Ghost Dance in Berlin - Introduction

By Peter Wortsman

The last time I visited Berlin I made eye contact with the most beautiful woman in the world, only she was stone-hearted and more than four thousand years old, and didn’t speak a word of English or German, or any other living tongue. I looked her up again not long ago but she had moved. Displaced from the banks of the Nile to a palace in Charlottenburg, and from there to the Museumsinsel in the Spree, she’d changed lodgings yet again from the Altes to the recently resurrected Neues Museum, where she finally found a room of her own, her elusive look locked forever in a glass case on the edge of a smile. This being Berlin, all bets are on where Frau Nefertiti will turn up next.

Next door in the Pergamon Museum the packaged remains of several empires are pickled and preserved, including a section of the walls of Babylon and a scale model of the ill-fated Tower of Babel, the World Trade Center of antiquity, downed by an angry deity. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump to the site of the old Stadtschloß, once an emperor’s urban residence, flattened by Allied bombing and post-War ideological bulldozers, now a hole in the heart of the city. It’s a stone’s throw from there to the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz, the obsolete symbol of another lost illusion formerly upheld with a since-fallen wall. But the traffic rushes on and pedestrians throng the stately thoroughfare Unter den Linden, at the tail end of which the old Brandenburg Gate is open for business again.

Built on a heap of urban impulses, Berlin is a phoenix forever being reborn. Eight centuries old, it has managed with an uncanny resilience to remain ever young by reinventing itself time and again to suit an ever-changing geopolitical reality.

A city in constant flux, very much like New York, Berlin has kept reinventing itself, while going through makeover after makeover: primped up from provincial backwater to Prussian seat of government; built up by Bismarck into the Biedermeier Hohenzollern Imperial Hauptstadt, only to be deconstructed, upon the empire’s sudden collapse, into the short-lived Weimar Republican fever-dream of modernity and capital of the avant-garde; enshrined as grandiose Thousand-Year Reichstadt and redubbed Germania, only to be reduced a few years later to an occupied and divided rubble heap at the fault line of history; revived in a schizoid state of post-World War II duality; reunited and redefined yet again in 1989 when the Wall came tumbling down.

Like New York, I think of Berlin not as a proper noun, but rather as a “proper,” albeit transitive, verb—with a mass transit(ive) system that actually works—forever evolving, boomeranging, or “Berlining” (sich Berlinernd) into the city of tomorrow. With the flow of traffic regulated (symbolically at least) by the replica of the original traffic light—Europe’s first—at Potsdamer Platz, es Berlinert sich immer weiter… It keeps right on “Berlining.

I myself have witnessed the city’s dizzying metamorphoses over the last four decades.

First, at a gathering of Fulbright Fellows in 1973, when the divisions of East and West, emblematic of the split in the world, literally cast in cement, seemed insurmountable.

Next, to visit a friend in the East in 1986, on his thirty-ninth birthday, coincidentally the twenty-fifth anniversary of the erection of the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Protective Dike), as it was officially referred to in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). When, in a post office in East Berlin, I wanted to purchase a copy of the commemorative stamp marking a quarter century of protection against the perceived fascist threat to the west, the heretofore poker-faced woman at the service window actually burst out laughing, convinced that I was kidding, and I had to repeat my request a second time before, with a look of utter amazement, she slipped me the sticky, perforated image. No one had ever asked for the stamp.

And that was a mere three years before a hunk of the demolished Berlin Wall sold as a hot collector’s item at Macy’s in New York.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I walked along a line of bricks, an urban scar in the pavement near Checkpoint Charlie, that marked (and mocked) the erstwhile division where the Wall once stood. And from the glass dome bulging like a prescient eye atop the renovated Reichstag Building I saw the restless cranes of progress yet again reconfiguring the idea of a city.

Filmmaker Walter Ruttmann captured the restless rush in his 1927 documentary montage, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis), in which legs and arms take on a life of their own and motion is the primary emotion. Novelist Alfred Döblin used a similar montage technique to mine the city’s ever-excitable subconscious, painting its fluid portrait in his epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929. At around the same time Georg Grosz’s penciled and painted grotesques likewise caught the crazy rhythm, and Kurt Weill and Friedrich Holländer sounded its sultry jazz riffs in songs interpreted by Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich, until the music was silenced and the dance forced into lockstep by booted storm troopers.

But the city’s indomitable spirit survived, and here I am again, still waiting for Nefertiti to blink.

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