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Reactionary Sentimentalism Part 2: Berlin

By Louis Armand.

Photo: Backstage at SO36, by Jackie Baier, 2010

“At first it’s not possible to describe anything beyond a wish or a desire… You wish that something might exist, & then you work on it until it does. You want to give something to the world, something truer, more beautiful, more painstaking, more serviceable, or simply something other than what already exists. And right at the start, simultaneous with the wish, you imagine what that ‘something other’ might be like, or at least you see something flash by. And then you set off in the direction of the flash, & you hope you don’t lose your orientation, or forget or betray the wish you had at the beginning.” These are the opening notes of Wim Wenders’s first treatment – “an attempted description of an indescribable film” – for Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire; 1987), a film that evokes Walter Benjamin’s angelus novus, or angel of history, as the supervising witness of our blind pursuit of an ever-elusive “ideal” future & the seeming futile wish to become one with it.

In Wenders’ film, the “angel of history” is no longer purely allegorical, or singular, but takes the form of trenchcoated other-worldly characters who haunt the city of West Berlin in perpetual black-&-white, observing its inhabitants but unable to interact with them, without surrendering their immortality. Which inevitably they do, out of a kind of melancholic longing for unification. And if West Berlin acts as a microcosm for the torments of this fallen world (Germany in the aftermath of the War), it’s because, as Wenders says, “the (hi)story that elsewhere is suppressed or denied is physically & emotionally present here” – it’s “‘an historical site of truth…’ There is more reality in Berlin than any other city” – precisely because Berlin is the paradigm of the divided city, that primally conflicted zone in which the conscience of the race (to paraphrase Joyce) uneasily dwells: “the sun shines on the divided city, / today, as it did on the ruins in 1945 / & the ‘Front City’ of the fifties, / as it did before there was any city here, / & as it will when there is no longer / any city.” As Heiner Müller once said, “Berlin is the ultimate. Everything else is prehistory. If history occurs, it will begin in Berlin.”

This privileged yet equally doomed quality of the city is reflected in its inhabitants, worldly & otherwise, who are all in a sense suffocated in history while nevertheless kept apart from it. The cinematic Berlin they inhabit like ghosts is in fact a purgatory, a between-place, the nascent state, so to speak, of history itself. And it is this sense of being caught in a type of limbo, of dislocation, between Alphaville’s “Capitale de la douleur ” of the future & the past capital of the fallen Tausendjähriges Reich, that also conveys the furtive possibility of a present that can still, however unlikely it seems, be brought into being. “If I were to give my story a prologue,” Wenders writes, “it would go something like this: WHEN GOD, ENDLESSLY DISAPPOINTED, FINALLY PREPARED TO TURN HIS BACK ON THE WORLD FOR EVER, IT HAPPENED THAT SOME OF HIS ANGELS DISAGREED WITH HIM AND TOOK THE SIDE OF MAN, SAYING HE DESERVED TO BE GIVEN ANOTHER CHANCE. ANGRY AT BEING CROSSED, GOD BANISHED THEM TO WHAT WAS THEN THE MOST TERRIBLE PLACE ON EARTH: BERLIN. AND THEN HE TURNED AWAY. ALL THIS HAPPENED AT THE TIME THAT WE TODAY CALL: ‘THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR.’ SINCE THAT TIME, THESE FALLEN ANGELS FROM THE SECOND ANGELIC REBELLION HAVE BEEN IMPRISONED IN THE CITY, WITH NO PROSPECT OF RELEASE, LET ALONE OF BEING READMITTED TO HEAVEN. THEY ARE CONDEMNED TO BE WITNESSES, FOR EVER NOTHING BUT ONLOOKERS, UNABLE TO AFFECT MEN IN THE SLIGHTEST, OR TO INTERVENE IN THE COURSE OF HISTORY. THEY ARE UNABLE TO SO MUCH AS MOVE A GRAIN OF SAND…”

When Bruno Ganz’s angel “Damiel” falls for the drifting “lonely trapeze artist” Solveig Domartin, their first physical encounter, in the bar of the Esplanade Hotel, occurs during a live Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds performance, soundtracked by “From Her to Eternity.” Cued to such tropes of transcendence, the film enters the life of the present – no longer an allegorical Berlin, but the primevally irreal city of allied occupation, geopolitical separation, artificial economy, “special status,” stark generationalism & the long shadow of Entnazifizierung (denazification).

