Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries
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A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history's most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by the Wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centers of the world. Today it resonates with the echo of lives lived. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.
Berlin tells the volatile history of Europe's capital over five centuries through a series of intimate portraits of two dozen key residents: the medieval balladeer whose suffering explains the Nazis' rise to power; the genius Jewish chemist who invented poison gas for First World War battlefields and then the death camps; the iconic mythmakers like Christopher Isherwood, Leni Riefenstahl, and David Bowie, whose heated visions are now as real as the city's bricks and mortar. Alongside are portrayed some of the countless ordinary Berliners whose lives can only be imagined: the ambitious prostitute who refashioned herself as a baroness, the fearful Communist Party functionary who helped to build the Wall, and the American spy from the Midwest whose patriotism may have turned the course of the Cold War.
Berlin is a history book like no other, with an originality that reflects the nature of the city itself. In its architecture, through its literature, in its movies and songs, Berliners have conjured their hard capital into a place of fantastic human fantasy. No other city has so often surrendered itself to its own seductive myths. Berlin captures, portrays, and propagates the remarkable story of those myths and their makers.
speak of his father, gesturing down at the mound on which they lay. ‘I will write down all his old songs,’ he told her, the smoke bringing tears to his eyes. ‘I cannot bear to lose them too.’ * * * In the fifteenth century lyrics were rarely recorded. Songs passed by mouth from master to apprentice, father to son with an emphasis on accuracy and external form: numbers of syllables, orthodox rhymes, rote learning. Gutenberg’s press was but a dozen years old and had not yet overtaken the
Schiffbauerdamm, which is on the Spree by old Weidendammer Brücke. As luck would have it rehearsals had just begun on a new production and I was hired on the spot as a backstage assistant! A dream come true! I was over the moon with the job … until I saw the first run-through. The play is so anarchic that I found myself wishing for a steady and predictable Lessing or Schiller. I stared slack-jawed at the arguing actors and foul-mouthed director, too shocked to move, apart from when they sent me
on the set. He wasn’t even in France. His part of the scene had already been shot in Berlin. The two actors would come together only in the editing room. Director David Hemmings – who’d played the photographer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up – stood in for Bowie, feeding Dietrich her cues. ‘Do they pay you extra for this crap?’ she snapped at him. She was not pleased. Bowie was one of the reasons she had agreed to take the part. ‘We learnt this old trick from Mack Sennett.’ The anger swelled her
model to fill the nothingness, creating a more efficient structure. A cabinet-maker who worked in a cellar workshop took him under his wing, letting him handle walnut and maple, nurturing his feeling for the texture and grain. Schönecker loved to sit on the steps in the summer sunshine, gulping in the scent of lime blossoms, shaving and shaping and bringing life to wood. At the Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster he focused on physics and mathematics, graduating top of his class, and decided to become
for the façade of the Führer’s residence. Sachsenhausen’s inmates were dragooned into a nearby brickworks, which was set to be the largest in the world. But as he cycled along Berlin’s wide new streets, and paused in the sunlight by the canal to watch the silent work gangs, Schönecker questioned not where the men and materials came from, as if not asking was the same as not knowing. Later at Lindenallee he asked no questions when ordered to make models of Typenbunker air raid shelters. When in