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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 2

November 7, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Read Part 1 here.

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Karl-Marx-Allee Block C South, 1951.

Philipp and Quentin live in an apartment next to the Rose Garden, in Block D North, a comely segment of the Karl-Marx-Allee designed by Kurt Leucht.

“It takes time to get used to the style of the buildings,” Quentin tells me. “It’s so massive. There’s nothing delicate in the style.” He points to the oversized street lamps from his window. The lampposts dwarf the cars parked beside them; the lights alone are taller than a seven-year-old child. Life disappears in this enormity. “If you’re sitting on the grass, you don’t see the insects. If you look out the window, you see everything.”

The apartment’s former tenant, Philipp tells me, spent some six decades here and just recently passed away. In the kitchen, Philipp shows me the “refrigerator” that tenant used in the days of the GDR: a wooden cupboard under the window, built into the building’s thick walls. It was the coolest space in the room.

When they were built, the buildings of the Stalinallee were—with their elevators, gas heating, warm water, and private bathrooms—considered luxurious. But the GDR faced a severe lack of resources: certain innovations and foreign-produced goods, like automobiles and refrigerators were produced and acquired at a stiflingly slow pace. Over time, the immaculate facades of the Karl-Marx-Allee fell off. The GDR was coming apart, and so were its buildings. The ceramic tiles began to drop—some fifty thousand square meters of them were lost. There were no replacements, and even if there had been, there were no volunteers and hardly any workers to put them up. Read More »

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Berlin’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Part 1

November 6, 2014 | by

Life on the Karl-Marx-Allee, Block C South. Read Part 2 here.

© WalcherBild Fridolin Walcher 2014

In the late eighties, the German Democratic Republic was bleeding people like money; the Iron Curtain was coming apart at the seams. November 9, 1989, would be the turning point, the evening on which the Socialist party allowed what had once been unimaginable.

In Block C South of the Karl-Marx-Allee, Otto Stark sat in the quiet of his apartment, tuning in to the historic national blunder that precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall: one of the few international press conferences in East Germany’s history, with one very ill-prepared party spokesman, Günter Schabowski, at the microphone.

Schabowski: (reading from a memo) “Permanent departures can be made through all border crossing points of the GDR to the [West German] Federal Republic of Germany. This eliminates the temporarily allowed issuance of appropriate permits in foreign missions of the GDR or permanent exit with the identity card of the GDR via third countries.” […]
Reporter: When does this take effect?
Schabowski: (leafing through his papers) To my knowledge this takes effect immediately … without delay.

Further along the Karl-Marx-Allee, people were buzzing at the Kino International. They had come from the West to see the first—and what would be the only—gay film of the GDR. Later, these West German visitors would witness, by accident, the historic event, as thousands of East Berliners gathered at the border-control points and the confused guards finally relented. Thousands of East Berliners strolled through the gates of the Berlin Wall, their blue GDR passports waving in the air. Scaling the Wall, sitting on the Wall, ecstatic reunions between families after three decades apart.

But things were quiet in the Stark household on the Karl-Marx-Allee. Mr. Stark, the famous actor and later director of the Cabaret Distel, and his wife, the famous actress Ilse Maybrid, did not go out that evening: they would wait until the next day to see for themselves what was going on at the Wall. Otto had had a long day; it was nearing midnight when the gates opened, he was already in his late sixties, he’d just returned home from work. The Starks held a privileged position in the GDR. They were a prominent couple, they traveled to the West on professional engagements, and they lived in a penthouse on the showcase boulevard—something reserved for celebrities and the “best workers,” as Otto Stark, now ninety-two, tells me from his living room of fifty-four years. The same living room in which he and his wife first watched the collapse of the GDR on television, twenty-five years ago this Sunday.

Less than one month before, tanks had rolled down the Karl-Marx-Allee for the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had hugged General Secretary Erich Honecker, the two sides coming together after years of stubborn disagreement. “If we stay behind, life will punish us immediately,” Gorbachev told Honecker that day. The last Day of the Republic, the last military parade on the crumbling Karl-Marx-Allee. Read More »

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Tiny Books About Cats

October 22, 2014 | by

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From Adlai Stevenson’s Veto 1949, illustrated by Alice Garman.

Given the passionate nature of bibliophiles, the fanatical devotion of cat fanciers, and the obsessive tendencies of miniaturists, it only stands to reason that when the three join forces, it is to form the most powerful coalition in the world. (Or the least powerful, I suppose, depending on how one quantifies these things.) In any event, what you end up with are miniature cat-themed books, a prominent subgenre.

I fell down this particular rabbit hole when I ran across the miniature bookstore on Berlin’s Torellstraße. It’s affiliated with Freundeskreis Miniaturbuch Berlin, one of many associations of miniature-book collectors; there are miniature-book societies around the world. (The best museum for miniature books is said to be in Baku.)

As Louis Wolfgang Bondy, an enthusiast, wrote in his 1988 book Miniaturbücher von den Anfängen bis Heute (Miniature Books from the Beginnings Until Today),

In this small world, books occupy a place of honor. They join to the great skill lavished on their creation the crowning glory of man’s spirit enshrined in their text. Small wonder then that the ranks of collectors who specialize in them and who cherish, nay adore, them is forever growing … An increasing number of people are convinced of the dictum that small is beautiful.

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This Week on the Daily

October 19, 2014 | by

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Anders Zorn, Portrait of Emma Zorn, 1887, oil on canvas, 15.8" × 23.9".

