John Harris

Journalist & Author

Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean – review’

A compelling series of portraits captures the intangible something that turns visitors into Berlinophiles

If you’re going to Berlin, take a guidebook, and a copy of Faust’s Metropolis (1998), the towering history of the city written by Alexandra Richie. It runs to over 1,000 pages, but it’s candid about the difficulty of getting to the heart of Berlin’s character. The prologue references the works of Goethe, Grosz, Brecht and Weill, but acknowledges that even they could not “truly capture the essence of a place whose identity is based not on stability but on change … It is a volatile place, and many have found to their cost that the veneer of normality can vanish as quickly as yellow Mark Brandenburg sand slips through the fingers.” I first read those words on a train bound for Berlin from Paris, and they had me hooked, as did the opinion of the woman sharing my compartment. She also had trouble explaining the city’s allure, but told me it was as magical as New York – and she was right.

The travel writer and Berlin resident Rory MacLean pays tribute to Richie’s “superb” work in this book’s bibliography, and he has read Faust’s Metropolis more closely than most: in his own opening pages, he offers the intriguingly similar opinion that “Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change.” More original words complete the picture, and offer a sense of the intangible something that attracts so many visitors and quickly makes Berlinophiles of them. “Long before setting eyes on it, the stranger feels its aching absences as much as its brazen presences, the sense of lives lived, dreams realised, and evils executed with an intensity … Yesterday echoes along today’s streets and the ideas conjured up by Berlin’s dreamers and dictators seem as solid as its bricks and mortar. The hypnotic and volatile city comes alive in the mind.”

It certainly does: perhaps more than any European city, Berlin lends itself to the mystical urban pastime of psychogeography, so much so that the best way to experience its wonders is not to follow maps or guide books, but to half-distractedly drift. But how to evoke such qualities? You can write straight history in the knowledge that the stories you tell will invite the reader to project them on to the Berlin of now, and feel their drama anew; or, alternatively, mix up conventional storytelling with the flights of fancy that such a singular place inevitably sparks. It’s advisable to work within careful limits – but MacLean serially breaches any of his own, as in a woeful paragraph at the start of an otherwise capably delivered chapter about Frederick the Great. “Death wields his scythe in every corner of the globe,” he writes. “Cannae, the Somme and Stalingrad claimed him as their own. Hiroshima gave him his single busiest day … Both Genghis Khan and Mao Zhedong worked him to the bone for a generation across Asia. But over the centuries it is to Berlin that he has most often returned.” If your raw materials are the Prussian empire, the Nazis, and the core of the cold war, do you really need the Grim Reaper?

Berlin takes the form of 23 portraits of individuals, and when MacLean exhibits restraint and decorum, the text sings. A compelling piece about the industrialist and Weimar foreign minister Walter Rathenau is full of auguries of the nightmares of the 30s and 40s, not least when Rathenau is portrayed telling his fellow German Jews that they are as native as “the Saxons, Bavarians and Wends” and ought to revel in being “a living part of the nation”. The material about Marlene Dietrich – “a tragic figure, who could never stop acting”, according to Fritz Lang – is sharp and evocative; a chapter focused on Joseph Goebbels reminds us that he once damned the German capital as a “repulsive accumulation of pirates, pederasts, gangsters and their like” and did not want to “kneel in its filth”. There are times, besides, when MacLean’s habit of mixing the real and invented comes off, mostly when he includes fictionalised observations and dialogue in true stories. The trick is most subtly and successfully worked in a section about the Berlin CIA chief “Big” Bill Harvey, suggesting a model of storytelling akin to Francis Spufford’s Soviet fantasia Red Plenty, albeit with a less consistent strike rate.

As a filmmaker in the 1970s, MacLean worked with David Bowie, when the latter had come to Berlin to recover from cocaine dependency. Bowie often positioned himself in the background, reflecting his wish to somehow disappear into the city. On his most famous Berlin piece, though, he took centre stage, and created “Heroes”: the six minutes of music MacLean puts at the heart of a rather underwhelming Bowie chapter, and calls “Berlin’s rock anthem, a droning, courageous wall of sound, fired with deep emotion, hammered by a clanging, metallic rhythm.”

Put on “Heroes”, and the awful excitement of cold war Berlin is revealed in an instant, along with an unbelievably moving sense of what it is to understand your own frailty in the face of the huge forces of history, and be newly resigned to it (hence being heroes “just for one day”). It is all there, in the versions sung in English, French and German. And like all the best art, “Heroes” pretty much destroys the need for mediation. MacLean reckons that Bowie’s Berlin phase enabled him to work on “a coherent vision for himself and a new age” and that he “captured and defined its quintessence, speaking for a confused generation which had lost hope in ideals and dreams”. I kind of know what he means, but “Heroes” gives me a much deeper sense of it than overwrought phrases like those; indeed, once you have absorbed that song, you probably never need to read about Bowie’s time in Germany again.

Something similar applies to Berlin’s magic more generally. Anyone who has fallen in love with the place would probably agree with one particular bit of wisdom authored by the French-Ukrainian writer and troublemaker Ivan Chtcheglov in 1953: “All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends.” Berlin proves it, as does this book. But it’s sometimes best to let the spectres speak for themselves.

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