Potsdamer Platz in Der Himmel über Berlin, dir. Wim Wenders, 1987

Like the Manhattan of the ’70s & ’80s, Berlin was an island with a wall thrown up around it, whether metaphorical or real: more potently metaphorical because real. As a physically isolated enclave 161 kilometres east of the Inner German border, within the Soviet Zone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) a.k.a. “East Germany,” West Berlin assumed a unique significance during the Cold War – itself a “war” both more & less metaphorical – “declared” by the Berlin Blockade (24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949), & settling into perpetual stalemate with the completion of the Berlin Wall in 1961. As an “island of freedom” behind the Iron Curtain, West Berlin served as a showcase of the socalled Free World, & while the 12 boroughs of the Western half of the former Reichshauptstadt remained formally under allied occupation (in accordance with the Potsdam Agreement), they were accorded special privileges & subsidies that increasingly made West Berlin a magnet for artists, students, draftdodgers, & disaffected youth generally, who gradually transformed this grey ghost of a city into a global counter-culture capital. In his book on the West Berlin underground, Subkultur Westberlin 1979 – 1989, Wolfgang Müller – founder of the band Die tödliche Doris (Deadly Doris) – depicts the city as a “melting pot for all the outsiders in Germany: for the dropouts, the queers, the lesbians, for all those opposed to militarism, for everyone who didn’t fit” – poetic revenge for Hitler’s purge of “degenerates.”

Berlin’s schizophrenia wasn’t solely the product of being walled-in behind an external political border surveyed by guard towers, machinegun nests & Soviet tanks, but of an equally rigid system of internal borders as well: economic, ideological & generational. “In West Berlin,” Müller notes, “there also existed a border between the young & the widows of former Nazis who got good pensions – they were called the Wilmersdorfer Wittwen. So in West Berlin you have these widows, you had a lot of old Nazis & quite a lot of Cold Warriors. And at the same time all the anti-militants, the opposition, the artists…” Accordingly the city’s cultural institutions, as outposts of the West’s “neo-liberal utopia,” remained both highly conservative & market-centred, so that younger artists like Müller, & others including Chris Dreier, Reinhard Wilhelmi, Steve Reeves & so on – drawn for lack of realisable alternatives to the example of avantgarde “conceptualists” like Joseph Beuys, Valeska Gort & Dieter Roth – began pursuing informal avenues within the new subcultural “Untergang,” in the hybrid realm of performance, music, filmmaking & experimental living centred around the squatting & club scene: what Beuys called art as social sculpture. The many-divided nature of the city gave this “underground” a radical impetus as “an expression of the times” it might otherwise not have attained (& which ultimately determined its relatively short-lived nature, declining significantly after the fall of the Wall) – an impetus fuelled by both the city’s “exceptionalism” & decades of “emancipative disillusionment” stemming from the systemic moral corruption of the political Establishment & the impossibility of engaging with it “democratically” on its own terms. It was, as Richard Huelsenbeck wrote of Dada, a “child” of its epoch “which one may curse, but cannot deny.” And like Dada, it exposed itself to the risk of its own death.

In 1965 the unacknowledged social crisis which was the major catalyst of this new underground culture was brought dramatically to a head with the publication, by the Nationale Front der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik in East Berlin, of Albert Norden’s notorious Braunbuch (The Brown Book: War & Nazi Criminals in West Germany: State, Economy, Administration, Army, Justice, Science). Though at times erroneous, at others incomplete, it was nevertheless the first document of its kind, naming some 1,800 former Nazi Party members & SS officers still serving in positions of authority at that time – including 15 ministers & deputy ministers, 100 generals & admirals, 828 senior judges & prosecutors, 275 senior Foreign Ministry, embassy & consular staff, & 297 senior police officers. These revelations fuelled accusations of a secret “fascist police state” & gave broad credence to a growing militant opposition while casting doubt on the legitimacy of the country’s post-War “democratic” institutions. With the perceived betrayal of the May ’68 dissident movements across Europe, frustration & anger among large sections of the counterculture finally ignited into violent action, culminating in the “Deutscher Herbst” of Autumn 1977, during which members of the Rote Armee Franktion a.k.a. Baader-Meinhof Group performed a dramatic series of bombings, kidnappings, assassinations & the hijacking of a Lufthansa passenger jet (the “Landshut”) – events that became the subject of a collaborative film between Alexander Kluge & nine other “New German Cinema” directors, including Fassbinder & Volker Schlöndorff, entitled Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn; 1978) & whose decadence into bourgeois-bohemianism & corporate/state security collusion was darkly parodied in Fassbinder’s Die Dritte Generation (The Third Generation; 1979).

In Das Konzept Stadtguerilla (The Urban Guerrilla Concept; 1971), Ulrike Meinhof argued the case for abandoning the path of “legality” & political engagement with an aloof Establishment – & for the legitimacy, indeed necessity, of socalled “terrorist” acts. “Legality,” she wrote, “is the ideology of parliamentarianism, the social partnership, the plural society. Many of those attempting to challenge the system ignore the fact that telephones are being legally bugged. That the post’s being scrutinised. That neighbours are being legally questioned. That informers are being paid. And that all this State activity’s legal. The organisation of political work & activism – if you want to keep away from the eyes of State scrutiny – has to take place on an illegal level, as well as the legal one… We refuse to rely on some spontaneous anti-fascist mobilisation in the face of this kind of State terror… To be an urban guerrilla means to launch an offensive against imperialism. The Red Army Faction is striking the connection between the legal & illegal resistance. Between national & international resistance. Between national & international struggle…” Among the RAF’s most dramatic actions was a series of kidnappings & executions of high-profile industrialists, politicians & bankers, including Daimler-Benz executive & former SS officer Hanns Martin Schleyer, West German attorney-general Siegfried Bubeck & Dresdner Bank chairman Jürgen Panto.

