in Critic's Guides | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91


Sixteen years since the Wall came down, the German capital swings wildly between an astounding sense of freedom and amnesiac revisionism

in Critic's Guides | 12 MAY 05

In the silent film People on Sunday (1929) nothing much happens; during a weekend excursion to a lake outside Berlin, Wolfgang, the gigolo and wine salesman, flirts with Christl, the film extra, before winning over Brigitte, the record shop assistant, while Erwin, the cab driver, diffuses any friction with his jolly japes. (His bratwurst falls in the sand; he shows off with Brigitte’s little sailor’s cap on his big, round head.) Meanwhile at home Erwin’s girlfriend, Annie, a model, spends the day in bed. The closing shots are followed by text panels declaring that tomorrow it will be ‘back to work’, and that ‘Four million people’ – the inhabitants of Berlin – are already ‘waiting for next Sunday. The End.’

Five of the people who worked on People on Sunday went on to become famous Hollywood directors: Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann (who all co-directed) and Billy Wilder (who wrote the script). The film famously inspired the auteur cinema of the Nouvelle Vague with its use of amateur actors, close-ups and boldly spontaneous outdoor cinematography, and its pioneering mix of feature elements and documentary shots: busy pedestrian traffic around Bahnhof Zoo; a bunch of lads engaged in an odd game of slapping each other on the bum; Otto Dix characters gazing at war memorials; and soldiers parading through the Tiergarten.
The film depicts both what might have been and what actually took place. It shuts its eyes to envisage a bohemian summer reverie while keeping them wide open to the first signs of looming fascism. That’s why People on Sunday still resonates in the Berlin of today: that dream is still dreamt, and the nightmare still haunts. Two artists living in Berlin have mentioned the film to me independently in the last few weeks, not because they are nostalgic for 1920s Weimar or because they think a fascist regime is imminent, but because the film is a historic yardstick by which to understand Berlin 16 years on from its awakening from cryogenic Cold War suspension: once more the city is swinging wildly between an astounding sense of freedom and potential and a foul combination of amnesia and revisionism.

From all over the world, it seems, gigolo wine salesmen, record shop assistants and artists are flocking in increasing numbers to Berlin, drawn not by the prospect of a commercial boom but by its absence. The often self-confessedly adolescent motivation is to connect with like-minded people while working on high-flying projects that might cause a stir, if not in Hollywood then at least in Gothenburg or Genoa, and to idle away the days with bratwurst in the sand, unconcerned by the daily grind that Karl Marx so aptly described as alienating. There is a factual side to it: Berlin is slightly bigger than New York City but has less than half the population: about 3.5 million (less now than in the 1920s). It is located in the geographical centre of Europe, has a weak economy in an otherwise rich country and has a super-relaxed property market in a relatively secure and easy-to-navigate environment speckled with historical gravitas and new enterprise.

But of course even in Berlin the daily crust has to be earned, and unless you have an established career, a subsidy or some other form of financial support the city can be a grim place, with low wages and 20 per cent unemployment. Nevertheless everyone, including critics writing city reports, takes part in creating a retouched picture of Berlin as a reserve for bohemian tribes driven out of economically prosperous metropolises elsewhere. But that’s just one side of the story. The threat to Berlin’s potential – as ill-judged comparisons with post-1980s Manhattan suggest – is not that of displacement by high finance (gentrification of Kreuzberg by a flood of bankers is not an imminent threat) or puritanical control of public space (the city has a gay mayor, no curfew and a decentralized urban structure). It is a stubborn nomenclatura established when West Berlin was subsidized by West Germany, and East Berlin was the proud capital of East Germany. Today privileged provincialism forms an unholy alliance with parts of the political and economic élite to transform Berlin’s centre into a revisionist theme park of pre-20th-century Prussian grandeur while obstructing the growth of new ideas.

The disputed future of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) is one example, the State Museums’ handling of contemporary art another. The Palace, once the showpiece of socialism and now an empty shell after it had its asbestos removed, is destined – by parliamentary decree – to be replaced by a replica of the Hohenzollern Palace that used to stand on the site. (It was damaged during World War II and demolished by the GDR.) The actual plan is not to reconstruct the building but to build a streamlined version of its façade that will disguise the modern facilities inside. The funding for all this, estimated to cost around 800 billion Euros, is completely up in the air, as is the actual function of the building, ranging from housing a new cultural forum to what would essentially be a shopping mall. Nevertheless, the old Palace is scheduled to be torn down in 2006.

