My rating: 3 of 5 stars
For readers and writers of contemporary fiction, history can play the role that myth once did. Just as Sophocles’s audience relished the dramatic irony created by their foreknowledge of Oedipus’s fate, we can read about the everyday lives of Berliners in the Weimar Republic with poignant dread over what we—but not they—know to be their grim destiny. And like the theatergoers of antiquity, we gather around the more-than-twice-told tales less to be merely entertained than to reaffirm our communal convictions, pledge again our piety to our gods. Or else why tell the familiar tale yet again?
So it is with Jason Lutes’s titanic graphic novel Berlin, over 20 years in the making, a book about the private lives of Berliners, some fictional and some historical, in the last days of Weimar. Again we watch a republic with an independent civil society collapse into warring factions of extremists, the worst of whom will seize the state and take total command of the citizens; again we see pluralism in all its manifestations—artistic, religious, and sexual—fall before the fists and guns of absolutism. The Jews and the queers are persecuted all over again, and again the liberal intellectual, with the exquisite pangs of his involuted conscience, is helpless to arrest the destruction of liberalism.
The particulars of Lutes’s story are perhaps less important than these archetypes that it mobilizes, but in any case Berlin charts four years in the lives of middle-aged journalist Kurt Severing and a young aspiring artist named Marthe Müller. While the two are lovers off and on, we follow their separate paths through the collapsing city. Kurt is a mostly unaffiliated leftist and pacifist skeptical about communism’s violent sectarianism and hopeful that words can change the world:
I imagine the daily output of the entire newspaper district. It makes me think of drowning, but I want to be able to see it another way. Instead: human history as a great river, finding its course along the lowest points in the landscape, and each page as a stone. Tossed in without purpose, just to see the splash, thousands of them might raise the water level until it escapes the confines of the riverbed. The water spreads out, the force of the river diminishes; before long, a marsh. But if each stone is placed carefully and with purpose, perhaps something can be built. Not to dam the current, but to divert its course. Berlin was built on a marsh. I hope it will add up to more than a pile of stones.
The travails of his journalistic colleagues index the decline of civil freedom in Germany; he himself increasingly withdraws from reality, since the time for words has come and gone and the political situation will be decided by force alone. What roll does a pacifist writer have to play in such a scenario?
Marthe meanwhile enters and then leaves art school and has an intermittent affair not only with Kurt but with her queer colleague Anna. Anna introduces her to Berlin’s sexual demimonde, as made famous by Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, and through her eyes we behold the fascist crackdown on the Weimar Republic’s notable sexual libertarianism.
Meanwhile, we are treated to debates about the artistic avant-gardes of the period, from Expressionism to New Objectivity, even as the narrative overall, and the precise drawing through which we receive it, sides with Marthe’s preference for realism over conceptualism and observation over theory. (I tend to think that behind this motif we can perceive the longstanding feud between comics creators and the art world, between the penurious devotees of painstaking panel-craft and the Lichensteins who would appropriate their work for the museum wall and in the process reap all the spiritual and tangible rewards of the vaunted “artist.”)
Subplots abound: Lutes claims influence not only from the expected Döblin and Isherwood, but also from Wim Wenders’s choral film, Wings of Desire, which flits in and out of the inner lives of Berliners with empathetic abandon as it discloses the sorrows and glories of the city after its postwar division. Berlin shows us a well-to-do Jewish family torn between the understandably conservative impulses of the father and equally understandable rebelliousness of the son; and it shows us a poor family riven by ideology, as mother and father, brother and sister, square off against one another as Nazis and communists. A band of touring African-American musicians adds the jazz to this Jazz-Age tale, though we might wonder whether their status as comic relief and their slightly unrealistic heist capers don’t reinforce a stereotype rather than adding depth.
But Wim Wenders had his magical-realist angels overseeing the city and his Homeric bard wandering the Potsdamer Platz, while Lutes’s book eschews magic and is labelled “HISTORY” on the back cover.
Lutes has also cited Tintin creator Hergé as an influence: unsurprisingly, then, he communicates his complex narrative in a shadow-modified clear-line drawing style, even a cursory glance at which suggests precision and neatness, order and refinement. His storytelling is also clean, with panels in irregular but immediately legible grids and an alternation between establishing shots of Berlin sites and closer portrayals of his characters’ dramas. There are no explosive or delirious layouts or disorienting compositions—they would be too reminiscent of superhero or manga sensationalism, too little to the purpose of convincingly capturing history.
