A long goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood pioneered what is now known as ‘autofiction’ long before it acquired that label. His best known work, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which later inspired the musical Cabaret, was based on the diaries he kept while living in the Weimar Republic in his twenties. He’d already used the material before in Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), a brilliant black comedy thriller that deserves to be read alongside more supposedly serious works of modernism. Forty years later, he reworked the experiences yet again in Christopher and His Kind (1977), in which he finally made explicit, for the new gay liberation era, what had been suppressed in the earlier works: his

Haunted by the past: Winterberg’s Last Journey, by Jaroslav Rudis, reviewed

Jaroslav Rudis’s latest novel follows the 99-year-old Wenzel Winterberg, a Sudetenland German, and his middle-aged Czech carer, Jan Kraus, on what is a quirky European take on the buddy road-trip story. Marx claimed that ‘men make their own history’, but do so under the burden of the past, with the weight of dead generations upon them. The tragedy soon to become a farce begins, according to Winterberg, at the site of the Battle of Königgrätz, with the old man proclaiming: ‘The Battle of Königgrätz runs through my heart.’ He then rambles on about its ‘half a million ghosts’, their roles and where they lie now, before blaming the battle for

The dirty war of Sefton Delmer

There is an obvious problem with trying to judge who ‘won’ a propaganda war. Unlike its physical counterpart, there is virtually no real-world evidence either way, and everyone involved has spent years learning how to spin, manipulate and outright lie about reality to try to shape it into what they want. As a result, it remains the conventional wisdom – among those who think of such things, at least – that despite their eventual and total defeat in the second world war, it was the Nazis who won the propaganda war of their era. Fake letters from dead German soldiers to their parents reported thatthey had survived, deserted and were

The skull beneath the skin: Ghost Pains, by Jessi Jezewska Stevens, reviewed

Hell, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, is other people. Jessi Jezewska Stevens would nominate parties. Social catastrophe can stem from the invitation: ‘Email!’ she laments. ‘The way all modern tragedies begin.’ She homes in on the space between what a woman thinks and says and does. Her anti-heroines can be relied on to make wrong decisions – men, marriage, nipple-piercing and, of course, parties. The choice invariably ends in failure. Ghost Pains is a collection of 11 stories, sardonic and elegant, imbued with a sense of isolation and self-awareness. Stevens’s women throw spectacularly disastrous parties. And attend them. The result can be amusing for the reader while being grievous for the

‘The truth will make us free’: students on the march in post-war Europe

One night in early autumn 1982, two young men roamed the streets of Lodz in Poland. It was a dark period in the country’s history – one of many. A mass movement led by the Solidarnosc trade union had recently attempted to challenge the communist regime which had kept the country under a heavy Soviet yoke, with little to offer but food shortages, economic decline and the erosion of national identity. The authorities had responded with force to the widespread strikes, declaring martial law in December 1981 and rolling tanks into cities. Protests were silenced with guns. Thousands were arrested and dozens killed. When Waldemar Fydrych and Piotr Adamcio wandered

Unfinished business in Berlin: The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron, reviewed

During the summer, I noticed a new noise coming from the crowd whenever Ben Stokes or another English player bashed or stroked the ball to the boundary. It wasn’t quite the cheer you’d expect; more an ahhhh of appreciation, as you would deliver to someone who is offering a masterclass in how to win a game when it has, to all intents and purposes, already been won. By the time I was about halfway through The Secret Hours, that was the noise I was making in my head, as new twists kept unfolding. And they did keep unfolding, if twists can be said to unfold, right up until the last

Love in the shadow of the Nazi threat

The 1930s saw Walter Benjamin write The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Marlene Dietrich rise to fame in The Blue Angel and Pablo Picasso paint ‘Guernica’. If history books mention these events, it’s usually as footnotes to the main European narrative of the pre-war decade. To shift the rise of Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Terror and other landmarks to the background, one could turn to the cultural history, or the micro-history. In his new book, the German art historian Florian Illies combines both genres to reconstruct the 1930s. Snippets from period documents, including private letters and diaries of notable figures of European and