While no one seems to mind much that the Ministry of Finance is located in a prime example of Nazi architecture – Hermann Göring’s Ministry of Aviation – the main objective seems to be quickly to eradicate an admittedly ambivalent but authentic architectural remnant of recent history and to replace it with a mock-up of a supposed distant glory. The reason for the rush is apparently the concern that alternative models of use for the area might gain popular support. An exhibition about the history of the Palace, designed by Rem Koolhaas, the funding of which had been recommended by the cultural committee of Berlin’s Capital Culture Fund, was recently vetoed by its political board, headed by the Minister of Culture, Christina Weiss. (The show will now be put on at the Architectural Museum in Frankfurt-am-Main.) The same fate befell Norwegian artist Lars Ø. Ramberg: the cultural committee approved his bold proposal to place the word Zweifel (‘doubt’) in huge neon letters on the Palace’s roof, but the jury vetoed it. (A Norwegian company sponsored it instead.) Doubt is clearly not welcome.

Peter Klaus Schuster, on the other hand, is not a man who harbours any self-doubt. He’s not only Director-General of the State Museums of the Prussian Heritage (a conglomerate of 17 museums) but also Director of the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery, which, with its collection, which includes works from the Classic Modernist period to the 1960s, is part of the State Museums). It’s almost as if, say, the director of the Metropolitan Museum ran the Guggenheim on the side. Last summer’s blockbuster show of blue chip masterpieces, ‘MoMA in Berlin’, attracted 1.2 million visitors to the famous Mies van der Rohe building, but it wasn’t part of a coherent long-term exhibition programme – the current arrangement of pieces drawn from the 20th-century collections has no discernible organizing principle and feels like a hastily cobbled together affair. It’s no secret that Schuster’s energy, together with that of the President of Prussian Heritage, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, is actually much more concentrated on the task of planning and managing the 1.5 billion Euro reconstruction of the war-damaged ‘Museum Island’, the Prussian ensemble of five museums housing the archaeological collections and art of the 19th century. The task is an honourable, if dubiously pricey, one, but it begs the question of why its masterminds can’t let go of contemporary art and allow truly independent directors to run the Neue Nationalgalerie and Hamburger Bahnhof museum. Instead, the latter has become, more than ever, a mere showcase for private collectors.

There are three conditions under which it would have been acceptable to show Christian Friedrich Flick’s vast collection (which includes major works by Bruce Nauman, Martin Kippenberger and many others) at the Hamburger Bahnhof: if the heir of Hitler’s biggest arms manufacturer had paid into the Forced Labour Fund; if he had accepted that his name would not be central to the presentation; and if he had donated a substantial part of the collection to the museum, rather than just lending it for seven years. But Schuster, Lehmann and Weiss were ready to waive any such demands for the sake of exempting themselves, at least for another seven years, from the task of actually creating the conditions for Berlin’s museums to collect contemporary art properly. When I recently mentioned to an American museum director that Berlin’s museums are not collecting work being produced in the city to any significant extent, he grinned. Obviously others are happy to step into the breach.
The residency programmes offered by DAAD and Bethanien attract some great artists to Berlin, many of whom stay on afterwards and settle in the city. But in recent years the art schools have been anything but hotbeds of talent, and, apart from the occasional interesting show at Kunst-Werke or Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, many institutions feel paralysed by bureaucracy and provincialism. By comparison, the museums and art institutes of cities such as Frankfurt and Munich, never mind Vienna or Paris, feel effervescently creative and experimental. All in all, Berlin’s institutional and administrative landscape is a disaster. The city’s art scene, for the time being, is in a similar mess. Tellingly, a concerted weekend of openings organized by 20 leading Berlin galleries in May, designed to attract an international audience to visit the city, does not – in contrast to comparable efforts in other cities – include any reference to concurrent institutional shows. In the end, what it comes down to is that Berlin’s potential lies in the artists who live there. They do so because the city allows them to use its history as a reflective surface for their work, to have time to think and to leave fretful paranoia behind. It’s as simple as that.