“Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened.”
Pulling together all of his Berlin experiences at once whilst revealing an impassable barrier between the writer and his subject, these final lines of Christopher Isherwood’s superlative ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ at once reveal his feelings of passivity and giddiness as he looks back on his four years in the Weimar capital.
Berlin is a cruel mistress at the best of times. Were she to take female form, she’d be the perpetually unimpressed strapping teuton sitting on her own in the corner of the pub, silently daring you to waste your time by striking up a conversation. It takes a while to feel part of the place, and for some, this transition never happens. For others, even the refuge of the Anglophonic bubble will burst at some point because just as you begin to relax, there’ll be a stabbing reminder that in the end, (almost) everyone leaves.
There is solace, though, in the understanding that this disconnection of yours is not unique. Living in the Berlin of 2012 is to be part of something bigger, neither at an end or a beginning, but at the centre of the maelstrom, as the city begins to find its feet. Huge changes have of course been wrought since 1989, but these are just part of another chapter in Berlin’s volatile history. Whatever it is you’re doing here or whatever it is you think you’re doing here, has a precedent.
In the twilight years of the 1920s, England and Germany were still reeling from the effects of the Great War, but the German experience was of course much more wounding. Their humiliating defeat was swiftly followed by the Treaty of Versailles – a document designed to cripple the Hun for all eternity. The Germans, on the other hand also experienced something that victorious countries had not; a sense that a Year Zero had begun with the foundation of the Weimar Republic; a state founded upon social-democratic principles. As weak and flawed as this reinvention later proved to be, it nevertheless offered a brief glimmer of a new epoch, one with considerably less restrictions on personal freedom than before, and crucially, one that quickly resulted in catastrophes and tensions so monumental that the nocturnal activities of its citizens quickly fell to the bottom of its list of priorities.
Despite the somewhat popular misconceptions surrounding Weimar Berlin, most residents were still mired in poverty and anxiety. The bacchanal of Berlin was therefore a heady combination of those merrily embracing the chaotic freedom of a teetering metropolis and those forced into a new way of life, either through economic necessity or through a desperate escape from the reality of their daily existence.
England had undergone none of these transformations and remained a stifling place where any transgression was frowned upon. In 1929, Christopher Isherwood, as one of its more restless citizens, was notoriously drawn to Berlin first and foremost because of his sexuality, where he joined up with his friend W.H. Auden (pictured above). A young man could lose himself here in a barely underground network of pick-up-joints and rent-boy ridden dives – but it is abundantly clear from his Berlin novels that this was only one side of his existence. Neither is Isherwood’s Berlin a collection of mere cliché. Although his Berlin era novels do seem to furnish the western imagination with a ready moulded cast of standard Weimar tropes that have cropped up again and again in popular culture ever since, he presents an almost impossibly varied cross section of Berlin, its residents painted as component parts of a colossal machine, colliding with one another in a fragile tumult.
Isherwood was retrospectively self-critical of the “I am a camera” approach of his early days, where he acts as passive observer rather than active participant, but without his recording we would be without these essential depictions of one of the most fragile, incendiary and abundantly creative periods in Berlin’s history. His work, despite his own retrospective concerns of exploitation or naivety is as vital to understanding the time as work by Bertolt Brecht, George Grosz or Otto Dix. Like those three he presents an unflinching rather than an unfeeling account – one which acts less as a warning rather than a resignation of what was undoubtedly round the corner.
Central to his Berlin work is a sense of disconnection on two levels; the city itself as unique and alone in the world, stuck on its own exponential arc, outstripping all its competitors but clearly, and dangerously out of control, and the alienation of the individual drawn into this experience. Isherwood, despite his self-depiction as superficial observer, can never be accused of holding back. Here’s a man who by all accounts immersed himself in as many facets of Berlin life as were open to him. His Berlin novels are rich with encounters cutting across the city’s boundaries both geographical and social. He is in many ways the absolute antithesis of the modern ex-pat who is bizarrely proud of not leaving their own Kiez for months at a time. But despite all this there is always an emotional distance and overwhelming sense that his part in Berlin was always temporary and could not have been otherwise. There is an unreal quality to his existence here. The mispronunciation of his name, rendering him as Herr Issyvoo, is the most obvious cipher that he adopts, part of a new identity that the city gives him the opportunity to assume. In the end, though, the city’s pace ultimately outstrips even those within it. One of his favourite cabarets, Eldorado, is turned into Nazi local headquarters (pictured below) and he departs, only three days after witnessing the book burning on Opernplatz in May 1933, and does not return for twenty years.
His experiences in the city may often seem somewhat familiar to the contemporary newcomer to Berlin. In both periods one cannot avoid the transient nature of all great cities, a constant influx of those actively seeking a temporary respite from responsibility, or with some kind of vague vision of starting afresh. But at both points it’s the pace of the changes and the uncertainty of which direction these transformations will take that make living here simultaneously exhilarating and unstable. It is of course inappropriate to draw too many parallels between Isherwood’s Berlin and the modern day city. When our friends suddenly disappear it’s because they’ve finally decided to go home, get a job and stop disappointing their parents, but when Isherwood’s wide network of friends suddenly shrinks, it’s partly because so many of them have been rounded up by the Sturmabteilung. The future of his Berlin was all jackboots, swastikas and its near complete destruction, whereas the future of ours is most likely high-tops, American Apparel and its near complete gentrification (whatever that word actually means), so it’s important to retain a sense of perspective here.
Isherwood’s work offers the modern Berlin ex-pat myriad riches – a most eloquent expression of alienation foremost amongst them – but perhaps the most important lesson that can be taken from his work on the city is the sense of your place on this historical timeline. Berlin was then and is now a work in progress, a product of great innovation and catastrophe alike. It’s one that was broken just as Isherwood packed up and left in 1933 and it’s one which is still being repaired today.
Image credits: 1. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis 2. © BBC/Corbis 3. © Britannica