Hanns Martin Schleyer

To some, the RAF’s assault on the “fascist police state” presented itself as a kind of revolutionary performance art, like André Breton’s surrealist incitement to take a revolver & fire it randomly into the street, only in this case not as an acte gratuit but as a socially-transformative action – aimed at a monolithic power structure disguised as “democracy” while in truth serving the interests of actual war criminals. The RAF appeared, in a sense, to accomplish the equivalent in deeds of that inchoate “treason against the state” barely verbalised (yet almost universally suppressed) in such expressions of anti-collaborationist vitriol as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” And if the Punk scenes in London & New York initiated the appropriation of taboo Nazi symbolism in order to offend & provoke the guardians of polite society, its adoption in the wake of the “German Autumn” by elements within the West Berlin underground was both more scandalous & served more incisive ends, by taunting the “hidden Nazism” of the Berlin middle classes whose aspirations those symbols had in fact represented merely a generation earlier (& keeping in mind that in Germany, unlike the US, these symbols were now illegal). One of the earliest examples of this was Wolfgang Müller’s 10-minute short film, The Life of Sid Vicious, first screened in 1981 as part of an emerging Super-8 movement, following in the wake of the ’70s “New German Cinema” of Wenders, Fassbinder & Herzog – that included filmmakers like Ingrid Maye & Volker Rendschmidt, Jürgen Baldiga, Cynthia Beatt, Brigitte Bühler & Dieter Hormel, Andrea Hillen & Rolf S. Wolkenstein, Christoph Dreher & Heiner Mühlenbrock, Klaus Beyer, Michael Brynntrup, Christoph Doering, Lysanne Thibodeau & Yana Yo. Müller’s Life of Sid Vicious provoked controversy on several levels by featuring a two-&-a-half year old child (Oscar Dimitroff) as Vicious, wearing a swastika tshirt & carrying a knife, “looking for trouble in West Berlin” – culminating in a bloody re-enactment of the stabbing murder of Nancy Spungen. Blutige Exzesse im Führerbunker (Bloody Excess in the Führerbunker; 1982), by Jörg Buttgereit, brought the sentiments even closer to home – in a context in which the nation’s Nazi past was largely suppressed beneath a veneer of middle-class respectability – featuring the director in a rubber Hitler mask (smuggled from New York) & shot on location in parts of the original underground Führerbunker complex. Addressing the camera, Buttgereit’s Hitler introduces himself to the audience with the words, “The young people among you may not recognize me any more.”

As with manifestations of Punk elsewhere, the ideological orientation of these works was never straightforward, & rarely translated into a recognisably “political message” within the sphere of conventional social discourse – which was precisely the point. Moreover, during the period following the high degree of radicalism in the late-’70s, the meaning of left-right affiliations was frequently ambiguous, if not outright contradictory, as in the case of Horst Mahler, founder of the RAF alongside Baader & Ensslin, who, after serving a reduced 14-year prison term (thanks to the work of lawyer Gerhard Schröder), adopted an increasingly “nationalist” stance against Germany’s ongoing “occupation” & “debt bondage,” before eventually joining the far-right Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands. During the ’80s & early ’90s, such tensions contributed to the hothouse atmosphere of the West Berlin underground, with its frequent expressions of “cultural extremism”: from bombed-out border zone to non-stop clubbing scene – from Bowie’s “Capital of Heroin” in the ’70s, to the birth of the Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave) in the ’80s, & the “techno-undeground” rave-revolution after the fall of the Berlin Wall (“One Nation Under a Groove”).

Trans women on Ku’damm, 1985, by Kenton Turk

In 1981, Uli Edel released a low budget film set between 1975 & 1977 in & around the S.O.U.N.D. Diskothek & Bahnhof Zoo, a labyrinthine rail & subway station notorious at the time for drug dealing & prostitution, entitled Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (Christiane F. – We Children of Bahnhof Zoo). The film, which rapidly achieved a cult status, centred on a 13-year-old girl, “Christiane Felscherinow” (Natja Brunckhorst, who later appeared in Fassbinder’s last film, Querelle), living with her mother in a housing project on the city’s outskirts & drawn towards the clubbing scene in the Tiergarten district. Christiane’s subsequent descent into addiction & prostitution was recorded in amongst actual junkies, prostitutes & low-lifes on location, serving as a documentary record of “vanished landmarks.” The film featured a live performance by David Bowie (“Station to Station”) who also provided the overall soundtrack, drawn from his “Berlin Trilogy” – most of which was recorded, with Brian Eno & Tony Visconti, at Hansa Studios near Potsdamer Platz, overlooking the Wall – including “Heroes/Helden”: “Doch wir konnen siegen, / Fur immer und immer! / Und wir sind dann Helden, / für einen tag.” Bowie (like some perennial Warhol-avatar to the “underground” zeitgeist) resided in the city between 1977-1979, his former apartment at Hauptstraße 155 (Schönberg) – shared with Iggy Pop & Coco Schwab (& briefly Lou Reed) – now a dentist’s office. Bowie, a regular fixture at hip nightclubs like Dschungel & Unlimited, was at the time working to straighten out an incipient coke psychosis & escape the downside of increasing fame, while Iggy (with whom he’d just collaborated on the album The Idiot, as he later would on Lust for Life) struggled with an insoluble smack habit. Ironically, Reed’s 1973 concept album Berlin (his second solo record after leaving Velvet Underground three years previous) – which was “all about” amphetamine abuse in the divided city – was produced before the ex-Velvet ever set foot there, yet somehow approximates a certain “West Berlin” portentousness (“How do you think it feels / When you’re speeding & lonely… How do you think it feels / & when do you think it stops? WHEN DO YOU THINK IT STOPS?”).

