White robes adorn her, this figure astride a donkey, whose hoofs ring out across the city as she approaches Brandenburg Gate. Soldiers draped in the flag of David appear before the Reichstag. One soldier, his arm wrapped tight with phylacteries, holds a ram’s horn and blows, the sound of his shofar summoning soldiers from the underground. Porcelain shatters against cobblestone. A wooden clock falls from an apartment window, splintering on the earth. A classical statue follows, then a painting. Small German flags flip end over end to obliteration. “Seid ihr bereit? Are you ready?” asks the blond figure, impassive as ever, in a voice of the winds.

“Who in all the world comes voluntarily to Berlin?” wondered Joseph Roth one hundred years ago, when Berlin was known as the tenement house of Europe, welcoming thousands of migrants from Galicia, Romania, and Lithuania with accusations of filth, criminality, and the impossibility of integration—the same specious claims leveled today at migrants from the Middle East. More recently, Musa Okwonga has written how his move from London to this city was constantly questioned. “What brought you here? Everyone asks you this,” Okwonga writes, suggesting that even in the hundred years since Roth, if for different reasons, coming to Berlin is a matter of fate. “Living in Berlin, if not quite a calling, is compelling.”

Yael Bartana’s Malka Germania, which I have begun to describe, best as I can, in these fragmented images, a forty-three-minute work of video art on three screens, is not exactly a record of Berlin as it currently is—but it is not not that either. Malka Germania is the centerpiece of a retrospective on Bartana, the film specially commissioned by Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Redemption, Now. Malka Germania, its name richly overdetermined— “Queen Germany” in Hebrew, but also recalling the name for what was to be the Third Reich’s world capital, Germania, and feminizing the messiah, Melekh Mashiach, to Malka Meschicha, Queen Messiah—takes place in the present. It just introduces a stranger into Berlin’s midst.

Bartana’s messiah arrives unbidden in Berlin. To watch the video in the museum is not to know if she originates in the woods and then makes her way to Lake Wannsee, the site of the cursed conference that set forth the Final Solution, and a popular summer locale, or if the Siegessäule is her first appearance. Perhaps it is a mystery to her too that she is chosen to appear and bring forth the changes to the world. She might shatter the old order, but will she create a new one? The Kabbalah speaks of the feminine divine, but also of Tikun Olam, the repair of the world. 

“How far is home?” sung a figure in white, moving from her crouch behind a banner in the center of the gallery, now turning over the pages of an unbound book. Her right foot is in a cast. Her partner twirls and falls and twirls again, his feet always precise, even as he topples. Behind them are hung canvases, prints like landscapes pulled out of the frame. Behind the audience are clay miniatures assembled on a wall, a select few receiving their time under a roving spotlight. It is the collective work of a residency of 8 artists, charged to rethink the notion of “Chosen” in a Jewish context. They pull on a set of ropes that lift wooden boards near the floor. “Do you have a cigarette?” He responds. The conversation and the dance take shape in a relationship known only to the dancers. The chosen words do not follow the logic of ordinary life. On the back table are flyers for the performance and also for a Middle-East-Union festival, which brought together Arabs and Jews to imagine a shared middle east, and, to seemingly mixed results, already had occurred.

Men on ladders replace German street signs with Hebrew. Children with payot run along the sidewalk. Soldiers charge through the street. Still, that heartbeat pounds. The blond figure continues to process through the city. “Kein Angst,” declares this blond messiah, “No Fear.”

In the south of my neighborhood at a bar routinely harassed by the police, after the owner had spent twelve thousand euros to soundproof the walls, musicians from across the Middle East gather in the concrete basement celebrate their friend’s 26th birthday. The bearded man born on this day is from Syria, and doesn’t know me from Adam—friends from the art opening invited me—but puts up with my stuttering German, and tells me that he is redoing high school to be able to go to university in Germany. Just before I leave, the bar’s owner pulls out his guitar, locks the front door, and puts his hand on my shoulder, “Make yourself at home, my friend.” They continue to play for hours after I am already asleep.

The pounding grows ever louder. From the waters of Lake Wannsee emerges a gold eagle, then the dome on which it perches. Out of the lake comes an entire city—Albert Speers’s unrealized Germania, neo-classical, gigantic, grotesque. The blond figure gazes on her haunting work from the cabanas of the lakefront: a National Socialist city on the water, a terrible Atlantis, recovered.

The night before, Berlin’s local English-language literary magazine had launched its most recent issue, their twenty third. Before the editor had announced this issue was to be his last, a designer from the new world had stood on the stage, detailing the art practice that helped her to cope when she was hospitalized with the virus. As she displayed her digital art, she said, in a tone both offhand and surprisingly sincere: “there are no rules but the one rule of respecting yourself and other people. Also, community.”

The blond figure leads a group of Germans away from a brick building where they wait along a train track. The Germans carry suitcases. A camel, the animal of the desert able to travel huge distances without water, walks before them, as if the messiah’s handmaiden.

Only later do I realize that there are no images of Arabs or Turks in the Berlin of Bartana’s video art. I walk through my neighborhood, hailed here and there as habibi, liebe, and cannot imagine it, cannot imagine Berlin, and cannot imagine any current reckoning with the city’s past that does not also take stock of their presence. Indeed, any instance of the strange dream of Berlin without them is certainly nightmare.     

Sanders Isaac Bernstein