In a not-so-glamorous Las Vegas, Kerry Howley watches as a UFC fighter starves himself before weighing in, visiting all-you-can-eat buffets just to see everything he’s missing:

In the twenty-four hours between weigh-ins and the fight, Erik would gain twenty pounds, and he took great pleasure in imagining of what those pounds would consist. The Rio Buffet, he informed me, offered three hundred distinct dishes, seventy varieties of pie, an array of “bars,” including a sushi bar, a taco bar, and a stir-fry bar. He knew its small army of friendly spoon-holding servers, its fifty yards of curving black countertop, its unaccountable progression from sausage pizza to cocktail shrimp to scrambled eggs to lentil soup to crab legs to fried fish to sushi to green salad to gravy-slathered pork chops to honeyed ham to flank steak to barbecue ribs to burritos to tacos to waffles to spring rolls to dumplings to sweet-and-sour pork to eggs Benedict to bacon to one giant vat of ketchup to croissants to cubed mango to green-bean salad to seven kinds of lettuce to the gelato-and-pastries bar whose delights are too many to enumerate but which Erik would attempt to enumerate if given the chance.

Forrest Gander on the mysterious end of Ambrose Bierce, a hundred years ago: “According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico.”

Jeff Simmermon started a band with a guitar, a typewriter, and a pair of chickens who peck at toy pianos. They wanted to tour Japan. Al Sharpton got mixed up in it, and the whole affair provided a strange and invaluable lesson about artistic ambition and closure...

A new Italian novel takes Antony Shugaar back into the Years of Lead, a time of kidnappings and earthquakes and cholera epidemics: “Those who say they want to leave this country, or simply spend their whole lives saying they want to leave, do so because they want to save themselves. Well, I’m staying here. Because I don’t want to be saved.”

Plus, Sadie Stein’s dispatches from Berlin, where the chefs carry around Spinoza’s Ethics and the cabbies are fluent in Patrick Modiano; Terry Southern goes skeet shooting; and all of us get an irrefutable, statistical answer, at last, to that most pressing question: How often do Oscar Wilde’s characters fling themselves onto couches, sofas, and/or divans?

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Globalization

October 17, 2014 | by

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A German cab in 1971. Photo: Eugen Nosko

You expect to feel humbled when you travel. Strange public transit, alien customs—add a language you don’t speak and it’s an immediately chastening experience. When the residents are so inured to your national arrogance and laziness that they don’t even visibly resent conducting transactions in English, it is more galling still. It’s sort of like being a baby—helpless, barely verbal, sleep deprived—except you can’t throw a tantrum. On the contrary, you are often expected to conduct business.

All this I expected. I was even impressed and charmed, on my first visit to Berlin, to find people eager to discuss Spinoza in restaurants and quote Schiller on the plane. Here is what (or who) I did not expect: my cab driver to the airport. It’s not that I was shocked by his exquisite English, his verbatim recitations of Kleist, or his strangely in-depth knowledge of the Frankfurt Book Fair (“I wondered about the Finnish literature they featured … Well, I try to keep up with such things.”) Here is what was deeply intimidating: he had actually read Patrick Modiano. And not just La Place de l’Étoile! “But not all thirty,” he said.

On the plane, I was seated between the aforementioned Schiller scholar and a teenage girl. I watched Maleficent and devoted considerable thought to the derivation of the term fruits of the forest, as used to describe that one mix of luridly red berries occasionally found atop old-looking tarts and cheesecakes. The teenager appeared to be writing diligently in a journal; I felt abashed anew. Then I glanced down at the page and, from her rounded, teenage-girl handwriting, I could see that it was a list of German words: a food diary. Before I looked away, I clearly saw a sentence beginning “Mein chicken nuggets.”

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Final Chapter

October 16, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Kleist from Die Gartenlaube, 1858.

On November 21, 1811, the writer Heinrich von Kleist shot his beloved, the terminally ill Henriette Vogel, and then himself, on the banks of Kleiner Wannsee. The innkeeper who housed them the night before described the couple, thirty-four and thirty-one, as cheerful and voluble; Kleist wrote in a final letter to his sister that he viewed death with “inexpressible serenity.” Although controversial, troubled, and financially unsuccessful in his day, he went on to achieve a monumental posthumous reputation and is today regarded as one of the finest writers—playwright, philosopher, and novelist—in the German canon.

Vogel was herself an accomplished intellectual. Theirs is one of the most famous suicide pacts in history, but the details are hazy—some accounts say the suicide was her idea, others that she wasn’t even his first choice, a theory espoused by the recent film Amour Fou. The exact location of the bodies is unknown.

Because of the nature of their deaths, Kleist and Vogel were denied church burial and were instead interred where they fell, by the lake. An immediate tourist attraction for romantic rubberneckers, the gravesite fell into disrepair for most of the nineteenth century. It was freshened up when Kleist was claimed by late-century nationalists and was commemorated with a large, Nazi-style stone for the 1936 Olympic Games. (The Nazis claimed Kleist as theirs, too, but they had to redo the stone when they discovered they’d accidentally inscribed it with a quote by the Jewish poet Max Ring.)

In 2011, the site was given the grand bicentennial treatment: paths were laid through the nearby woodlands, the area was landscaped, and both Kleist and Vogel were given fresh markers; hers is new, his is the old stone turned 180 degrees and inscribed, once again with the Ring quote: “He lived, sang and suffered / in gloomy and difficult times / he sought death here / and found immortality.” 

The site is easy to visit; it’s on what’s now the southernmost edge of Berlin, a short walk from the S-Bahn Station through the woods. And when the sun shines off the lake and filters through the yellowing branches, it’s heart-catchingly beautiful.

I don’t know any Kleist by heart—one wishes to be the sort of person with reams of quotations at her fingertips in such moments, and I, instead, had to look up what I wanted on my phone. I was thinking of Kleist’s well-known essay “On the Marionette Theatre,” collected in the fabulous On Dolls. These are its closing lines:

“Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

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