Heavily subsidised by the Federal Republic as a “shop window of the Free World,” West Berlin attracted many kinds of filmmakers between the end of the 1970s & November 1989, producing many different kinds of films drawing upon the ambivalent realities of the “island city.” Chris Petit, an acolyte of Wenders & a pioneer of British “New Wave” – whose debut film, Radio On (1979), an “existentialist road movie,” was shot by Martin Schäfer & featured a soundtrack by Bowie & Kraftwerk (among others) – made Flight to Berlin (1983; “an introspective murder mystery” featuring Lisa Kreutzer & Eddie Constantine) & Chinese Boxes (1984; “a cheap thriller with an incomprehensible plot about teenage drug deaths, Berlin gangsters & US intelligence”). Describing the West Berlin scene in the early ’80s as an attempt “to reignite Weimar decadence & blank what had followed,” Petit – who, like Bowie, kept a Berlin address for several years – summed the place up as “less a city than an advertisement for a controlled kind of hedonism: white powder, sex in taxis, vodka chasers… Evenings started late & were marked by theatricality – & a cast of predatory men & feral women, the likes of whom you didn’t come across elsewhere.”

Brian Eno, by Robert Carrithers, 2017

Following Bowie’s 3-year tenure, the city also exercised an allure upon a wide range of Punk & post-Punk musicians, who either passed through or took up long-term residence. Among them, in 1978, Mark Reeder, founder of the Manchester band The Frantic Elevators (together with Mick Hucknall, later of Simply Red, & Neil Moss). Reeder became Factory Records’ German representative while also working as a sound engineer for bands like the all-women avantgroup Malaria! (Gudrun Gut, Bettina Köstler, Eva Gossling) – who he also co-managed – & Die Toten Hosen. In 1981, he formed the synthpop-rock duo Die Unbekannten (later Shark Vegas), together with Alistair Gray, which was joined by drummer Thomas Wydler (who later played in Die Haut & with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds). In 1982 Reeder staged a guerrilla concert by Die Toten Hosen in an East Berlin church, disguised as a religious service, later describing the Soviet zone as being “like the hardest club in the world to get into.” Over the years, Reeder’s position in the underground scene allowed him to accumulate an unparalleled array of live recordings & film footage, including reels by 74 different film-makers which became the basis of the 2015 documentary, B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin, 1979-1989 directed by Jörg A. Hoppe, Klaus Maeck & Heiko Lange, with Reeder providing the narration. “Ever since Christopher Isherwood wrote the books that later inspired Cabaret,” the film’s promotional literature states, “exiled Brits & other outsiders have flocked to decadent Berlin in search of personal & artistic liberation. This archetype received a potent reboot in the late 1970s when art-rock superstar David Bowie moved to the city to make some of his most revered albums. In the 1980s, young Bowie acolytes from all across Europe poured into divided Berlin, lured by its cheap rents, edgy reputation & unique Cold War setting as an island of bohemian excess encircled by Communist East Germany.” Reflecting on the city quarter-of-a-century after the fall of the Wall, Reeder sees it as still a place of inspiration, rather than nostalgia: “Berlin is the last bastion of freethinking.”

Among other “Bowie acolytes” to come to the city were The Birthday Party (a band which Wenders described as the “biggest thing in Berlin” at the time), whose lead singer, Nick Cave, rented a spare room in Reeder’s apartment. In an interview for Lynn-Maree Milburn & Richard Lowenstein’s 2011 documentary, Autoluminescent, Cave spelled out West Berlin’s attraction: “It was frenetic & anarchic & really creative. It didn’t have the same prejudices in the superior way that the British had about our band…” Other musicians followed suit, including Lydia Lunch, Crime & the City Solution, Joy Ryder, The Fall, Alan Vega, Swans, The Cramps, Once Upon A Time – all of whom at some stage congregated at venues like Risiko (where Blixa Bargeld bar-tended), Ufo, Park, Moon, Metropol, the Georg von Rauch squat, & SO36 (Kreuzberg’s equivalent of CBGB’s). Emerging from the local Punk & “Geniale Dilettanten” movements in the early ’80s, & galvanised by The Birthday Party’s manic yet sartorial style, the Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave) fused industrial noise, synthesizers & androgyny to produce bands like Einstürzende Neubauten (Blixa Bargeld, Marc Chung, Alex Hacke), as well as Liaisons Dangereuses, Eva Braun, Matador, Die tödliche Doris, Die Haut, Malaria!, Die Goldenen Vampire, Nina Hagen, Mona Mur, Nena, & a raft of others.

