At this stage, I am far from the first person to praise Berlin, and many of you have probably read it already. But for those of you who haven’t, Jason Lutes’s graphic opus is such a magnificent work, and so suited to the interests of many readers here, that it deserves further discussion. It is, however, a far from encouraging read. Not only because of its subject matter, Weimar Berlin in the years in which it and the rest of Germany fell to the Nazis. But because so many of the conversations and arguments depicted in the novel between people who recognize the danger and want to find a way to stop it will strike most of us as extremely familiar—and, ultimately, just as futile.
Lutes, an author, professor, and comics artist, worked on Berlin for nearly a quarter century. He started work on the comic in 1994, and published the first volume, City of Stones, in 2000. The second volume, City of Smoke, was published in 2008, and the third, City of Light, last year, along with the omnibus edition that I read. They span a period from the late 20s to the early 30s, and follow a wide cast of characters, some native to the city and some new arrivals. Aspiring artist Marthe Müller comes to the city hoping to escape her restrictive middle class upbringing and reinvent herself. Journalist and columnist Kurt Severing writes for the progressive paper Die Weltbühne, where he challenges the increasingly anti-democratic behavior of the Republic’s government and observes with anxiety the rise of Nazism. Gudrun Braun is a laid-off factory worker interested in the ideas of communism, who becomes involved with KPD, the German Communist party. David Schwartz is a young Jewish boy who also has communist leanings, but whose father insists that Jews need to keep their head down in the increasingly tense political climate. And the Cocoa Kids are an African-American jazz band who come to Berlin to seek their fortune.
Lutes’s art is both plain and detailed, simple black-and-white drawings that capture both character and location. He draws in small, orderly panels that usually follow a single character in their journeys through the city, or close in on their face as they speak or react to others’ words. When the perspective widens, it’s often in the city’s streets or on its public transport, as one character is sent on its way and another is picked up. There’s a lot of dialogue and narration, but also wordless scenes that convey the currents running through the city—Kurt walking past a wall plastered with Nazi posters, or a young man furtively entering a certain public bathroom, where he’s soon joined by another. When Lutes’s point of view does pull out, it’s to stress the urban landscape and its orderly, sane architecture—in one of the book’s amusingly metafictional scenes, Marthe’s art teacher explains the principles of perspective by instructing her to look out the classroom windows and see how the change in her vantage point alters the lines of the buildings, which gives Lutes the opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of the technique. But very quickly the vantage point pulls in again, to remind us that what’s happening on the street level is anything but sane.
Lutes began writing Berlin when its topic was largely of historical interest, and has finished it at a time when many of the dynamics he describes are eerily familiar. The government allows financial interests to destabilize the economy and with it the lives of many citizens, and then clamps down on civil liberties and the freedom of the press when the inevitable uproar results. It targets left-wing, revolutionary groups more strongly than right-wing, authoritarian ones, even deputizing the latter as its unofficial strong arm against the former, without realizing that in so doing it is consigning itself to oblivion. Meanwhile, the intelligentsia furiously debates what is to be done without the power to actually put any of its ideas into practice. In one of the book’s best scenes, Kurt attends a gathering of like-minded, unaffiliated leftist thinkers and writers, each of whom offers a trenchant analysis of the Republic’s failings and the necessary social policies that could fix the problem (the sole woman present talks about the need for women’s rights, including access to abortion), but without any idea of how to bring these plans into practice. Outside that room, a dirty, violent election campaign is brewing that Kurt and his colleagues have no idea how to influence, and the book ends with a major electoral victory for the national socialists.
Despite these obvious resonances, Berlin is a lot less interested in being topical than a reader in 2019 might expect (since, again, Lutes began writing it when its subject wasn’t topical at all). A great deal more time is spent on the Communists, who today feel like a subplot to the story of the Nazis’ rise, than on the Nazis themselves. Though a few characters end up joining the Nazis—Gudrun’s estranged husband, who blames Jews for his family’s financial troubles; Kurt’s former lover, an aristocrat, who wants the Nazis to restore order in the increasing chaos of post-financial collapse Germany—they are usually very peripheral to the main story. Most of the main characters are communists, leftists, or liberals. Though even here, there is a breadth of approaches. Gudrun is less a true believer than a sympathizer who feels pressured to participate in Communist activities because the party is providing her family with work and housing. Her friend Otto and her daughter Sylvia, on the other hand, become increasingly radicalized, and convinced of the necessity of political violence. In the third volume, Kurt sinks into a deep depression upon realizing how powerless his words are to affect the nation’s future, but can’t bring himself to join the party and the fight—he is still a man of words and ideas, not action. And for David, communism stands on the same level as his fascination with Harry Houdini and escapism—the childish interest of a boy trying to assert his own identity over the restrictions placed on him by his father, but not yet ready for true adulthood.
And then there are the characters who have no interest in politics at all. One of the great things about Berlin is how it stresses not just the political currents running through the city during the 20s and 30s, but the cultural and social ones as well. Marthe and her art school friends debate the value and purpose of art—should it be representational, allegorical, surreal?—and its ability to achieve real change. Later Marthe finds herself drawn to the city’s burlesque clubs and sexual demimonde, observing the difference between the licentious orgies of the rich, and the liberating safe spaces of the city’s queer community (there’s even an interesting subplot about her relationship with a fellow student that flounders over the limitations of Marthe’s open-mindedness—Marthe thinks she’s in a lesbian relationship, while her lover Anna wants to be seen as a man). And for the Cocoa Kids, Berlin is a grand adventure, whose political currents are largely invisible. Their clarinet player is accosted by Nazis while walking out with his white girlfriend, but these are quickly chased off by a rival Communist group, and for the musicians themselves, the real challenges of living in the city have to do with making their names and getting around unscrupulous managers.
Berlin flounders a little in its final volume. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that it’s here that Lutes’s interests and mine started to diverge. He’s interested in the city; I was interested in the people. For most of the book, these feel like the same thing, but as Lutes’s characters start to disperse—leaving the city, or Germany, or Europe—one gets the sense that it’s the looming tragedy of the city itself that preoccupies him, an impression that is borne out by the book’s final pages, a series of vistas depicting Berlin’s future fortunes. And the thing is, I don’t care. It’s not a tragedy to me that Berlin got pummeled in the war because, quite frankly, the alternative would have been much worse. But I do care about the characters who are left in the city—will Kurt be picked up by the Gestapo for subversive writing? Will Anna be executed for her “perversion”, or forced back into hiding? Will Silvia Braun fight back against the rising tide of fascism, and will she end up bleeding to death in an alley? Berlin spans a relatively short period, and doesn’t even cover major stops on Nazism’s rise such as the Reichstag fire, the Night of the Long Knives, or Kristallnacht. But that choice means that its ending can feel abrupt, and even a little beside the point to the things that I found fascinating about it.
Still, this is a minor complaint against what is still a brilliant, absorbing work about an important moment in history. I read Berlin over three evenings, and while I was away from it I found myself haunted by its characters and their dilemmas, by their mingled sense of elation and despair. Berlin is a story about being at the very epicenter of a major historical moment, and how that can be both exhilarating and horrifying, sometimes at the same time. It’s a story about being an ordinary, powerless person at the heart of major social changes, and how those people nevertheless have choices, even if they’re often not very good ones. Whether intentionally or not, Jason Lutes has written an essential work for our time, even as he questions art’s ability to achieve change in the face of looming fascism. You won’t walk away from Berlin feeling terribly encouraged, but you may have more clarity about the path that could lie before all of us.