Memories Lost, Reechoed, Acquired

This week I inadvertently went back to myself a ten years ago through film and book. To memories I have, to memories I learnt and to memories that left me. 

Lost

It’s been nearly a decide since I read Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. When Hemingway came up in conversation during the week, and I defended The Old Man and the Sea, and look over at my bookshelf, and opened the only book of his there, Fiesta, I remembered nothing. Sure, there were delicate imprints of Paris and Pamplona, but anything past the most geographic of details was gone. Perhaps I had not grown out of the intense, time-condensed reading of literature at university, perhaps I had been shocked by its casual anti-Semitism, perhaps I hated those indolent self-indulgent Americans and English aristocrats. Or maybe it was the style: at the time, I was under the spell of one of my favourite writers and fellow Modernist, Thomas Mann, whose complex curated sentences are the closest I feel you can come to scuba-diving in prose—between each breath, it seems you’ve seen the whole world. Hemingway had prose more like coloured blasts of light and felt nothing like this. Today this non-causal itinerancy seemed subficial, not superficial, and the prose crackled within me in the image-upon-image descriptions of travel across Navarre, or the dialogue of Frances’s calculating takedown in Paris or the drunken conversations in Pamplona.

But no matter the crackle, no sentences ever echoed through my memory—whatever I read had been long forgotten. 

Reechoed

The echoes came later in the week, when I watched Oskar Roehler’s film from 2000, No Place to Go (its German name, Die Unberührbare, the untouchable, is far better). I must have last seen it at university. I loved it at the time—and love it still in the delicious hypocrisy of Hanna Flanders, a West German “communist” novelist, who shops at Dior, who has a minimalist apartment in Munich with stylishly place photos of Lenin writing, of Lenin in Red Square, whose artifice falls apart with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Who knows if they were quotations I’d learnt for an exam, but there were phrases that had an electric sting and a resonance, as though they’d found the shadow of their twin deep within me. There is a scene towards the end of the film, where Hanna sits motionless and looks out onto the moving pedestrians of Odeonsplatz in Munich, that made me gasp at the memory. There’s the expanse of Berlin sky at sunset called its own reimaginings of sunsets that—sitting in Cambridge and looking back on Berlin—I must have remembered from evening commutes on the U-Bahn.

Acquired

Commuting and motion is one of the motifs of Walther Ruttman’s 1927 film, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, a film I’d heard a lot about studying German film, but had not seen until this week. I imagine that it’s been called a meditation on the city; but to me, with its sometimes urgent music and doors opening, doors closing, trains arriving and leaving stations, bread coming out of an oven, a roller coaster on its tracks, washed dishes, actors being applauded, all without the safety blanket of narrative, it felt more like a visual workout. And the city I lived in appears both recognized and unrecognizable. Trains still string themselves through the city on elevated tracks, some buildings have the same blank façades, but they don’t swarm around the cathedral like that, the people don’t crush around the trams in the same way. The images made the memories emerge, but distorted as if through a fairground mirror, where I recognized the memory because I knew this was the same place on the map where they’d been created. But nearly 90 years on, is the city, or any city, the same? With just image and no context, might I have imagined them scenes in Hamburg or Vienna or Bucharest? Do cities just sit on the same geographies, while we rely on a collage of memories to make them our own?

Overcoming a Literary Nemesis: Berlin Alexanderplatz

By Rob Packer

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin

Reading tics and habits develop over time, but a lot of mine came from studying German literature at university. Novels, plays, secondary literature, late-night essay-writing, rowing almost daily, college bar, going out, friends, drinks, procrastinating, you get the picture. Ten years ago the best place to cut corners seemed to be with short texts: plays and novellas were in, novels were out. This nascent fear was only confirmed when a bout of bad planning meant I read the 800-odd pages of Buddenbrooks one rainy weekend (don’t try this at home, kids!). Thomas Mann deserved more and—at a more leisurely pace—is now one of my absolute favourite writers. What hasn’t changed is the irrational fear of starting long, or “hard”, novels. I flick the book’s pages, wince at the number of pages, a commitment-phobe’s Pavlovian shudder runs down my spine, the book is back on the shelf, I’m reading something else before I know what’s happened and the tome sits on my bookshelf mocking me. One of these long-time nemeses is, or was, Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz—admittedly, not that long, just with a reputation for being difficult. It is, in a word, incredible.

