When I was hiding under my desk at elementary school, having the pants scared off me by the administration so I would be safe and prepared during a nuclear attack — Do you remember? If not, can you imagine? — it was not visions of Soviet ICBMs I carried in my head but VoPos, the East German “people’s police.” A mushroom cloud was nothing compared to falling into their hands. In the Cold War propaganda films of the day — so visceral they were like repeated slaps to the face, the barely contained anger of the commentator ready to break into a scream or a bark — the VoPos sniffed out those hiding from them (like the whole East German population), then tortured and shot them, or killed them as they attempted to scale or tunnel under the Berlin Wall, where the Iron Curtain turned into cement, where you would stand before the firing squad.
Not many of my generation sought out Berlin like W. H. Auden or Christopher Isherwood did in the late 1920s and early 1930s to take the bohemian air, even after the Wall was breached in 1989, but younger cohorts clued in to the fascinations of Berlin in the ’90s quickly enough. The force field of its devastation and dilapidation repelled some, but here, too, was a world being birthed and going through urban evolutionary processes as if they were in time-lapse mode: art, music, architecture, squatting, club life, direct democracy. in response to the maw of gentrification, cultural relativity, the way you related to your neighbors, Jewish life, Turkish life, Vietnamese life, German life. For us, the clueless, comes Peter Schneider, beckoning us to Berlin Now. It isn’t always pretty, but it will keep you awake, your eyes as wide as Marty Feldman’s.
Berlin Now is a gathering of illuminations, a button box of participant observations, each chapter like a new day, sometimes picking up again on a theme but often shifting gears and taking a turn to go examine something new. Schneider is an old-school flâneur, a psychogeographer who can screw down very close upon a subject — an old Jewish cemetery, a door in the Wall through which East German border police would snatch graffiti artists on the other side, the bust of Nefertiti — then he will step back to take in the genius loci, gestalts both during Wall time and after Wall time, an integration with properties not derivable from the summation of its parts, as Nathaniel Webster might say. Now in his seventies, Schneider seems never to have missed a day under the spell of Berlin.
“Berlin is not beautiful,” he writes in the third sentence of the book. Not like Prague or Vienna, anyway. It is a city deranged for twenty-eight years, sundered and menaced, and now it has a big “Excuse Our Appearance — Under Renovation” sign hung on it. Except this is Berlin, youthful (what many older Germans refer to as “the blessing of a late birth”) and alive, and the sign is a 100,000-square-foot trompe l’oeil painting, hung on scaffolding, of the demolished Prussian Schloss (Palace). The palace was the spawning ground of the city; from the year 1443, as the palace grew, the city grew. The post-WWII East German government thumbed its nose at the palace’s destruction. To rebuild it, as was mooted by the new open city, was a lip-flapping raspberry to totalitarianism.
Schneider is just this side of a provocateur. He is an investigative journalist/geographer, probing to the point of sticking his finger in the wound, with the best intentions. He is a dark joker and a sensualist; he likes a good jape (“This man had attempted to convince the assembled comrades that someday — thanks to socialism’s productivity — it would only be necessary to work on Wednesday. Someone in the audience had stood up and asked, ‘Every Wednesday?’ “) as much as he appreciates a perfect tomato, a sly appreciation of life’s little pleasures. But he also wants to know how Berliners relate to the Wall, as memory and invocation; to the former snitches of the Stasi secret police who still live among them; to immigrants and Germans behaving badly. And what about those prim Swabian arrivistes, constantly bitching about the noise and disorder?
Berlin is noise and disorder, nowhere better experienced than in the clubs. It is, more than ever, a city for night owls. Schneider — and give the geezer plenty of credit — goes clubbing. His experiences are highly colored and in full reverb. Much of Berlin is still abandoned and in ruins. Bunkers and tunnels become venues for parties that last for three days straight. Bar25’s opening party lasted two months. Berlin has been party central from early on: Scala, Chat Noir, Café Dorian Gray then; Barghain, KaterHolzig, Kumpelnest (“Anyone who dreads skin-to-skin or body-to-body contact shouldn’t even bother going”) now. If Tom Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway found the scene offensive, Schneider gives himself over to its alternative, blissful, reptilian rapture, where he is “free of doubt and could imagine continuing to dance on the spot” — and it is a spot, his allotted square foot — “like this for hours, or even days.” An unknown girl gives him a kiss on his cheek. He is stunned, thrilled. ” ‘E,’ was the cool verdict of my son, an experienced clubber.”
Berlin is in need of buildings. Everywhere: “The landmarks in Berlin are old gasometers and water towers, deserted hospitals, disused airports, onetime docks, vacant train stations, abandoned CIA surveillance facilities and Stasi prisons.” What should be preserved, even if preserved away in the basement? What ruin should remain: The skeletal girders of East Germany’s Palace of the Republic, Hiroshima-like? What should be rebuilt or built new? Has city planning become a lost art? What of the city’s soul; what is the city’s soul? Renzo Piano, hired to develop an open swath near the Wall’s site, felt that “a city is a text with many pages, and every page counts. Too many pages are missing from Berlin’s urban history.” But you have to start somewhere. Radical innovators and architect-philosophers are slowly turning Berlin into an open-air showcase for architectural deeds and misdeeds, despite its current 60-billion-euro debt.
Happenings can be triumphant. A congregation of giant construction cranes swing their booms to the rhythm of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” A shanty city blossoms from the ground, then moves across the river, then changes the whole city’s conception of value: culture vs. capital. Carpetbaggers, beware. Sex is everywhere — that’s not exactly sui generis but important — and Schneider has a consuming chapter on the East German women’s expectations from their men. Whether he is right or completely off the mark, he is there to engage; you are unlikely to agree with everything the freethinking Schneider has written down.
The Wall threads its way through Berlin Now. It never fell, though that is a crunchy metaphor. It was too strong for a sledgehammer. It had to be professionally demolished, with great hunks of it sold off like Banksy’s wall art. Pieces of it landed in the most unpredictable places: the king of Tonga has a chunk, as do business magnates and heiresses and Honolulu Community College, and, sure, Langley’s CIA campus. It is a noisy ghost, but as inhumane as the Wall was, its guardians may have done more lasting damage, embedding a virus of distrust: “Its only ‘success’ was the internal poisoning of East German society.” It kept that old xenophobia alive, and it is alive today. Schneider provides example after example, and he is unhappy with the way multiculturalism derailed: One of the guarantors of the scandalous subjugation of Muslim women in Germany is “the German cultural relativists who believe that an immigrant group’s cultural traditions deserve protection even if they infringe upon human rights. . . . Muslim women in Europe should have the same rights as their local female counterparts.”
Schneider is not a sentimental writer, though he can elegize with style. He finds a wide scattering of exceptional nooks and crannies whose critical mass may well be the city’s soul. Visiting the old Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee, “I found myself alone in this vast field of graves under the rain, the chorus of all these voices, fallen silent so long ago, swirling around me like powerful music. All of them, everyone who was buried here, had once belonged to this city.” They never left.