Joy Rider, 1982, by Ilse Ruppert

Probably the most fertile collaboration to emerge from this New Wave melting pot was between Nick Cave & Blixa Bargeld in the formation of the Bad Seeds in 1983 (along with Mick Harvey), following the disbandment of the Birthday Party the same year & Cave’s parting-of-the-ways with former co-writer Rowland S. Howard. Cave & Bargeld’s collaboration forms the backdrop to a 1987 Dutch TV documentary, Nick Cave: Stranger in a Strange Land (subtitle lifted from Robert Heinlein’s novel), directed by Bram van Splunteren. Cave’s songwriting of the period was almost obsessively concerned with themes of “death & betrayal, failure & anger,” filtered through an American gothic persona redolent of Dennis Hopper’s barely suppressed nihilism in Das Amerikanische Freund & fuelled by an increasing dependency on speed & heroin. In 1988, Cave checked himself into rehab & in the aftermath published a “fear-&-loathing bad dream of a novel,” When the Ass Saw the Angel (1989): “And the crows – they still wing, still wheel, only closer now – closer now – closer to me.” During the seven years Cave spent working with Bargeld in Berlin, the Bad Seeds released five albums: beginning with From Her to Eternity (1984) – which Melody Maker described as “widely & rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest rock albums ever made” – & including The First Born is Dead (1985), Your Funeral… My Trial (1986), Tender Prey (1988), & Kicking Against the Pricks (1986) – the title of which was taken from a (1934) collection of Samuel Beckett’s short stories.

Beckett, one of Cave’s many sources of inspiration, had been a frequent visitor to Berlin since the 1930s, & from 1974 until his death in 1989 collaborated closely with director Walter Asmus at the Schiller Theatre in Charlottenburg, where productions also took place during that time of work by Günter Grass, Thomas Bernhard & Pavel Kohout. In September 1976 Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs & Susan Sontag famously visited Beckett in his borrowed apartment overlooking the Tiergarten, an event recounted by Burroughs as “a hiatus of disinterest,” with Ginsberg describing the author of Not I in a postcard to Peter Orlovsky as “lisping thin boyish wrinkled Samuel Beckett.” Despite his generational association with pre-war figures such as James Joyce & Gertrude Stein, & the institutionalising of his earlier theatrical texts like En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot; 1949), Beckett’s evolution of post-dramatic theatre & minimalist prose continued to pursue a line of formal experimentation that persisted beyond the widely heralded death of Modernism & gave impetus, alongside the example of Artaud & Burroughs, to new “underground” writing into the 1970s & beyond.

It so happened that while Beckett was working with Asmus in the West of the city, on the other side of the Wall one of his most accomplished re-interpreters was labouring in the shadow of virtual censorship by the East German state. Heiner Müller, often described as the “most important spiritual heir” of Berthold Brecht & “the theatre’s greatest living poet since Beckett,” had devised a form of textual drama built of ”synthetic fragments” (“Fragments,” he argued, “have a special value today, because all the stories we used to tell ourselves to make sense of life have collapsed”) exemplified in his major works of this period, Germania Tod in Berlin (Germania Death in Berlin; 1971) & Die Hamletmaschine (Hamletmachine; 1979). Confronted with the dual threat of market capitalism in the West & state capitalism in the East, it was Müller’s conviction that “art must awaken a yearning for another world, & this yearning is revolutionary.” As he wrote in Hamletmaschine, “AH THE WHOLE GLOBE FOR A REAL SORROW… / I’M LUGGING MY OVERWEIGHT BRAIN LIKE A HUNCHBACK / CLOWN NUMBER TWO IN THE SPRING OF COMMUNISM / SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN THE AGE OF HOPE / LET’S DELVE IN EARTH & BLOW HER TO THE MOON.”

