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29 July 2007

To the Moon and back

Thinking of Berlin’s image abroad I always find it puzzling to see what an impact a film like Cabaret keeps having on the collective representation of the city so long after its release in 1972. For in the mind of many Berlin is first and foremost the Weimar period with the cool decadence and flawed glamour that were supposedly its hallmarks. I can’t exactly remember when I first saw the film which in any case didn't make much of an impression on me. Not only were my early fantasies of the city more informed by painting, dodecaphonic music (that’s actually Vienna, but it didn’t matter so much then) and, shall we say, a more demanding sort of cinema (with Wings of Desire as template), but more importantly Cabaret seemed strangely devoid of any interesting urban scenery (save for a few snippets of Charlottenburg most of the action takes place indoors, which didn’t have much to do with the fantastic city I had in mind). Indeed the film was a bit of a let-down if apocalyptic views à la Meidner was what one was actually looking for. Its re-release a few years ago confirmed this initial impression. It was actually worse than what I remembered, an inconsequential piece of fluff only notable for Liza Minelli's infernal histrionics coupled with Michael York's numbing smoothness, the offspring of the sort of soft-focused retro-chic so favoured in the early seventies. If anything only the last few seconds managed to strike a chord, as men in SA uniforms and swastika armbands can be seen through distorted glass and an eerie silence descends on the cabaret. It’s a visually very powerful conclusion which conveys a sense of impending doom and horrific catastrophe. Also the rousing Ebb and Kander's Tomorrow belongs to me anthem struck up in the beer garden has something very primeval in its emotional promise of new mornings and total transformation. The reason why Cabaret grates so much - just like Amélie which would years later achieve very much the same thing for Paris through its glorification of a kitsch, postcard aesthetics - is that it offers a tame, cuddly image of a time that bears little resemblance to the morass of despair, violence and social meltdown that were the Weimar years - and actually not much in the way of decadence either beside a few piss-ups and an aborted threesome. One thinks here of Visconti's The Damned as the perfect counterpoint, a masterpiece of restraint oozing perversity, fear and loathing with the classiest line-up ever dreamt up (Berger, Rampling and Bogarde together). It might be unfair and beside the point - after all Cabaret never claimed to be anything more than light entertainment - but I somehow feel that a city with the past and destiny of Berlin deserves much better than being equated with that kind of easy sentimentalism and contrived iconography. It did however herald a passionate love affair between British pop and all things Germanic (an idea brilliantly explored by Michael Bracewell in his essay England is mine [1]). Even someone so culturally aware and groundbreaking as David Bowie cites Cabaret as one of the major contributory influences in his move to Berlin in 1976. Swanning around Eastern Europe in a long leather coat and fedora, the Thin White Duke was undoubtedly doing his Isherwood before formulating in idiosyncratic terms his own vision of contemporary Germany. Thence many a rock band looking for creative renewal would inevitably have their ’Berlin period’, and even for those who didn’t go the city was omnipresent in the collective imagination as the ultimate elsewhere, a ready-made set where alienation, sexual dissidence and other obscure leanings could theatrically be acted out light years away from every suburban hell.

