Text and photographs by – Leandro Bonan

Translation by – Giulia Cucari

Since the recession has become ubiquitous in the political debate, mass communication, and even the daily choices we make in our life, Berlin has turned into an overindulged metonymy for an idea, more than one for a State. Nowadays, its meanings are “abidance of the deals”, “contractual stiffness,” and it represents the celebration of strictness and austerity – a word that can individually send chills down the spine- as cardinal virtues.

What we seem to forget is that Berlin is, above all, a lively and vibrant European capital city – whose story is so recent it has left wounds still not entirely healed among all the building sites it has. Berlin might not be as majestic as Paris (might), or many-sided as London, but it has a unique charm that merges the energy and enthusiasm of a twenty-year-old with the melancholy and wisdom of an octogenarian.

My goal here is to make you forget about Angela Merkel, Scheuble, spread and all your “homework”, so that next time you will hear about Berlin you will imagine the quiet flowing of Sprea, the tearing fight between the duty of remembering the past and the need for shaking it off, the evening dresses at the Philarmonie and the never ending nights in electro clubs such as Berghaim and Renate.

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Now, I have a question for you: how many of the readers who have visited London felt disturbed while watching the memorial for the Great Fire that destroyed more than half of the city? I guess most of them had never even visited it or had probably forgot about the column after a few minutes.

This is the fate of many memorials and historical places: you get to visit them just because your guide suggested it or because of their beauty and fame, you take a photo of them but they just do not make you remember, ponder, or excite – which is what they have been built for.

Well, this does not apply on Berlin.

It is almost impossible not being carried by the atmosphere of solemnity that pervades every corner of the city, except for the cigarette smoke of the pubs that covers every other smell. It is also unimaginable, at least for the writer, not to shiver in front of the 2000 outdoor coffins that witness the irremovable and omnipresent fault that lies in the German culture, the Holocaust. The labyrinth of cement blocks is placed strategically: it is a stone’s throw away from one of the symbols of the city, the Brandenburg Gate, separated by it to Potsdamer Platz – the biggest building site in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here in the nineties some of the greatest architects were called, from the Italian Renzo Piano to the Japanese Arata Isozaki, in order to create what had to be the evidence of the will of redemption of the reunified Germany. A declaration of intent for the future, that rises right in the place that suffered the most from the construction of the Wall. Since the Kaiser’s period Potsdamer Platz was the cultural heart of the city, with cafès where academics used to gather in order to discuss, but then got teared apart by the wall that split it in two put it away as a Trümmerland, a land of ruins, for 26 years. The memorial to the Jew victims of Nazism stands therefore between the two symbols of respectively the historical and new Berlin, in order to state the impossibility of rising again without becoming aware of and always remembering what happened.

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Furthermore, the events that brought to the building of the memorials and statues of Berlin are strong and quite recent: our parents have memories prior the fall of the wall, and our grandparents have lived WWII.

We cannot cry for those who died three centuries ago: they are unreal and intangible. But if those happenings occurred two years before or after our birth, that’s another story. We find ourselves thrown in that recent past – about which recordings and videos have been made – realizing that the place we had just carelessly crossed was once occupied by a wall – which used to separate two different worlds and not simply a city.

Berlin also experienced an incessant time travel in architecture, often combining elements that were roughly diachronic between them, but that turned out to be curiously harmonious.

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That’s how the current Parliament got its look, that Reichstag set on fire in 1933 – whose culprit is still unknown-, bombed by the allies during WWII and completely restored in 1999 by English architect Sir Norman Foster. They surely felt brave (or reckless? or both?) enough to let him substitute a Palladio-inspired-by loggia with an iron and glass dome, but the outcome is marvelous and even emblematic, since History has to be remembered and taught without fossilizing it. If you’re interested in fossils, however, the Natural History museum, or Naturkunde, hosts the skeleton of the tallest dinosaur in the world.

Restoring the building the same way it looked back in time would have implicitly diminished History, as if that fire –which marked the destiny of the world, consigning Germany to Hitler – and that bombings which saved the West from the Nazism but caused thousands of innocents victims, never occurred. The glass dome can’t be ignored in its blazing under the sunrays, telling us that if everything went back to normal nothing could ever be as before.

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This concept is made even clearer and more tragic by the Gedächtniskirche (Church of remembrance), placed in the south-west area of the city near the German version of Harrods (kitsch aside): the Kaufhaus des Westens, or Mall of the West, or just the KaDeWe. One of the allies’ plane bombed the church, and the newborn government of Western Germany decided to make it an evidence of the horrors committed by the war, leaving its roof and walls untouched – restorations occurred only as a matter of security -. Thus, we can see it in all its tragic mutilation, with its ravaged roof and an unhealed wound that exposes the central nave to bad weather, the walls riddled with their own splinters, which turned into bullets during the collision of bombs, and eventually the beheaded statues silently begging for mercy with open arms. Two blue, octagonal buildings – which we can define as mismatching and inconsistently perfect- stand next to the church, so that it would be impossible to depict it individually; those are, respectively, the new church that carries on the old one’s “job”, as History made it a regretful witness of Evil, and its bell tower. Again, nothing formally changed: faithful still go to the Mass in the same square at the same hour, but going back is impossible.

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Anyway, don’t think about Berlin as a moaning city, still curled up in its dramatic past. The matter of responsibilities and faults toward the historical events, or Schuldfrage, is prevailing more than ever – few weeks ago the ninety-two-year-old librarian of Auschwitz was convicted of aiding and abetting Nazism – but this does not make people live in austerity or grieve. The park in the northern area of the city that was formerly divided by the wall, the Mauerpark, is one of the most crowded outdoors, especially on Sunday: here Berliners gather to enjoy a gigantic thrift shop and then to take part to a crowded karaoke until evening and have a picnic (families and squatters included). When the sun goes down, after a tiring working day – which ends at precisely 4pm or 6pm – they usually sit by the bank of the river Sprea in order to drink beer (literally cheaper than water).

Despite its 3.5+ inhabitants and its relevance in the economic and political scene, the city has kept a rare carefreeness, the same that many places have lost in favor of the craving for business. Nowadays, Berlin miraculously lacks the hysterical blare of car horns and all those angry people who rigorously stand on the left when on the escalator. Who knows how long it will last? In the meanwhile, I suggest you to visit it as soon as possible: it is definitely worth the trip.

 

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