One could easily confuse Jason Lutes’ sprawling epic Berlin for a Dickensian fable, one populated with a massive cast of characters both distinctive and nameless, crossing paths only when necessary and absent when not. Scratch the surface however, and you’ll discover a much darker tale, one that recalls another spinner of the human condition under pressure in times of great consequence, Dostoyevsky.
A mammoth project over twenty years in the making, Berlin chronicles life in the city between 1928 to 1933 following the conclusion of the “Great War” and 1918 revolution that led to the establishment of the Weimar Republic. Those familiar with Cabaret, either the play or film, will recognize the era as one of burgeoning social decadence and ideological unrest, bristling with paradoxes of progressive sexuality and democracy alongside totalitarian creep that would lead to the formation of the most brutal regime in modern history.
Ultimately, it’s the German metropolis itself that emerges as the central character in a story less about war than warring ideologies affecting its citizens. Throughout its nearly 600 page count, Berlin presents a drama that lay somewhere between Dickens and Dostoevsky, one reminding us that human existence is about more than just staying alive, but also finding something to live for in the best and worst of times.
Considering the weight of circumstance and history about to unfold Berlin begins almost inauspiciously: a train ride to the capital city. Here we’re introduced to the two characters that will serve as bookends throughout: Marthe Müller, a young artist from Köln, and Kurt Severing, a writer visiting on assignment. One assumes familiarity with Berlin’s growing political uncertainty, the other blissfully unaware of what’s to come. Together, they represent an accurate snapshot of the psychological makeup of Berlin’s citizens as they struggle to exist amidst the dueling ideologies of communism and Nazism.
Lutes greatest literary triumph is knowing when to veer from his protagonists to examine Berlin’s other inhabitants, constantly shifting narratives from character to character, some more consequential than others, rendering them as social barometers to gauge the ever-changing political climate of the times. Here we see families torn apart by politics, uncertainties repressed sexual and gender identity, black jazz musicians from America, or the encroachment of antisemitism upon an intergenerational Jewish bakery.
It’s rare when a work of historical complexity can be called intimate, but Lutes utilizes a neat comic trick that lets us eavesdrop on inner dialogues and private conversations we were never meant to hear. Any of their stories could have made compelling narratives on their own, but as Lutes jumps from one to the next a larger picture begins to emerge, one of avoidable intolerance by dehumanization of the ‘other’. Some threads are resolved more amicably than others, though nobody comes away unaffected by the events surrounding them. Others don’t come away at all. Even at their most banal, these serve as small reminders that life goes on, even in times of crisis.
Honestly, one could – and probably should – draft two distinct reviews of Berlin: one for its sprawling, epic storyline and the other for Jason Lutes’ sheer artistic accomplishment. Rendered entirely in clean black and white, he employs a familiar ligne claire style that remains remarkably consistent throughout its 22-year development. It might surprise some to learn Lutes isn’t European but American, though his style recalls the accuracy of Hergé (Tintin) with minimal shading and beautiful inky blacks.
Most impressive is his attention to detail establishing Berlin – the city – as a place where people actually lived in astonishing accuracy in both architectural and cosmopolitan reproductions. Reading Berlin gives one a sense of visiting a time and place long gone, perhaps justifiably so, through the eyes of a passionate instructor. In fact, one particular sequence does just that; a teacher of comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies, Lutes can’t resist giving us a lesson on Dürer’s geometric and horizon lines.
He even manages to sneak in a quick nod to his previous work, Houdini: The Handcuff King. If you’re a fan of the great magician, I’d suggest checking it out.
Depending on whichever political or ideological party is currently ascendant we usually see a corollary in the rise or return of certain works of literature to the public conscious, though usually limited to works by Ayn Rand or George Orwell. Why Aldous Huxley or Arthur Koestler never enjoy a similar bump, I’ll never know.
Such is the power of great expressions of political thought mixed with the fundamentals of storytelling, a blending that’s proved irresistible since time immemorial, though it’s not uncommon that one ingredient often cedes to the other. As often seen in cable television’s sensationalized headlines accompanying any national “crisis”, the schlocky “predictions” of Nostradamus can be easily retrofitted just practically any occasion. Others swear they see Elvis in potato chips.
How predictable that some reviewers, notably those just discovering Berlin, have elected to focus much of their observations about its prescience, about how “timely” and analogous to current events its story is. It’s certainly true there are unmistakable parallels: the demagogic swell towards nationalism, mass appeals to the bourgeois, labor reform and workers’ rights, social justice, gender parity and, without fail, the allure of #TheResistance.
Berlin certainly ticks many of these boxes, for sure, but never in any transparently manipulative fashion. As with this year’s excellent The Death of Stalin, in which the Soviet dictator’s demise was satirized for comic effect, Lutes is able to create sympathy for his fictionalized creations by leveraging real events as they could have become available, never imposing our current views on how characters should act as history unfolds around them.
It’s not unreasonable to conclude a post-war Germany, wrecked and humiliated by defeat and terms of the Treaty of Versailles, as well as the political and economic uncertainty following its conversion from monarchy to a democratic republic, would create the perfect breeding environment for the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, i.e. the Nazis.
As indisputable and ruinous Nazi rule was for Germans (and the world), equally disastrous was the power vacuum created following Hitler’s defeat that devastated the country caused – in no small part – to the dysfunction and political naivete between the warring Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) factions. They would soon form their own odious alliance, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), leading the way to the partition of Berlin itself with the establishment of East Germany and subsequent Soviet occupation, keeping its citizens in political and economic stagnation until German reunification in 1990.
Of the horrors of Nazi rule, or even the brutalities of communism, Lutes only offers the briefest glances into the future,, never the certainties the world would soon come to know. Should Berlin serve as a cautionary lesson, I would advise reading with both eyes – and minds – fully open and aware. Facts matter, much more than our interpretations of them.
There may be some confusion about what edition of Berlin you should pick up as this complete 600+ page omnibus was released alongside the long-awaited third – and final – entry to the saga with Berlin Book Three: City of Light. That’s a decade-long wait following middle-chapter City of Smoke (2008), meaning patient fans will finally be rewarded with a proper conclusion. For everyone else, however, opt for this version as it collects all three volumes in one impressively big package.
Lutes wisely delays the appearance of Adolf Hitler until absolutely necessary, but even by this point the wheels of change were already set in motion. Despite its setting, Berlin isn’t just about Nazis, or even communism, but of human beings on the verge of transformational revolution, both psychologically and historically. Unlike most attempts in recent memory, and certainly in the realm of graphic novels, here is a thoughtful, compassionate examination of those things that separate us, and those that bind. Berlin is remarkable storytelling, told beautifully in a remarkable medium.