Those street-fighting years: A Review of Jason Lutes’ “Berlin”

Pothik Ghosh

Jason Lutes, Berlin (Book 1): City of Stones, Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal (2001, Reprinted 2009) &Berlin (Book 2): City of Smoke, Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal (2008) 

Jason Lutes begins at the beginning. The encounter between a man and a woman in a railway carriage with which the first book of his graphic-novel trilogy opens is an archetype. And yet the manner in which it unfolds into the larger narrative of Berlin – the third part of which is yet to appear and which is currently made up of City of Stones and City of Smoke respectively – serves to brush it against its own banal grain. One does not, however, need to get to the middle of Lutes’ yarn about Berlin in the twilight years of the Weimar Republic to figure that such a stock opening has not been forced upon the artist by an imagination overwhelmed and exhausted by the stereotypes of mass culture.

The encounter between key protagonists, journalist Kurt Severing and art student Marthe Mueller, in the compartment of a Berlin-bound train in the September of 1928, is not simply meant to be a first meeting between a man and a woman. It is, more importantly, an encounter set up by Lutes between words (journalist Severing) and images (artist Mueller). An encounter that presages a relationship fraught with both intimacy and conflict. This duality and tension, which marks the consequent entwinement of the protagonists’ lives and loves, do not merely characterise the historical specificity of their times. It is, simultaneously, a conceit that Lutes deploys to stake out his artistic approach, credo even, vis-à-vis the so-called graphic-novel form.

For Lutes then, the comic book, by virtue of being a montage of words and images, has much greater affinity in terms of artistic effect and political purposeBerlin to the audio-visual experience of cinema than the culture of print to which comics have traditionally belonged. For him, not unlike the other contemporary graphic-novel greats such as Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore and Joe Sacco, words and images are not, as they traditionally have been in comics, discrete entities illustrating each other. Rather, they are envisaged as a singular, mutually illuminating complex whose dynamic makes possible ideas and occurrences that become the constituent units of the larger narrative. And Berlin is a perfect exemplar of Lutes’ vision steeped, self-admittedly, in the politics and aesthetics of avant-garde European cinema that has been summed up rather well by Jean-Luc Godard when he distinguished such cinema as a means of expression from television as a means of transmission.

It is precisely this cinematic function of expression that is constitutive of Lutes’ Berlin and is embodied by it as a sort of defining aesthetic for the graphic-novel genre. His engagement, through Marthe Mueller and her co-students of the Berlin Art Academy, with Expressionism, and through it, with western art as a whole, indicates precisely this obsession of his. And while he makes Marthe reject Expressionism, together with all other reigning currents of institutionalised art, it is only to once again bring to fore the clarity of the founding impulse of Expressionism that its frozen form obscures. Berlin is, therefore, clearly a manifesto of artistic freedom and commitment.

The free rein that an artist can give to his/her subjectivity, thanks to Expressionism, or at any rate its founding impulse, enables Lutes to set his gaze free from the constraints of reality as it is given. And that is both the aesthetic medium and political message called Berlin. Lutes’ Berlin, therefore, is not a city-novel in the traditional sense. Neither in its images nor in its words does it illustrate, evoke or invoke the ‘real’ and definitive geography of Berlin of the inter-war years. That, if and when it happens at all, is merely incidental. It does not even seek to transfigure the landscape of the city in a highly eccentric and expressionistic manner akin to the defamiliarising geographies produced by such “city novelists” as Joyce (Dublin), Dos-Passos (New York) or Alfred Doblin (Berlin).

Berlin, for Lutes, is the emotions and ideas of a politics that is constitutive of an epoch called the Weimar Republic, in whose womb gestated the embryo of Hitlerite National Socialism. One could, however, argue that Lutes, considering he is an American in his late thirties who has been to Berlin for all of three days, could do no better than produce such a “research-based” city novel devoid of personal and personalised lived experience. But that Lutes chose to do so of his own free will shows it was a conscious decision that could have come only from the kind of aesthetic and political programme stated above.

Berlin is, therefore, first of all a story about the rise of Nazism, and the unforgivable surrender of a self-serving Weimar political class, mostly made up of dishonest Social Democrats inhabiting their delusive ivory-towers. And it is told, not so much by examining what happened in the top echelons of Weimar polity, but by laying bare what went on in the everyday lives and relationships of people in the historically invisible streets, homes, factories, newspaper offices, trains, schools, restaurants, and nightclubs of the city.

This political epoch called Berlin – which begins a year before the 1929 May Day massacre of German Communist cadre by the Weimar armed forces controlled by a Social Democratic government (City of Stones) and culminating in the National Socialists getting a thumping majority in the Reichstag elections of 1930 (City of Smoke) – is not merely a matter of documentary detailing for Lutes. The how and why of events is, for him, no less important than the what of them. Not surprisingly, the artist in him is not satisfied with merely compelling the reader to confront individual characters and the events they comprise. He constantly gets behind the vanishing point of ‘reality’ in an attempt to show how the incidents and, more importantly the characters, that constitute such reality have been shaped through and by their histories, which are both unique and general.

Cinematic techniques such as flashbacks that transport the reader to the end of World War I and the days after the Treaty of Versailles, especially with regard to the particularities of everyday lives of individuals, are spliced on to panels depicting interactions and relationships among various characters in 1928 to render their seemingly opaque individual psychological responses to each other and the world around historically transparent.

