Berlin in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural Topography

April 30, 2009

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 - an event whose 20th anniversary is now imminent - the history and culture of the German capital have triggered lively interest at home and abroad. The amount of literature and research concerned with Berlin has become so varied and complex that one bookshop on Unter den Linden specialises in the topic of Berlin alone. More detailed studies of the changing cultural topography of the city remain topical. Andrew Webber suggests that his exploration of literature, film and performance art should ideally "be read alongside and against" existing historical surveys - he mentions Alexandra Richie's study Faust's Metropolis, and one might also think of David Clay Large's excellent Berlin or, with a shift in emphasis, Brian Ladd's The Ghosts of Berlin.

Webber sets his case studies in the context of a metropolis characterised throughout the 20th century by predominantly traumatic and melancholy features and patterns. For his journey through Berlin's imaginative worlds he chooses a city guide whose relationship with the metropolis mirrors its ambivalent themes: Walter Benjamin's writings set the agenda for the allegorical constructions and principles that permit such an approach to the capital - in Webber's words, "an operable relationship between the city and the psyche, a metapsychology of city life".

The titles Webber gives to his six main chapters allude to what may be considered Berlin themes. "Berlin chronicle: thresholds and boundaries" elaborates on Benjamin's topographical figures; "Berlin ensemble: inhabitations and accommodations" offers an analysis of Bertolt Brecht's relationship with the city. And what is true for this chapter applies also to the whole volume: first, it can be read both in its own right and in the context of the wider topic; secondly, thematic continuities and creative transformations benefit from couplings. Brecht, for example, is read together with the later playwright Heiner Muller.

Similarly, "Berlin symphonies: movements and stills" contrasts Walther Ruttmann's 1920s montage film Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grossstadt with what is - arguably - its 21st-century remake, Thomas Schadt's Berlin: Sinfonie einer Grossstadt. This chapter offers a re-evaluation of how the two films represent their topic, with fascinating cross-references to photographic and architectural images. In fact, it is this process of re-reading that will most engage the interest of the academic reader with prior knowledge, since Webber's cultural topography assists in adding depth to the understanding both of the better-known and also some less well- known cinematic, literary and other creative depictions of Berlin.

In "Berlin Alexanderplatz: alterations and reconstructions", Webber considers Alfred Doblin's work and the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's remake of the first film based on the novel, which appeared in 1931 and lasted 90 minutes. Fassbinder's version, broadcast on television in 1980, became a monumental 15-hour experience. "Berlin Wall: divisions and falls" leaves topics related to the Weimar Republic and the aftermath behind. Webber addresses the Cold War period, juxtaposing the writers Ingeborg Bachmann - here as a representative of "the West" - with her Eastern counterpart Christa Wolf. The fundamental gap between the two Germanies and the two halves of the divided city is bridged with the help of Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire - probably the best-known Berlin film until unification triggered a wealth of new material.

"Berlin marathon: openings and closures" concludes the journey through the city's cultural topography. While each chapter includes a variety of materials and cross-references to contemporary Berlin, Webber's decision to analyse a greater number of films in this chapter - among them the internationally successful Run Lola Run - seems particularly fitting: with Berlin at long last an open city, the cultural perspective also widens and a new "specificity of location" can be detected.

Ultimately, a kind of urban normality seems to be in sight. Webber concludes that Berlin "does seem to be becoming once more a city whose psychopathologies are the more routine ones of everyday life". This comes as a happy ending to a demanding tour de force through the traumas of a central European city. But it seems as if it is precisely these ruptures, and not everyday life, that lie at the heart of Berlin's continuing public and academic appeal.

Berlin in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural Topography

By Andrew J. Webber. Cambridge University Press. 336pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780521895729. Published 25 September 2008

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