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Adventures in the New Berlin

Micha Richter Inside Norman Foster's glass-and-steel Reichstag dome.

Photo: Micha Richter

Berlin ist gross und ich bin klein” (Berlin is big and I am small) reads a popular children’s T-shirt featuring a forlorn mite of a penguin staring up at the immensity of East Berlin’s iconic TV tower. At barely five foot six I know how that penguin feels. I have spent four months in Berlin talking to people’s navels and having drinks passed over my head. If I ever joined the 15.5 percent of Berliners who are unemployed, I could make an attractive footstool for one of the gentle giants here. One night, at a failing bar in an outlying district, lost in a sea of blond heads crowned with halos of cheap smoke, I notice the kind of person who I think is still referred to as a midget waving happily to me across the room. I wave back with a big smile and an awkward thumbs-up. It is one of the happiest moments of my stay in Germany’s capital. I love the towering denizens of what is easily Europe’s coolest metropolis. But now I know that I am not alone.

And there’s more help on the way. “This is the year Berlin went international,” a long-term expatriate who works in art and publishing tells me at a party. Get out your measuring tape: the short, non-Teutonic folks are coming! By my estimate, at least half of them seem to be New York expatriates, intense, wiry, funny Jewish men who talk up their novel-in-progress, their nascent yoga practice, and their plans to open yet another art gallery to the interested local Fräulein, who peer down at them from their stratospheric heights. Making an absolute mockery of everything  Joseph Goebbels ever stood for, Berlin is now a city where you hear more English than in New York and more Russian than in London. The foreigners come for the cheap rents, to be sure, but also for a nightlife that begins at midnight on Thursday and sputters dizzyingly to an end at 8 p.m. on Sunday. And there is so much culture that by the end of my stay I can only dream of using the bathroom of the neighborhood pub without running across a flier touting a gallery opening, an avant-garde theater performance in a disused bathhouse, or the frightening advent of yet another “Bolshoi Bandits Russian Ska East Bloc Music DJ-Team Party.” Berlin is its youth, and its youth are hip—even the teenage llama at the zoo has a fashionably retro Pat Benatar haircut. They are restless, and they are up for anything.

And the new Berliners are one other thing: earnest. One of the greatest gifts that can fall in the lap of any emerging artist is the opportunity to fail. When you’re paying 200 euros a month for a high-ceilinged room in a so-called W.G., or Wohngemeinschaft, an Oberlin-style “living community” where young people share chores and each other, you can spend years of your life “working only with adhesive tape,” as one would-be Warhol told me. But maybe that’s just the cynical New Yorker in me speaking. Whether German or foreign, these young people genuinely care about the communities they have forged out of the rubble of the 20th century’s most problematic metropolis. And they appreciate the creative impulse around them, because it’s still okay to be excited by things in Berlin.

To wit, a freezing Friday night in the middle of a season the rest of Europe still regards as autumn. At the Glass Pavilion of the Volksbühne theater in the former East, dozens of people are huddled together in the small space, warmed by nothing but cheap beer for free and the warbling of one overtaxed radiator. We are braving the elements to watch a brilliant short film by the British visual artist Tacita Dean about the British poet and translator Michael Hamburger, who was exiled from Berlin in 1933 and passed away last year. The film flickers on the makeshift screen, the elderly poet is picking up apples and talking about them at great length (“The Boskoop is good for baking, but also for eating…,” he creaks. “I was very taken by the Devonshire…. It is just about the darkest apple I’ve ever seen”). The film is hypnotically simple and rendered with an ambient quality that somehow makes the end of life seem both close by and oddly matter-of-fact, like the dark Devonshire apples the elderly subject so loved. As the film unfolds, there is not a sound in the little theater, except for the balding twenty-and thirtysomething men and very young women in vibrant leggings, who are taking snapshots of the screen with their cell phones. It’s the kind of cultural encounter that I may pretend to remember from the New York of the 80’s and early 90’s, but in any case it is here in Berlin right now—and it is touching and it is real.

My four months in the city were spent at the lakeside American Academy in Berlin (where I’d been invited to be a fellow for a semester). The Academy’s villa is located in the near-distant suburb of Wannsee, across the lake from the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution to the so-called  “Jewish Problem” was signed. My temporary home had been owned by a Jewish banker who fled the country during the 1930’s. The house then fell into the hands of the Third Reich’s minister of finance, who added several architectural details, including my balcony. In the warmer months, I happened to divide my time between my Jewish study and my Nazi balcony (to add to the confusion, my bedroom was once occupied by the playwright Arthur Miller). Berlin, as the old adage from historian Karl Scheffler goes, “is a city that never is, but is always in the process of becoming.” The city the international art world has inherited has been in mad flux since the collapse of the Wall, but its physical infrastructure has more or less taken shape. Now that the terrific rupture of the Cold War has been sealed and partly cauterized, Berlin has become something—an often hypermodern, usually well-functioning, deindustrialized metropolis with almost no money (“Poor but sexy” is how Klaus Wowereit, universally described as “Berlin’s popular, gay, socialist mayor,” describes his city). The results of the building boom have been uneven. The glass box of the chancellor’s office has been rightly drubbed by locals as “the washing machine,” while next door, the Reichstag, with its transparent Norman Foster dome and top-notch collection of contemporary art (cue Gerhard Richter’s stunning interpretation of the German flag in the lobby), is a blessing upon the urban grid and a serious statement about Western democracy’s chances of survival.

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