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The Joy of Anonymity: The Bode-Museum

By Rob Packer

We were followed by the sound of jangling keys. From room to room the doors were locked behind us and another dark uniform stood there by the door, fingers on keys, up and down, up and down, metal against metal, kerchink, kerchink. As we stopped to examine a Cranachian gruesomeness of hell, the metronome of the keychain picked up from adagio to andante. I could feel eyes focusing on the back of my head, whispered conversations in German and the kerchink kerchink of the keys. Didn’t we know they were closing soon?

The next time I was in Berlin it was 1998 and the Bode-Museum had closed for its decade of renovation. Living in Berlin one midsummer night, a wisp of daylight in the northern sky, I remember that blank neo-Baroque façade rising triangularly sheer out of the Spree, its moat, bridges connecting it to the river’s other banks, cut off by the railway line from the rest of the island’s museums. The Bode-Museum would forever recall that certain socialist officiousness that I remembered from that first foray into East Berlin, one sweltering summer afternoon in 1995. (My other, equally vivid, memory of that afternoon was on Alexanderplatz, where a drunk decided that my grandfather’s Ich spreche kein Deutsch, “I don’t speak German”, was a contradiction.)

Although the Bode-Museum reopened in 2006, I hadn’t got around to visiting until last month. Where once key chains had marked the hours, the museum today is bright spacious—and almost deserted—galleries of an amazing range of European (mostly religious) sculpture and Byzantine art. Rather than the headlong dash around enormous galleries to dutifully see famous painter after famous painter (I think we’re all guilty of this), the mostly anonymous sculptors here is actually quite refreshing: you can really concentrate on the aesthetics of these lifelike (or sometimes not so lifelike) pieces.

Take a look at the photos and judge for yourself.

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Spring in Germany

By Rob Packer

A chestnut candle.

The rhythm of the seasons is different everywhere and more used to more gradual changes in seasons, the continental shifts in Germany seemed shockingly drastic. After an Easter weekend spent in Munich, I remember my first day of cycling to work, turning left into a Schöneberg backstreet and stopping my bike. I’d taken a wrong turning. But had I? Where? I retraced the route in my mind: it seemed right. But the road looked nothing like what was here last week. The light was different: greener, viscous, darker. But no; the five-storey houses and the parked cars were the same. I carried on cycling and then realized. Spring had come to Berlin like an unexpected wave sprays you on the beach, and as suddenly as the electric storms that would clash without warning over the city in the summer to come.

Nearly ten years later, I stepped off a plane in Leipzig into an evening that smelled of honey. There might have been a whiff of kerosene in the bouquet, but suddenly time had concertinaed upon me. In two hours, I’d travelled forward in seasons from a blustery London airport to a balmy Leipzig spring; but also back in time to that post-Easter morning in Berlin and also back 17 years to my first—and only other—time in Leipzig. My timing was perfect to meet the seasons.

I’ll write more about Leipzig and Berlin soon, but here are some photos that I hope will convince you that Germany and spring really do go together—and not just in a song from The Producers.

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Babylon

By Rob Packer

Just across Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz from the Volksbühne is Kino Babylon. They win points with silent films and their CinemAperitivo season: a Sunday afternoon Italian film followed by a traditional Italian aperitif.

The Volksbühne

By Rob Packer

The Volksbühne

„Wir freuen uns auf Ihren Besuch und wünschen Ihnen einen anregenden Abend“
Email sign-off, Volksbühne Berlin

If you could timetravel, where would you go? I saw this question on the train to the airport (on Mediaeval Musing’s excellent blog). My answers were definitive and immediate: Justinian’s Constantinople, pre-Conquest Tenochtitlán, Weimar Berlin. On a tram in Leipzig the next day, I heard the excellent BBC documentary, “Europe: The Art of Austerity”*, on artistic responses to 1930’s austerity in London, Paris and Berlin, where it looked at Brecht, Döblin and others (listen online or on podcast). A few days after that on a Prenzlauer Berg terrace, I clapped open Zitty, the Berlin listings magazine, and saw two Brecht Lehrstücke on the next day at the Volksbühne. If that isn’t a sign, what is? Tickets were booked within hours. And when I read the email sign-off, wishing me a stimulating (anregend) evening—rather than the normal pleasant (angenehm) one—I knew they were telling the truth.

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