Letter from Berlin

The Vagabond

BERLIN, Germany--

What holds a city together?-- The stuff of first impressions: sidewalks, boulevards, a sense of spaces, even the color of the sky that stretches over everything.

Walter Benjamin observed how, in the Berlin of the twenties, streets, sidewalks, steps were all of imperial width, but left empty by the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie. Today, the bourgeoisie has filled them--with cars, people, goods.

The wide sidewalks still give the city a particular sense. They are paved in the middle with a narrow course of slabs or concrete, and on either side with a broad extent of small granite cobbles. Like everything else here, they are constantly under construction. Piles of stone chunks and contractors' wooden headquarters, with stovepipes, like gypsy wagons, are randomly scattered. Construction--and re-construction--are still as emblematic as the rearing bear of the city's seal, on policemen's, trainmen's, garbagemen's patches, on the copper address plates of lawyers and doctors, on countless cheap souvenirs.

The boulevards are busy and complex. Only in a few places do they retain a processional grandeur: down the combined lengths of the Bismarck Strasse and the Strasse of the 17th of June the streetlights strain to curve out from the edge of the surrounding Tiergarten forest to cover the width. Between avenues, the marble base of the Victory Column is polished and despite its war scars reflects the misty recession of lights toward the Brandenburg Gate. What look like splotches of mud on the old classical gate houses flanking the avenues reveal themselves on second glances as shell pits.

But elsewhere the streets are tightly packed and the sidewalks obstructed with signs and display cases. Bright commerce battles an overall mood of grey and white, the theme derived from the cool and erratically rainy sky overhead, taken up by the architecture--white panelled, glassed to reflect that sky, blocky as the crossword puzzles everyone works automatically--and completed in the hair, faces, gait, and sternness of the abundant elderly.

The architecture is probably as homogeneous as any in the world. International style, but Gropian above all, the Bauhaus style of the twenties. Most, of course, is the result of postwar rebuilding, but even the latest designs--like the five-or-six-story slabs that are everywhere--resemble corporate or public housing projects from between the wars. It is an architecture too simple and efficient to be just bad, too dull and repetitive to be strikingly good. Its geometry, however, is as national as it is technological: it possesses a certain likeness to the yellow stuccoed wings of the old Charlottenburg oastle, which seem so intoxicated with the repetition of their windows that they have forgotten the central dome and court completely, and would go on forever had they not remembered just in time to widen, vary, and conclude.

Dull shades of stucco prevail. Balconies are frequent, and the settings for touches of rare color: carefully tended flower boxes. It is a modernism not of the skyscraper but of the piled and scattered, as if--like the baroque boulevards, the bombed-out imperial facades in the East, the shape of the divided city as a whole--the great spaces had been split-up and re-scaled. The most romantic of the architecture--Hans Scharoun's philharmonic hall and Mies van der Rohe's New National Gallery (if only the romanticism of plain marble and great steel beams)--is set apart in the developing Tiergarten Cultural Center.

FOR THE PARKS are at once distinguished from the rest of the city and the permeating it there is a sense of space, partly of space opened up by the bombing and not yet planned for that belies the island nature of the city. Much of it--the vast Tiergarten in the center of the city, the forests and lakes of the Grunewald on its edge--has been part of the shape of the city for a long time. Perhaps the sense of contained wildness--the sense one gets from the grassy fields and forests of the Tiergarten, from the foot-high grass in a museum courtyard, or from the areas like golf course rough between the Spree and the formal gardens at Charlottenburg--perhaps this at first glance un-Germanic sense is part of a fundamental romanticism.

Such a romanticism, which has not only survived civilization but managed to invade it, crops up in expected places, and unexpected patterns. In the glittering basement shops of Europa Center, for instance, or in the new anthropological museums of Dahlem--both create a fairytale world of objects magically charged with pleasure or the primitive, protected and displayed like relics.

In the tunnels at Europa Center objects in glass cases surround one: rocks and jewels in a shop--crystal, metal, wood, leather, fur--objects which could possess all the properties of a ring of invisibility or seven-league boots. They are displayed almost theatrically, lit from top and bottom, hanging on clear strings, supported by glass shelves or plastic stands, and like the stone totems or magic tokens at Dahlem, picked out of a surrounding darkness by spotlight. There, carefully designed panels and charts locate the object on grids of time and space, and, like the advertising in Europa Center, give the argument of the drama enacted in the crystalline stage beneath: the object dissolves into the play of its powers and properties. People could be so fascinated with the thing, in itself, only if they could imagine so well the magic it embodied and know how magic is packaged and contained.

SOMETHING OF THE same pattern attends the sale of sex. Beate Uhse has one of her famous "supermarkets" beside the ruin of the Memorial church, its posters offering "sunshine." Another shop in Europa Center displays whips beside the usual manuals and salves. Porno flicks, run continuously everywhere, including the once great screen palace "Metropol," with towers, great arches, and status in its stucco front.

In the cabarets--which have an air of being recent revivals--the striptease shows have taken poses from Liza Minelli (her film is immensely popular on the Kurfurstendamm) and one establishment has the latterday name of "Lola Montez." There are still touches of the bizarre: a poster advertises topless dancers parading engagingly as boxers--gloves, helmet, Everlast. The political cabarets have become almost purely theaters, and the shows are tame; one has closed down to become a children's theater. One laughs at jokes about the Nazis; nowhere is there anything resembling Gunter Grass' famous description in The Tin Drum of the "Onion Cellar," where patrons are served with onions, knife, and cutting board, and aroused by weepy music.

In the subways Red Cross posters seek "names and histories" for pictured refugees. Remembered nicknames or addresses caption the spread of sad, institutional faces. One foundling recalls escaping with his mother in an oxcart that broke down, another a fat aunt named Gertrude--the centerpiece of such an ad may be a doubly appealing case of twins.

And in the fortress at Spandau, perhaps, Rudolf Hess still takes his daily walks among the sparrows.

People complain often about crime and the mounting numbers of foreigners--mostly Turks--and many walk out only with their German shepherds. There is something unreasonably disturbing about the jets that suddenly roar up from Tempelhof over the city center, or the patrolling helicopters close to the border. The East still has the air of an armed camp: soldiers everywhere; temporary kitchens, tents and loudspeakers for a world youth festival; topless ruins.

Grotesques seem to abound here; The old men who every night shuffle out in old bedroom slippers, head naked and gaunt over the walking stick without which even his incredibly slow progress would be impossible. The buck-toothed man, as if drawn by Grosz, handing out the fundamentalist Watchtower. The butcher-like businessman who refuses his subway seat to the cripple thrusting a certificate of disability into his face. The street hawker of lottery tickets, with 50 mark bills stuck around hat band and belt, and a sign announcing the "security" to be gained from the lottery. Lapses of taste: barbed wire has been strung up to keep pedestrians from crossing medians and to protect flowerbeds. One would have thought, somehow,...