Adrift in Berlin: Sojourn, by Amit Chaudhuri, reviewed

Feelings of dislocation are at the heart of Amit Chaudhuri’s award-winning novels. Friend of My Youth (2017) followed a writer’s unsettling trip back to his childhood home in Bombay. Before that, Odysseus Abroad (2014) charted the day of a lonely English literature student from India as he meandered around London. Now, in Sojourn – Chaudhuri’s eighth novel – we meet a nameless first-person narrator adrift in Berlin. It is the early 2000s, and the 43-year-old, Indian protagonist has just arrived as a visiting professor at a university for four months. He doesn’t know anyone, and navigating the streets is confusing. After giving his inaugural talk, he is accosted by Faqrul,

Darkness, desolation and disarray in Germany

In Geoffrey Household’s adrenalin-quickening 1939 thriller Rogue Male, a lone English adventurer takes a potshot at Hitler and then runs for cover. Few Germans were brave or reckless enough to resist the Führer. Once Hitler’s lunacy had become manifest, however, the dilemma for German patriots was painful: to love the Fatherland yet desire the downfall of Nazism. On 20 July 1944 a bomb went off in a briefcase at German GHQ in east Prussia but, extraordinarily, Hitler sustained only damaged eardrums and a pair of scorched trousers. The conspirators were hanged from meat hooks and, as a final gratuitous cruelty, their widows were sent bills for ‘execution costs’. The textbook

Russian spies and the return of the Cold War

Last week’s arrest of a security guard employed at the British embassy in Berlin, on suspicion of spying for Russia, serves as a stark reminder that the UK and its allies are in the thick of a new Cold War. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of communist regimes, it appeared that the East-West stand-off had come to an end. Nato allies breathed a collective sigh of relief and looked to new horizons, believing their principal objective had been achieved and that Russia’s days as a superpower were consigned to the history books. There can be little doubt that a second Cold War

Should locals be allowed to work at British embassies?

It is just short of 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and suddenly there comes a reminder of how the world used to be. A member of staff at the British Embassy in Berlin has been arrested in Germany on suspicion of spying for Russia. The arrest took place in Potsdam, which used to be in East Germany, and the Glienecke Bridge separating the town from Berlin proper is where Cold War spies used to be exchanged. The suspect has been identified only as David S, and it is believed he worked in a security role at the embassy. Two details that are known, however, are that

Leni Riefenstahl is missing: The Dictator’s Muse, by Nigel Farndale, reviewed

Leni Riefenstahl was a film-maker of genius whose name is everlastingly associated with her film about the German chancellor, Triumph of the Will, which won the gold medal at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition. It is an unforgettable piece of cinema, with the lonely hero descending, like one of the immortals, from the clouds. As he enters the podium at Nuremberg, we only see the back of his head as he wows the tens of thousands. In Nigel Farndale’s riveting novel, Riefenstahl remarks to one of the athletes at the 1936 Olympics that the only thing which she really cares about is film. This seems indeed to have been the

Billy Wilder — the making of a great film director

Before Billy Wilder became the celebrated director of films such as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment he was a busy jobbing screenwriter at UFA Studios in Berlin in the early 1930s, writing or co-writing the scenarios to more than 20 movies. And before that, he was a journalist. Starting in Vienna in the mid-1920s, where his earliest assignments included setting the crossword puzzle (a charming example is included in this volume), he quickly moved on to Berlin and became a prolific writer of occasional pieces for papers such as Der Querschnitt and the Berliner Börsen Courier. Selections of these articles have been published before but are

Berlin’s failed rent freeze offers a warning to Sadiq Khan

Berlin’s rent freeze, hailed by some as a potential model for London, is already coming to an end after less than two years. In its final ruling this week, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court struck down the rent freeze as unconstitutional. In this sorry saga, there are plenty of lessons for those who supported rent freezes in our capital – not least London’s mayor Sadiq Khan. The rent freeze was passed in June 2019, and took effect in February 2020. It froze nearly all rents across the city at their 2019-level, supposedly for a period of five years. It was hugely popular in Berlin, and attracted a lot of attention beyond.

