British historian and writer Stephen Barber is obsessed with Berlin. His latest book, "Walls of Berlin" documents the city's transitory nature - but isn't really about the Wall.
Barber looks closely at Berlin's surfaces
Stephen Barber first hitchhiked from England to Berlin in 1979 at age 17 and has been returning ever since. He documents the city throughout manifold writings - 21 books at last count - that excavate the submerged cultures of world metropolises. Described as a cultural topographer, underground historian and "the most dangerous man in Britain" by The Independent (in a review of his provocative work from 2001, "Extreme Europe") Barber has again been traipsing Berlin to research his latest book, "Walls of Berlin."
Released this year for the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall, the book title is a conceit since the Wall is (purposely) not mentioned until the final chapter. Instead, "Walls of Berlin" shows how artists and filmmakers have been drawn to Berlin's less-explored yet evocative urban surfaces.
Deutsche Welle: You first came to Berlin more than three decades ago. Why do you keep coming back?
Stephen Barber: I had this extraordinary journey to Berlin the first time I came, when I hitchhiked from the north of England and found this enclave city that was really quite aberrant and wild and unrestricted. All through the 80s I came back to Berlin very compulsively for quite long periods of time.
I decided to return to Berlin for a few years in 1990, not so much because of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but because I was really obsessed with exploring areas I'd never had the chance to see before, sometimes riding to the end of tram lines in East Berlin and just searching out obscure areas. I'm very interested in signage, hoardings, that kind of thing, and in East Berlin they went very quickly, so if you hadn't seen it in the first 18 months, it had gone. In retrospect, these were years of extraordinary transformation and transmutation.
It's almost all of Berlin that really captivates or compels me. Even the crappiest bits of the furthest suburb I find endlessly fascinating. In other cities, it's often just very small areas that interest me - a few years ago I did a book in Los Angeles, for example, about an avenue of disused cinemas in the downtown area. But in Berlin it's the whole experience of the city that's engulfing.
Your explorations of Berlin in the early 1990s were collated in your book "Fragments of the European City" (1994). How did you conceive " Walls of Berlin" as a kind of follow-up nearly 20 years on?
I got very interested in this idea of doing a book that had these ricochets between looking at urban surfaces, or walls of the city, and film and visual art. People know about Walter Ruttmann's film "Berlin: Symphony of the Great City" from the end of the 1920s, but the city-film culture of Berlin is not that well known - that is, how it's such an urban-based film culture. The reason Berlin had been so compelling to filmmakers was not so much the surfaces of the city, but that often these surfaces were enveloping them, urging them to make images of the city.
It has an added urgency if you felt the city is going to vanish.
History mixes with the present
You discuss how films captured the now vanished street music culture of Berlin courtyards, so-called Hinterhöfe - like Werner Herzog's film "Stroszek" (1977), which featured musician and actor Bruno S. performing in Kreuzberg backyards.
I think that Bruno S. really regretted the end of the Berlin Wall because previously you could go into the Hinterhöfe without any problem and perform. It was once a public space; but now there is this sense of property ownership of the Hinterhöfe.
At the end of the 20s and beginning of the 30s, there was a Europe-wide fascination with filming the city, and filmmakers often filmed musicians in Hinterhöfe because they activated those areas that would otherwise look neglected or forgotten. For example, in "Kuhle Wampe," the 1931 film collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Slatan Dudow, there's a sequence with street musicians performing in a courtyard into which a character - a young man who is desperate because he can't find work - commits suicide by jumping into the Hinterhof.
Which other so-called urban vanishings interested you?
I was very interested in this entire slaughterhouse city, which was by the Storkowerstrasse tram station. It was the biggest slaughterhouse in Europe in the 1880s, and is written about in [Alfred] Döblin's "Berlin Alexanderplatz," and now it's almost gone; there are only a few buildings here and there.
You write that images of Berlin have often been presented as hallucinations since the city has changed so rapidly and chaotically. You extend this to the work of two magicians and projectionists, The Skladanowsky Brothers, who created the first moving images of Berlin.
The whole origin of cinema in Berlin with these brothers is hallucinatory from the beginning. They are doing something that they think is impossible and they don't know how to do it, but they almost hallucinate their way into creating cinema, and not only making the first film images of Berlin but battering together a film projector.
The Skladanowsky brothers created the first moving images of Berlin with this
Whereas people at that time who had enormous resources couldn't build a celluloid film projector, this pair of idiots from Prenzlauer Berg managed to do it in their workshop. The Skladanowskys did their first film screening in November 1895 in Berlin about six weeks before the Lumière Brothers did theirs; but whereas the Lumière brothers went on and became huge celebrities, the Skladanowskys just vanished from history.
Do you feel sentimental about a Berlin undergoing such rapid transformation? Are you still inspired to keep returning to Berlin?
For me it's a kind of life-long thing - maybe I'll do another book in 20 years time about Berlin. I remember the early 1990s nightclub culture as one that was really very vivid and fascinating, and it's gone without a trace. But I don't really feel nostalgic about it because there's always something that grabs your attention in Berlin.
I'm never convinced when I hear that Berlin's becoming homogenized, because it's also the city in which things could pivot very badly. When you see such extravagant sums of money put into areas like Prenzlauer Berg for a renovation project based on tenements built very quickly and in a very shoddy way, it almost reminds you of the extravagances of the 1920s; it's an extravagance that could be annulled almost instantly.
Interview: Stuart Braun
Editor: Kate Bowen