During the last decade of communism, as Müller’s work began to gain official recognition (due mainly to Müller’s standing abroad), the epicentre of East Berlin experimentalism became increasingly focused around the underground Prenzlauer-Berg scene (which had begun in the ’60s as a refuge for the East’s intellectual, artist, student, gay & anarchist communities), closely linked to the socalled “Jungen Wilden” identified with graffiti art, illegal performances, multimedia experimentation & “unofficial” or “samizdat” zines & publishing collectives (channelling the spirit of Baader & Hausmann’s “Dadaist Republik”) – including musicians, artists, writers & filmmakers like Jana Schlosser, Sven Maruardt, Helga Paris, Stefan Döring, Jan Faktor, Detlef Opitz, Sibylle Bergemann, Micha Brendel, Peter Kahane, Bert Papenfuß, Knut Elstermann, Peter Wawerzinek a.k.a. “Mopel Schappik,” & the controversial writer, designer, musician & Stasi informer Alexander “Sascha” Anderson. The threat of police reprisals created a sense of high-stakes which in the West of the city found its analogue in the illegal & quasi-legal activities of the squatting & underground drug scene, S&M bars, & informal clubs – documented in films like Brigitte Bühler & Dieter Hormel’s a-b-city (1985; shot on Super-8 with a score by Père Ubu & Einstürzende Neubauten) & in the photographs of Ilse Ruppert, Miron Zownir, Oliver Schütz, Robert Carrithers & others (Isherwood’s “I am a camera with its shutter open” – from Goodbye to Berlin (1930)). “I loved chaos!” Ruppert recounts, “West Berlin had a special & unique legal status. Once I hit the town, I went into the groove & didn’t see the daylight for days. I basically shot everything I saw.” Robert Defcon, a barman at Risiko (the legendary club run by Alex Kögler at Yorckstraße 48, next to the S-Bahn bridges in Schöneberg), described the scene as a gilded paranoid narcissistic doppelgänger of the police state behind the Wall, cruised by everyone from Martin Kippenberger to Michel Foucault & other “talented & well-dressed glamorous assholes of anti-culture” in search of affected transgression. “West Berlin,” he recalls, “resembled a fantastical stage before whose profound metropolitan scenery the crazy drug consumption & perpetual sleep deprivation created artificial drama as a means of escaping the latent complacency induced by the city’s special status. Cushioned in western amenities & a protective wall providing shelter from German normality, the cheap rent & low cost of living formed the framework to this really rather unglamorous city in its outsider position. Our fast way of living didn’t leave room for acknowledging the sad characters on the other side. We were only concerned about our own thing.”

Leninplatz Punks, 1982, by Ilse Ruppert

At the beginning of 1981, large-scale government subsidized demolitions of apartment buildings & factories that’d survived Allied bombing & Soviet artillery during the War created widespread controversy in parts of West Berlin, displacing tenants & creating an artificial housing shortage. Entire streets in Schöneberg & Kreuzberg fell under the wrecking ball. Among the immediate reactions to this blatant land-grab by developers in league with city administrators was an explosion in the squatting movement. By spring of the same year, there were over 100 squats in West Berlin, providing alternative communal living, soup kitchens, concerts, poetry readings, experimental movie screenings & so on. Their appearance elicited a mixed & often unpredictable response of official tolerance in some cases & forceful eviction by police in others. The most prominent squat until then had been the Georg-von-Rauch-Haus in Kreuzberg – a former hospital, renamed in honour of a leader of the radical Tupamaros West Berlin group killed by police in a contentious shootout in Schöneberg, in December 1971, shortly after the building was first occupied. (The Tupamaros, named after a Uruguayan urban guerrilla organisation, first came to attention with the attempted bombing – on February 27th, 1969 – of Richard Nixon’s Berlin motorcade.) Later that same month, when police sought to remove squatters by force, they were confronted by large-scale protests which were then countered by teargas & batons – events commemorated in the protest anthem “Rauch-Haus-Song” by political rock group Ton Steine Scherben. The scale of opposition was such that the commune survived, becoming an important precursor to the later East Berlin Punk & New Wave scenes in the late ’70s & ’80s, & continues to this day. During the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall & German reunification, squatting remained an important mode of resistance to the increasing commodification &, in the east, westernisation of the city. From the beginning of the ’90s, Dunckerstraße 15, in the “LSD” (Lychner-, Schliemann-, & Dunckerstraße) section of Prenzlauer Berg, was the largest squat in the newly unified city, in a district where squatters accounted for some 40 Wilhelmine apartment houses alone, including the Kastanienallee Squat, which came under frequent attack by neo-Nazi skinheads. From 1998, however, following a series of police raids & evictions, Prenzlauer Berg began experiencing rapid gentrification – a situation more & more frequently witnessed across the city as large-scale privatisation & redevelopment gathered momentum. Originally established as a radical democratic alternative to the state-socialism of the GDR, Dunckerstraße came to emblematise – alongside the conspicuous commercialisation & eventual closure of the Kunsthaus Tacheles in Mitte (1990-2012) – the hostile re-colonisation of urban underground culture by the forces of “individualistic” neo-liberalism that Meinhof, twenty years before, had rightly identified as the real terrorism threatening the world. While some squatter communes elected to pursue the route of legalisation, by entering into contractual arrangements with the city, there was no concealing the rear-guard character of such actions, designed to reintegrate & normalise the “underground” within a programme of capital-driven “urban renewal” – most visibly centred around the Potsdamer Platz redevelopment – described in Christa Schmidt’s 1999 novel Eselsfest as “the capital’s heart transplant,” echoing the famous reference in Wenders’s Der Himmel über Berlin about the impossibility of finding this former “wasteland” (in fact the film’s focal point) now transformed into glass & steel highrises, malls & multiplexes: as has often been said, no other place in the city changed so radically after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Along with the revelations of the Stasi archives in the former East (the artist Cornelia Schlime, for example, transforms her old Stasi files into paintings) & the process of de-communisation (from the toppling of the colossal Leninplatz monument, documented in Dušan Makavejev’s 1991 film Gorilla Bathes at Noon, to the “Ostalgie” of Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 Goodbye Lenin!), rampant commercial redevelopment galvanised an emergent new writing ambivalent to the mainstream push for the “great novel of unification” – including books like Tim Staffel’s violently dystopian Terrordom (1998), Ingo Schramm’s linguistically dense Fitchers Blau (1996), Thomas Hettche’s sadomasochistic Nox (1995), Ulrike Draesner’s textually elusive Atmer (1998), Tanja Dücker’s cross-dressing Spielzone (1999), & Katrin Röggla’s topo-erotic Irres Wetter (2000).