Hauptstrasse 155, Schöneberg

Greifswalder Strasse

And some were better at this game than others. It's Bowie who of course wins the day when it comes to Berlinesque kudos. For not only did he almost single-handedly revolutionize pop with his two Hansa-by-the-Wall opuses (Low [2] was actually only finished there whilst it's difficult to consider Lodger, the wobbly part of this unlikely Trilogy, in its conventionality and 'un-Germanness' as partaking of the same creative process as it somehow lacks the sense of urgency and personal transfiguration that imbues the other two), he also redefined the city’s very own mythology in one fell swoop, a stranger in a strange land driven by his power of vision and depth of feeling for the place. No wonder then if Bowie and Berlin became two inextricably linked realities amongst the younger generation of Punks and New Romantics to whom the old capital became a byword for whatever longings for self-realisation and freedom were stifled at home. Even in the US someone like Jobriath, a Bowie obsessive who’d failed to launch himself as the American Ziggy, reinvented himself towards the end of the decade as some Weimar lounge lizard named Cole Berlin (he was to die of aids a few years later in total destitution). Another one to appropriate the name equally imaginatively was Bertie Marshall, a member of the infamous Bromley Contingent whose antics terrorized for a while the outer reaches of South London at the outset of Punk. Despite being known as 'Berlin' - neither more nor less - he only set foot in the city in 2001 - and what a clash it turned out to be. In his self-styled memoirs entitled Berlin Bromley [3] we follow his ill-fated discovery of the city that, as we are told, shaped his identity as a young man, but instead of witnessing an epiphany we quickly find ourselves at the receiving end of an avalanche of whingeing and recriminations. Throughout his long, relentless tirade it's obvious that Bertie cannot find what he’s looking for and that the city constantly falls short of his expectations - although, judging by his obtuse refusal to engage with anything or anyone, it's never clear what he came for in the first place, in the middle of winter, with hardly any money and a compulsive overreliance on sleeping pills whenever things start to go pear-shaped. In a way it wouldn’t be quite as bad if the writing weren’t so superficial, puerile and awash with clichés. For resentment and self-satisfaction (all those little private jokes!) is what we get in the undignified descriptions of his encounters, all seething with bitterness, contempt and self-pity. In his hackneyed sense of what Berlin ought to be, Bertie would actually expect nothing less than people to sit on the S-Bahn sporting feather boas and singing Kurt Weill, or Zoo Bahnhof to be the same den of iniquity as it appeared in Christiane F. (no decadence or glamour but only sleaze, says he), whilst the rent boys freezing outside miserably fail to impress him. Even Nico's grave in Grunewald is a pain to find and ultimately doesn't arouse in him any particular emotion. Another predictable trait of Marshall's - and perhaps something Cabaret in its cartoon vision didn't do little to encourage - is the pervasive, blushing schoolgirl fetishization of Nazism as his erotic fixation on the young ’Aryans’ he catches sight of on the street and repeated references to Hitler keep reminding us. Having eventually in yet another hissy fit decreed that Berlin was ’cold, grim, unglamorous and stingingly provincial’, with its eastern half akin to a huge South London council estate (so much scope, so much vision), he flies back to England as quickly as he came, pledging never to return.

Poor Bertie’s aborted plastic dream of cabarets and divine decadence came up against the realities of a living, breathing city that had since 1931 undergone more than one transformation, to say the least - a fact he astonishingly fails to grasp. Worse still, his distinct lack of insight and self-knowledge (the blame is invariably put on Berlin's perceived failings) is compounded by the paucity of a personal culture that amounts to nothing more than a couple of rehashed cinematographic references. The spell of the eternal Cabaret again and again... Bowie understood perfectly well what was at stake as he immersed himself in the unknown, sprawling city, nothing less than a journey within oneself and the real possibility of enlightenment at the end of it: "Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing. It's a city eight times bigger than Paris, remember, and so easy to 'get lost' in and to 'find oneself', too." [4]


[1] 'Lipstick & Robots', in Michael Bracewell, England is mine. Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie (London: Flamingo, 1997), 187-210.

[2] A very sharp analysis of the genesis and legacy of Low replaced in its cultural context in: Hugo Wilcken, Low (New York, London: Continuum, 2005). Also the extremely well researched Bowie Golden Years site focuses exclusively on the second half of the seventies and is a goldmine of information on the Berlin years. It includes numerous press articles from the period, of which Rolling Stone's 'Bad Boys in Berlin' (Oct. 1979) is particularly evocative.

[3] Bertie Marshall, Berlin Bromley (London: SAF Publishing, 2006), 176-203.

[4] Uncut Interviews. David Bowie on Berlin. The real 'Uncut' Version (15.09.2006).


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