29 April 2009

Berliner Luft

Willkommen: The Brandenburg Gate

On my first trip to Berlin, in 1995, I was told flatly that I’d come at the wrong time. “You should have come five years ago,” a Berliner said. “Right now, there’s so much construction and development — we’ve lost the human dimension. Come back in five years, and we’ll have readjusted.”

I took much longer, and the Berlin I discovered this weekend was all but unrecognizable beyond its famous monuments; one of those, the Wall, was conspicuous by its absence, having been almost entirely dismantled. (Mostly to chip up and sell for souvenirs, I suspect.) Potsdamer Platz has become a mini-city unto itself, with gleaming high-rises; Prenzlauerberg, an erstwhile down’n’dirty neighborhood in the East, is now gentrified, even bourgeois, and a bit dull. And there’s still construction everywhere, all over town. Who knows what I’ll find the next time I go?

From the Gemäldegalerie, Vermeer’s The Glass of Wine

And return I must, not least because I made the mistake of saving the Gemäldegalerie for the last day, when I had the least time to linger over its irresistible collection of European paintings. Forced by the clock to prioritize, I checked out a special exhibition, “The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden,” in which the museum’s significant holdings were supplemented by works from as far away as the Getty and Detroit; then turned to the permanent collection, remorselessly skipping the 18th-century work and hurrying past Dutch landscapes and still-lifes in favor of Renaissance masterpieces. (Giotto! Rafaello! Caravaggio!) The ensemble boasts excellent examples of the work of great artists, and even the minor works are lovely.

At the Pergamon, the Gate of Ishtar

I began my museum-going on the Museuminsel, revisiting the Egyptian Museum and the Pergamon, and exploring the Bode, which had been closed for remodeling in 1995. (All I got to see then was the equestrian statue in the entrance hall, not really worth the bother.) Brilliant though these places are, and absolutely essential to anyone interested in ancient or medieval art, I wanted to visit two other museums, dedicated to communities that have defined the city for me in many ways, though the city itself hasn’t always embraced them. And so I went to the Jewish Museum and the Gay Museum.

In the Jewish Museum

The two make an interesting contrast, and the most immediate impression one gets is simply that an oppressed community that procreates and identifies itself publicly will leave more stuff to the future than will one that is childless and hidden. The Jewish collection is vast, housed in a brilliantly designed structure that, seen from above, cuts a jagged slash across the landscape, almost like a Star of David that’s been ripped open. The architect, Daniel Libeskind, incorporates empty spaces in the galleries, air shafts and unadorned nooks, as a reminder of absence — the thousands of Jews who were removed from German society, and from existence, by generations of bigots. Exhibits demonstrate that the Nazis were hardly the first, only the most systematic, to scapegoat and attack the Jews. Yet the vitality of the community shines through consistently (You won't let us hold most kinds of jobs? So be it: we'll become the world’s greatest traders, bankers, and doctors), and there is much to celebrate here. This is in fact why I opted to visit this museum, rather than one dedicated to the Holocaust, a horror that is represented here at the Jewish Museum, of course, but there’s more to the story than that, and this Museum’s exhibits provide additional histories and personalities. The family of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, in particular, shines as a beacon.

That said, my biggest thrill of the trip may have been the sight of an old theater decked out with what at first appeared to be Nazi banners. Then I noticed that, instead of swastikas, there were pretzels, and the Adolf Hitler gazing down from the balcony was only a cardboard cutout of an actor’s photograph. The Berlin production of Mel Brooks’ The Producers is opening soon. Who’d have believed it?

From the Schwules Museum, ancestors without issue

The collection of the Gay Museum is smaller than that of the Jewish Museum, with more pictures (old photos, reproductions of illustrations from old books) and very little original material (the nieces and nephews having inherited all that), housed in a few stark rooms in an apartment building in Kreuzberg. Display and documentation are bare bones, and for those visitors with limited German, the only option is to follow along with a little book, a translation of the signs and captions that accompany the displays. Because so much is not illustrated by the artifacts, the texts are numerous and lengthy: one winds up reading a monograph. Yet the exhibit is serious and important, offering glimpses into the ways that communities were formed, opinions expressed, desires acted upon, despite every kind of obstacle. Including those that came from within: many of those who led the oppressing institutions were themselves gay.

At the tip of the Museuminsel, the Bode:
It looks small from this angle, but wait ’til you get inside.

Under warm, sunny skies, I spent the rest of my days looking at landmarks (several of which I’d missed on my previous trip; these included Checkpoint Charlie and the Tiergarten — where I saw two rabbits!), strolling along the boulevards and riverbanks, and drinking beer. Having just spent a couple of days pointing out the sights of Paris to a friend from Texas, I was stunned by how much cheaper the touring essentials are in Berlin: beer is less than half what it costs in Paris, and my most expensive meal was less than 10 Euros. My bed-and-breakfast was no-frills, and a bit far from any point of interest, but at 30 Euros a night, I wasn’t complaining (and my room was spacious and airy). Bier, Brot, und Bett: the rest is superfluous, when you think about it.

Certain that a particular dress code is pretty much obligatory in Berlin, and that visitors are turned away at the city limits if they’re not wearing a mandated amount of leather, I wore my Doc Martens, a mistake that became painfully clear after I’d walked only a few kilometers. (I’m not sure what Doc Martens are good for, actually, but they aren’t good for walking.) Naturally, I wound up going to no single place where anyone cared how I dressed.

There’s no place like Dom.

My interactions with the Germans were hampered by the lamentable fact that I no longer speak German. Oh, I tried, yes, but I can’t remember a single declension, my vocabulary is spotty, my reflexes slow when not altogether arrested. I had an adequate stock of phrases for survival, but the Berliners tended to answer me at speeds too rapid to comprehend: the worst were the guard and docent at the Bode, who spoke to me simultaneously, when understanding them singly would have been challenge enough.

But then, we do not travel in order to do that which we would do at home, and I tell myself that a little humiliation from time to time is exceedingly good for my character. Especially when it’s so easy to drown my sorrows afterward. Ein Glas Bier, bitte!


(av)Uncle(ular) Peter said...

Not to trivialize an otherwise informative and moving article, isn't that Elaine May hovering in the background near the Gate of Ishtar?

William V. Madison said...

Please, if there's one thing on earth that can make a person forget that misbegotten movie, it's the gate itself. Look at the scale of it! The antiquity! The strangeness and beatty!

No -- not beatty -- beauty. -- must ... stop ... thinking ... about ... movie. Must ... stop ...