Ignore the activists – Humboldt’s Enlightenment project deserves celebrating

‘What a loss is the excellent Humboldt. You and Berlin will both miss him greatly,’ Prince Albert wrote to his much-beloved daughter Vicky, Crown Princess of Prussia, on news of the death of the author, explorer and celebrity Alexander von Humboldt in 1859. ‘People of this kind do not grow upon every bush [‘an den Blumen’] and they are the grace and glory of a country and a century.’ After some delays and bad luck, the grace and glory of the Humboldt name flourishes once again with the opening of the Humboldt Forum. Annoyingly digital to begin with, the launch last month of the Forum signalled the culmination of Berlin’s

Breakdown in Berlin: Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru, reviewed

‘I was what they call an “independent scholar”’, confides the narrator of Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, a middle-aged writer from New York of modest reputation who secures a three-month residency at the prestigious Deuter Centre in Berlin. While there, he hopes to write something about ‘the construction of the self in lyric poetry’ and escape the pressures of fatherhood. However, he soon finds the ethos of the centre — on transparency, surveillance and measurable outputs — counterproductive to his notions of artistic creation. Instead, Kunzru’s protagonist is pulled away by new distractions. He discovers that the romantic writer Henrich von Kleist killed himself and a young woman in a suicide

As immersive art goes, nothing can compete with Berghain

In Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, the protagonist, at the Venice Biennale, muses on installations. ‘Ideally, the perfect art installation would be a nightclub, full of people, pumping music, lights, smoke machine and maybe drugs thrown in. You could call it Nightclub, and if you kept it going 24 hours a day it would be the big hit of the Biennale.’ How right he was. For what else is Berghain — the world’s most famous techno club — if not a wild work of immersive art? Berghain is housed in the ruin of a Soviet thermal power station in Berlin. Conceived on a grand scale, it’s a fathomless black box

Frieda Vizel: ‘Unorthodox’ is nothing like the Hasidic community I know

A few blocks away are hipster-dense streets with street art and coffee shops. But around Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, it’s as if time has stood still. Men in white knee socks, high hats and coats from another century rush by. Women wearing wigs or shawls on their heads. Here are kosher grocery stores, synagogues and a mikvah – a ritual Jewish bath. It is an enclave few outsiders get real insight into. In the middle of the New York City, the Hasidic community – fundamentalist ultra-Orthodox Jews – practice strict gender segregation, distancing themselves from Western modern society without television, cinema and pop music. This is the environment in which

Superbly convincing: Unorthodox reviewed

When I lived briefly in Stamford Hill I was mesmerised by the huge fur hats (shtreimel) worn by the local Hasidic Jews, and the wigs worn by their wives, and the almost tubercular pallor of their children. I often wondered how such a remote, aloof and archaic sect could possibly relate to 21st-century London. The answer, of course, was that they didn’t: they were like ghosts from another age, walking the same streets but not of this world. I wished I could get a glimpse of their private lives — and now, thanks to Unorthodox (Netflix), we all can. Loosely based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman, it tells the

A hazardous crossing: The Man Who Saw Everything, by Deborah Levy, reviewed

Serious readers and serious writers have a contract with each other,’ Deborah Levy once wrote. ‘We live through the same historical events, and the same Pepsi ads. Writers and readers, nervously sharing this all too fluid world, circle each other to find out what the hell is going on.’ Figuring out what the hell is going on within the fluid worlds of Levy’s fiction is not always straightforward. While other authors are increasingly drawn to autofiction, for Levy, uncertain times, it seems, call for uncertain realities. The characters in The Man Who Saw Everything shape-shift, and time bends back and then twists upon itself again. Objects and animals — wolves