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s previously unthinkable appeal to reunification based on monetary union – finessed by a promise to foot the bill of the occupying Soviet forces’ repatriation – paved the way both for the (mostly) short-lived cultural flourishing that took place during the six months following the Wall’s collapse, & for the succeeding process of social & economic normalisation politely referred to as gentrification. While the GDR had been visibly disintegrating for some time, the end was still spectacular – “From one day to the next,” as Gudrun Gut put it, “Berlin was an uncontrolled city” – attended by the requisite euphoria, & followed by an institutional aftershock that produced, in the East especially, a sudden atmosphere of laissez faire. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, daily realities became unpredictable. As musician & founder of Berlin Insane Steve Morell recounts, “Nothing was functioning. There were all these cars from the East, massive crowds clogged the streets… Everyone was getting drunk & going wild. No one knew where it would all lead. After all, there were Russian tanks just outside Berlin.” With the sudden freedom of movement between the two halves of the city came an influx not only of Easterners into the West, but of Westerners (& others from the squatting, art & music scenes) into the East, seeking to take advantage of the political hiatus. A new “underground” community rapidly formed right in the heart of East Berlin, around the largely paralysed GDR governmental district centred on Alexanderplatz. Squats appeared along Oranienberger Straße (where both Tacheles & the Aktionsgalerie established themselves, with Eimer around the corner at Rosenthaler Straße 68), in an area that was a monochrome wasteland of decayed grey buildings whose facades still bore the battle scars of WW2. Photographer Ben De Biel described it as reminiscent of the “zone” in Tarkovsky’s Stalker: “At night barely every other streetlight was lit. The city was bathed in dim, orange light. It was dark. Some streets had no lighting at all. There were hardly any cars. In the heart of the city there were hardly any people on the streets at night… Mitte was a dead city.” Groups like the Mutoid Waste Company emblematised this post-apocalyptic aesthetic with their fire-breathing machine sculptures & performance spectaculars, utilising abandoned Soviet military hardware including a junked MiG21 fighter jet & a painted T34 (the “pink panzer ”). The squatting scene was able to establish itself in Mitte with such surreal abandon due largely to the disarray of the local authorities – the zone’s availability for experimental living was even openly advertised in publications like the West Berlin anarchist newspaper, Interim, which ran a weekly list of buildings ripe for occupation.

Just after the Fall, 1989, by Kenton Turk

The epicentric shift of both West & East Berlin “undergrounds” to Mitte inaugurated the celebration of a new “communality” (“the single individual has failed” ), accompanied by paradigm shifts in music, away from post-Punk to techno (the end of ”Punk negativity” & the birth of DJ/rave culture), & the defining drug, from heroin & speed to ecstasy – a shift which, ironically or not, exposed the culture to an even more rampant commercialism by the ’90s mainstream of “money, fucking, money, dancing,” anticipating the industrial-scale clubbing scene that would come to be emblematised by venues like Berghain (the new millennium’s equivalent of S.O.U.N.D.), backed by multimillion dollar global media companies like BMG Rights Management soon headquartered in Mitte. But even within six months of the Wall coming down, these shiny happy people & their militant analogues, labelled “Anti-Berliners” by establishment politicians, were already fighting a rearguard action against rapidly encroaching vested interests who viewed Mitte not as a utopian experiment in alternative living, but as the future monument to triumphal capitalism. In addition, Oranienberger Straße became the frontline in the conflict with an instantly resurgent nationalism, & of the resultant discontent & rootlessness of many younger East Berliners caught up in the surge in unemployment & neo-fascism, as related in novels like Christian Mackrodt’s Ostkreuz (Coming of Age During the Transition) (2014). From May 1990, high-profile squats like Tacheles became targets of neo-Nazi attacks, including firebombings &, from November (the first anniversary of the Fall), of large-scale eviction action by “West German” police (according to some estimates, the most massive police deployment since WW2). For those not evicted, the pattern of attacks continued, & by 1992 these included raids on refugee camps at Hoyerswerda & Lichtenhagen. Civil rights, along with the reformist aspirations voiced in the former East (to re-distribute the national wealth to citizens) by the peace movement (Bündnis ’90) & others, were among the earliest casualties of what was revealing itself more & more to be an elaborate land-grab. There had been intimations of this even before the dust had settled on the collapsing Wall. As Alec Empire, founder of Digital Hardcore Recordings observed, “The East German civil rights activists, who had triggered the events only weeks before, disappeared overnight. Instead, the patriotism of a unified Germany was being propagated through the media, with the black, red & gold flag colours everywhere.” In addition to which, within just five years, some 85% of the East’s assets had fallen into West German hands, with local industry declining by 30%, & the population by 10%, while the level of unemployment among university graduates became the highest in the world. Meanwhile, though the gay community was less effected for a number of reasons than in New York (male homosexuality having been legalised in the West since 1969 & in the East since 1968), the city’s high rate of intravenous amphetamine & heroine use, & the prevailing climate of the last decade of the Cold War, meant that unified Berlin nevertheless inherited an unacknowledged AIDS crisis – with the number of people testing HIV-positive in 1990 in the West at 42,000 (& only 133 cases reported in the East). Social reality & political rhetoric are only ever proximate by virtue of grammar & unsurprisingly the shine wasn’t long in coming off the “social reality” of Helmut Kohl’s grand Christian Democratic scheme of German reunification, which opportunists in the finance sector were nevertheless dubbing a new Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle” – the path through which, ironically enough, seemed increasingly paved with Wall souvenirs & a nostalgia for that rapidly receding decade of “99 Luftballons”: back when, as the saying goes, there was still so much to look forward to.

