30 April 2007

Yes she did

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:25 pm

folbigg.jpgI was going to post this a couple of years ago when it first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. But you want to be a bit careful about finding the fun in a woman convicted of killing her four children, don’t you? And then I lost the piece of paper I’d torn out. But I found it again today! And probably enough time has passed to wonder whether or not the caption-writer here did this on purpose.

4 April 2007

The city under the sky over Berlin

by Matt Rubinstein at 4:42 am

Memorial.jpgI’ve had a thing for the city of Berlin ever since I saw Wim Wenders’s 1987 Der Himmel über Berlin, somewhat cheesily rebadged as Wings of Desire for the English-speaking world and later unforgivably remade as City of Angels, with Meg Ryan as the heart surgeon who “didn’t believe in angels until she fell in love with one”.

The original features a couple of weatherbeaten old angels who mooch around Berlin in trenchcoats, reading the thoughts of various locals—and Peter Falk, for some reason—and wondering what it’s like to be human. It’s one of the most poetic movies I’ve seen, thanks to Wenders’s lilting direction and Peter Handke’s contribution to the script: particularly his Lied Vom Kindsein or Song of Childhood, which winds its way through the film.

The poem sounds amazing read by Bruno Ganz in German, with the near-antimetabolic (or perhaps chiastic, but certainly within the context of the poem anaphoric) “Als das Kind Kind war”. It also translates pretty well into English:

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?

When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again.
Many people, then, seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by sheer luck.

When the child was a child,
Berries filled its hand as only berries do,
and do even now,
Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,
and do even now,
It had, on every mountaintop,
the longing for a higher mountain yet,
and in every city,
the longing for an even greater city,
and that is still so.

Handke got in trouble last year for kind of sticking up for Slobodan Milošević, with the result that when he was awarded the city of Düsseldorf’s €50,000 Heinrich Heise prize, the city councillors kicked up such a stink that he declined it. Without getting too much into why we’re so desperate that good writers also be good people, I did find Handke’s apparent position on Milošević a bit disturbing after the gentle inquisition of his poetry—maybe not as much as TS Eliot’s anti-semitism, but more than Günter Grass’s stint in the Waffen-SS. It’s still a good poem, though.

So I first visited Berlin in 1991, and things were pretty much like they were in the movie. The wall had been down for two years, but it hadn’t all been sold to tourists yet and there were quite a few sections still standing. There was a big difference between Ost and West, and between them the great squares of Potsdamer Platz and Leipziger Platz, cut in half by the wall and its associated battlements, were still the wastelands of rubble and busted sofas where the angels had wandered around eavesdropping on lonely old bums and their memories.

When I went back in 1997 they were laying foundations and sticking up scaffolding for inconceivable construction projects, and last week I finally got back there and couldn’t believe it—the Platz is now an immense, shining citadel where Sony, DaimerChrysler and a bunch of others have shimmering towers linked by malls and multiplexes. It’s a truly remarkable transformation, even if it now looks much more like the kind of place you’d find Meg Ryan staring sappily into the middle-distance.

The best thing is just up the road, where New York architect Peter Eisenman has built a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, pictured above. It’s made up of 2711 concrete stelae arranged in a rough grid over an undulating field. From the outside it’s pretty interesting: each of the slabs is a different height, they all tilt slightly off true, and the light and shadow make endless patterns. As you walk towards the centre, the stones rise over you—the tallest one is 4.7 metres high—and it quickly feels like you’re lost in a grim kind of industrial forest. Then there’s a Doppler-affected giggle and a little kid tears past along the axis perpendicular to yours, and then the kid who’s chasing her, and then they’re gone again. It’s all very sombre and playful and thought-provoking; I liked it a lot. Eisenman once thought it would be a good idea to let people graffiti up the place, but instead the stelae were slapped with a non-stick coating—which also turned out to be controversial, since the first batch was made by the crew who supplied concentration camps with Zyklon B and had to be replaced.

Also very impressive is Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Jewish Museum, a lightning bolt full of slopes and voids, long walks and hard climbs. One of the most affecting parts of the building is a corridor that narrows in all directions until you feel like those guys in that illusion and leads into a deep angular well that opens to the sky, and the silence, and the cold. There’s also another, earlier field of stelae in a sloping garden. Some pretty moving stuff in the exhibition, too.

I tried really hard to get Berlin right in my book Nomad, which borrowed a bit from the Wim Wenders movie—there’s the same bronze statue on top of the Siegessäule, though the neo-Nazi Depeche Mode fans are all mine—but I didn’t come close, of course. What the hell did I know? I’d like to try again some time; it is an incredible place.