10th Feb 2012
I wake up in a small hostel room, having left Tali's flat in East Berlin. I am nearer the centre now, near Hauptbahnhof. Happily the hostel changed my booking from a 6-bed dorm to a 2-bed room, and my room-mate, the morning light reveals, is none other than Tamara Scherbak, an experimental film-maker from Canada who I already know from the talent campus at Reykjavik. More importantly, as anyone who has shared a room in a hostel will attest to, she does not snore violently.
I have one more day of freedom before the Talent Campus starts and have been warned that, once it starts, there is barely any time to watch films let alone explore. So I bolt out of the hostel early to make the most of things. It is slightly warmer: all omens are good.
Like any other tourist a few days into a new place, I'm more relaxed and starting to read the city now; a voyeur without the complications of real relationships or responsibilities to what I see, a light footed 'flaneur' – so I take a detour. Everything feels fascinating. The giant geometry of escalators at Hauptbahnhof, the couple opposite me on the S-Bahn, the Brandenburg gate motif on the windows that gives peeping through chintz curtain feel to the city; damnit, even surfacing to the ugly mess of brutal, look-at-me 'St'architecture' at Potsdamer Platz feels enchanting. Berlin has been at the centre of 20th century history, Nazism, communism and the Cold War, the European Union… and I can't help but see the debris of that history everywhere. Berlin also feels like I was told New York would feel, but didn't. Yes, placards, murals and signs about its history are everywhere, but Berlin, I realise, as the days go by, is the most alive place I have ever been. Something I once read about 'art' being a perfect balance of creative and destructive forces sums this city up well. Shaped by dissent, blind obedience, ambition, remorse, and by a wary yet thrilled sense of its own power, Berlin is a perfect mirror of human nature.
I register for the Talent Campus at the 'Arkade', pass queues for tickets that have grown to an enormous and expectant size, and then get lost near the place of the old Berlin wall that divided West from East Berlin. By pure chance I arrive at Checkpoint Charlie, where tourists grin next to actors dressed as soldiers at the old border crossing between Soviet-controlled and American-controlled sectors and then, again by sheer chance, find myself at the 'Topography of Terrors'. To the right of this glass building are the roofless ruins of Gestapo interrogation cells, and to the right of them a huge Speer-designed neo-classical looking building which turns out to be a building where the Nazi dictatorship plotted domination and genocide – now the German Finance Ministry, a place trying to both save the euro and the investments of German banks in countries that would never be able to pay them back.
So, my day ends with a tour of my grandparents' history. Their stories of the blitz, the terror of bombs falling beyond blacked-out windows, my grandmother's and child-father's eventual evacuation from London, their separation from my grandfather who stayed in the capital pulling bodies from piles of smouldering bricks – I hear all this in dialogue with this exhibition of what was actually happening in Germany. After five fascinating hours, learning about how Hitler both eradicated democracy from Germany and played genius pied-piper to his followers, I reach the end and realise that I have been looking at nothing but pictures of slaughter; industrialised, random, ideological, opportunistic – but slaughter, nonetheless – dead bodies mapped in black and white, hanged, gassed, shot, starved, piled, burnt, hidden, exhibited.
But the 'Topography of Terrors' exhibition is not depressing – strangely – if only because this country has had the honesty to put its conscience on display for the world to benefit from, or perhaps because psychotic and charismatic leaders are not the sole baggage of one country, or maybe because the exhibition ends with a search for justice. So I will leave you with faces of individuals directly involved in genocide who, once the 'game was up', exhibited an oh so human spectrum of emotions that had once found such inhuman expression in Nazi ideology.
Suddenly its all there, in flesh and fear: shame, blame, disbelief, confusion – sometimes reduced to a sniggering child caught doing something naughty (see three female camp guards), sometimes running plain scared, sometimes, more unbelievably, taking the shape of a model citizen, walking out from his cosy country cottage, like nothing happened.
On my way back I take a closer look at one of the ubiquitous posters of Beckham in his pants that adorn the city.
This time I see something new - perhaps something of the Aryan warrior is there? See, like a said, in Berlin the debris of history is everywhere.
Tomorrow: first day of the Talent Campus.
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