References

Wim Wenders, The Logic of Images: Essays & Conversations, trans. Michael Hofmann (London: Faber, 1991) 73
Katerina Oikonomakou, Interview with Wolfgang Müller, Berlin Interviews (August 28, 2014).
Chris Petit, “Border Zones,” Guardian newspaper (July 12, 2016).
Joseph Delves, “Punk, Priest, Stasi, Spy: The Man who Smuggled Punk into East Berlin,” Fact Magazine (September 24, 2016)
James Hopkin, “A new film brings the inspiration of 1980s Berlin to the present,” New Statesman (20 August 2015).
Following re-unification, Müller became director of the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht’s former company at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Mitte
Arthur Holmberg, “In Germany, a Warning from Heiner Müller,” New York Times (July 8, 1990).
Robert Defcon, “Memories From Berlin’s Iconic 1980s Punk Bars,” Electronic Beats (November 26, 2015).
Robert Defcon, “Steve Morell,” Spex magazine (April 12, 2007).
Dax & Defcon, “An Alternative History of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.”Electronic Beats (September 22, 2016).

*“Reactionary Sentimentalism” is excerpted from the Introduction to City Primeval: New York, Berlin, Prague, an anthology of underground writing, film, photography & art, curated by Robert Carrithers & Louis Armand, published by Litteraria Pragensia this October, with contributions by Bruno Adams, Penny Arcade, Dale Ashmun, J.Jackie Baier, Markéta Baňková, Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer, Lina Bertucci, Gaby Bíla-Günther, Mykel Board, Victor Bockris, Christoph Brandl, Gary Ray Bugarcic, David Černý, Roman Černý, Michal Cihlář, Antonio Cossa, William Coupon, Max Dax, Christoph Dreher, Sara Driver, Glen Emery, Vincent Farnsworth, Nat Finkelstein, Roxanne Fontana, Thor Garcia, Susanne Glück, Carola Goellner, Anthony Haden Guest, Carl Haber, Jere Harshman, Henry Hills, Nhoah Hoena, Michael Holman, John Hood, Chris Hughes, Jolana Izbická, Timo Jacobs, Bethany Eden Jacobson, Tobiáš Jirous, Bettina Köster, Julius Klein, Hubert Ketzschmar, Jaromír Lelek, Lydia Lunch, Rinat Magsumov, Peter Milne, Steve Morell, Mona Mur, Julia Murakami, Shalom Neuman, Paul Pacey, Puma Perl, Rudolf Piper, Rudi Protrudi, Mark Reeder, Marcia Resnik, Ingrid Rudefors, Ilse Ruppert, Šimon Šafránek, Honza Sakař, Oliver Schütz, Marcia Schofield, Tom Scully, Semra Sevin, Phil Shoenfelt, Peter Smith, Azalea So Sweet, Mark Steiner, Kenton Turk, Andre Werner, Ian Wright, Nick Zedd, Dave Zijlstra, Richard & Winter Zoli, Miron Zownir.

Read Part One here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Louis Armand is the author of eight novels, including The Combinations (2016), Cairo (2014), and Breakfast at Midnight (2012). In addition, he has published ten collections of poetry – most recently, East Broadway Rundown (2015) & The Rube Goldberg Variations (2015) – & is the author of Videology (2015) & The Organ-Grinder’s Monkey: Culture after the Avantgarde (2013). He lives in Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 27th, 2017.