Berlin2Such filmic techniques also come in handy for Lutes to underscore the often contingent nature of decisions that people made while choosing their political side. For instance, the seeds of worker Gudrun Braun’s induction into the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) and her eventual death in the May Day massacre is sown in a serendipitous encounter between her and David, a young Jewish boy, whom she chances upon selling the KPD paper in heavy rain and who gives her a copy of the paper in return for the good turn she does him by lending him her umbrella.

Even the persistent Nazi-Communist conflicts of Weimar Germany – which would eventually give Europe its long fascist night and which began with the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919 to which the two parts of the trilogy continually refer – are snatched away from the abstractions of political history to be restored to the flesh-and-blood humanness of everyday contingencies amid which they actually took shape.  Gudrun’s nascent Communist sympathies impel her Jew- and Red-hating husband Otto to throw her out of their house. It is this that not only leads to Gudrun’s complete radicalisation and Otto’s inexorable Nazification but also puts their daughter and son in those two mutually opposed political-ideological camps.  Thus in Lutes’ imagination the Nazi-Communist divide loses its clinical separation to become a much more real and messy phenomenon that leave husband and wife, and brother and sister baying for each other’s blood.

Lutes’ approach towards freedom through commitment, which has made an artistic feat such as Berlin possible, is precisely what he finds was lacking in the intellectuals and artists of Weimar Berlin and which he clearly shows was responsible for the eventual capitulation of German society to Hitler and his murderous thugs.

The inability of German artists such as Marthe and her friends to push beyond the disinterested and pornographic gaze with which they indifferently fix the goings-on, violent or otherwise, among the unwashed masses divided into the National Socialist and Communist camps becomes as much a symptom of their artistic stagnation as the cause behind the rise of the fascist monster. The excitement and fun which Marthe’s friend Anna derives from rooting for David (in City of Stones), whom she watches being chased by a bunch of racist German goons from the window of her flat without knowing or even bothering to know what their respective politics might be is both quite galling and telling. When Marthe asks her, “Why do you think they were chasing him?”, she replies, “Maybe they’re Sozis and he’s a little Nationalist. I was just rooting for him because it was three to one….” Their debates and discussions on art, in such circumstances, come across as a fatal farce.

Comic 2

And Weimar intellectuals captured by Lutes in the figure of Kurt Severing and his journalist-friends, precisely because they are relatively more serious, appear even more disingenuous and pathetic. Severing’s business with words, which are completely alienated from the real experiences and happenings on the Berlin streets, underscores the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of Social Democratic pacifism to which he subscribes. When his old friend Irwin Immenthaler, who has joined the Communists, says (in City of Stones), “Couldn’t stay above the fray any longer. And you? Maintaining hopes of overcoming the opposition with a tide of typing paper?”; Severing replies, “The tide has become more of a trickle lately. But I still value my own judgement over any decrees handed down from Munich or Moscow, if that’s what you mean.”

That Severing’s words – which are as disengaged as his life, and as alienating and irresponsible as his relationships – amount to nothing dawns on him towards the end of City of Smoke. He wonders: “This machine (typewriter) is a kind of devil, feeding my pride by giving my words substance. It promises to order my thoughts, declare their rationality and significance, promises value and weight, meaning hardened by iron and hammered into paper. Even that impact (tak!) is a promise: that my words will strike like a fist. It lies. I would throw it out of the window if I could lift the fucking thing. How much time do I have left in this life? How much – How much of it have I wasted?” And the soliloquy ends with him emptying all his typewritten manuscripts into a bonfire lit by a couple of poor souls just outside his apartment.

comic 3

In Lutes’ Berlin, ideological objectivity is a sickening alibi for intellectual indifference and political timidity. The alternative lifestyle of artists and intellectuals, particularly in matters of sexuality, fails to rise above hedonism and self-conscious display of modishness to emerge as an effective force of dissidence and anti-Nazi resistance. Such lifestyle, its radical deviance notwithstanding, is thereby left open to the predatory thought police of a Nazi future that is imminent.

Comic 1

The side Lutes is on, as far as Weimar Berlin is concerned, could not have been more apparent – Luxemburg and Libeknecht are, clearly, his heroes. He shows how the Nazi way was paved by those “above-the-fray” Social Democrats, who not only refused to strengthen the militant anti-Nazi struggle of the Communists but often worked to detract from it. And yet the Communists too draw a sharp rap on their knuckles from him. Berlin insinuates, not at all incorrectly, that for German Communists, notwithstanding their commitment and spirit of sacrifice, many modes of anti-conservative critique and anti-fascist dissent engendered by certain specific experiences, practices and ways of life of some democratic sections of Weimar society remained below the radar. Not surprisingly, Communist politics, in spite of its radical anti-Nazi tenor, remained for most such people a predetermined and alien phenomenon they avoided like plague.

Lutes seeks to make amends on that score by attempting to enrich the Communist historical account of its glorious anti-Nazi resistance by including, through an act of creative imagination, the challenges posed to the reactionary ethos of Nazism by such phenomena as clubs and gatherings of lesbians and bisexuals. He even counterposes an internationalism of real experience, manifest in the fleeting relationship between an African-American Jazz artiste and a German stripper, to the noble, though doctrinally stringent, internationalism of the card-holding Communists.

What, however, renders Lutes’ vision most interesting and pertinent is its universality that stretches beyond the confines of time and space within which he situates his parable. The persistent advance of revanchist political forces the world over, and especially in south Asia, thanks to the aid or moral justification being extended to them by effete and self-serving politics of a liberal vintage proves that Lutes’ tale is, without doubt, a cautionary parable for all times.

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