Lutes makes a few daring visual plays. He fades out the images as his viewpoint character dies in one scene, for instance, and truncates the image as another viewpoint character is suddenly killed in another. He also has a tendency to resort to Hitchcockian angles in moments of crisis. There are a handful of other fascinating visual conceits, but they aren’t followed up or deployed consistently. (My favorite occurs when Lutes replaces the typewriter-clacking sound effect with words themselves, hovering in typeface over a street whose residents are mostly writers.) Otherwise, Berlin has a deliberately meticulous and minimalist style that does not call attention to itself at the expense of the subject matter.
And with that observation, we come to a possible problem: such an abandonment of style is very un-Weimar. I was startled (not in a good way) to see Lutes recreate some images by George Grosz; it reminded me that there are no images so arresting in Lutes’s own style. Never mind Grosz: where is Wenders’s visual lyricism or Döblin’s spates of vernacular language? Where is the passion of the Expressionist and proto-graphic-novelist Frans Masereel, alluded to early in Berlin and then never revisited?
Lutes is closer to Isherwood’s “I am a camera” style, but then the Tintin-esque cartoonishness of his character-drawing is not exactly documentary either. There is a mismatch here between style and substance, between form and content, and it makes me question the critical claims that Berlin is “a watershed achievement” (to quote the back cover blurb).
This misfit of art and idea afflicts the story as well. Just as Lutes’s drawing style can’t accommodate Weimar’s modernist extremes, his narrative can’t make up its mind about political extremism. Communism is depicted with a mix of wariness and patronizing fondness, and while Levering’s anguished liberalism is challenged, it is still the dominant note of the novel. I am hardly saying that Lutes should embrace communism—I grant his ideological premise of a lament over extremism as such, even if it portrays the far right as much worse than the far left. But like his protagonist, Lutes never commits even to this and seems to have it both ways, giving us communists as heroes and villains, cynical manipulators and admirable freedom fighters, in different moments of the narrative, which creates a sense of authorial aloofness, even condescension, as if the liberal were pleased to retain the further left only as a kind of semi-dangerous guard dog.
The sexual politics of Berlin are much the same. Marthe at first embraces and then rejects queerness, and it is hard to know whether or not we should assent to her abandonment of her queer lover, Anna. Anna, for that matter, is portrayed earlier in the novel as a butch lesbian and later as a transgender man; like Alison Bechdel’s remark that had she grown up 30 years later she might have understood herself as trans rather than gay, this suggests our own cultural shift in sexual thinking from the late 20th to the early 21st centuries. And I wonder if that is not a more complicated story, one with less ready answers, than yet another liberal iteration of World War II mythology. Lutes for his part might well want to tell it; he states in a recent interview:
When you’re somebody who writes, or in the case of comics, writes and draws, the experiences of people, if I just wrote about my own experience it would just be another straight white guy’s experience and that, frankly, is the last thing I want to read anymore. I’m much more interested in the experiences of people other than my kind of person. […] But I’m not going to just write stories from my perspective because that’s a boring perspective.
This is supposed to be a broad-minded, enlightened attitude coming from a straight white man. But it is not. It’s the attitude of an aesthetic and intellectual tourist, enervated by postmodern living and in quest of other people’s greater presumed vitality. It is a hardly updated ideology of the noble savage, and there’s nothing persuasive or admirable about it.
Above all, though, Lutes’s attitude is a flawed one not from an ethical or political perspective but from an aesthetic one. There is no short cut to telling an interesting story. Queer artists, female artists, artists of color do not simply tell interesting stories by virtue of their identity, and it’s an insult to the great storytellers among them to suggest that they do. People who tell interesting stories, whatever their identities, do so because they are masters of their art and because they are impassioned—not bored—artists.
You’re not boring because you’re straight, white, and male; you’re boring because you’re boring. And your book is often boring because you apply a staid style to subject matter that you presume is inherently interesting without always remembering to prove or earn its interest on the page.
So I find myself again in the uncomfortable position of dissenting from the press’s and academia’s consensus about what constitutes great comics. I see in Berlin—aside from its undeniable craft, polish, and good intentions—the creeping middlebrowization of an art form that gave us, for the better part of a century, and often on the same page, only garbage and grace.