Berlin: portrait of a city

Berlin: portrait of a city

Our latest piece of road trip reading had us in thrall to the German capital – and its biographer.


Rory MacLean’s literary portrait of Berlin is spellbinding. A master craftsman, MacLean tells the tale of a city engulfed in conflict throughout the ages: from Konrad von Cölln’s unfortunate 15th-century fate to snippets of the lives of the great players in the wars of the 20th century, and to his own experience of present-day Berlin.

Berlin: Imagine A City reads as a beguiling ode to a volatile city, written by a man who fell under its dark and secretive spell more than four decades ago. Held in its thrall, MacLean has returned repeatedly to Germany’s capital: as a nineteen year-old backpacker in a city divided by a wall which stood for twenty-eight years and again, years later, when he made movies with the likes of David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich, before renting a charming apartment in 2013 in order to write his brilliant book.

This ambitious portrait-on-a-page is not one which trumpets this city of art as more than it is, or as anything that it is not. On the contrary, MacLean is almost painfully honest, reflective, humorous and hopeful, revealing the best and the worst of humanity. He traces Berlin’s complex history through that of its too-often ill-fated people, enlivening his meticulous research with a storyteller’s imagination.

Each chronological chapter is a new tale to be read alone, should one wish (as I did) to hold the end of the book at bay for as long as possible, or as a single novel in many parts, charting the development of this unique city.

We are introduced to artists, musicians, soldiers and scientists — all of whom have lived in Berlin, contributing to the growth of the city through their poignant sketches, their propagandist films or their terrible discoveries.

The writer, too, appears in the story. He converses with strangers in the bars of then-gritty Prenzlauer Berg; he witnesses Dietrich’s moving final performance; and he is humbled by his meeting with Ilse Philips, as she returns to her family’s home for the first time in over half a century.

It is this interweaving of his own story, as well as the interlacing of links and layers which transcend time and space, which make for enchanting, highly intelligent reading. Herein lies the magic: MacLean’s characters may never have met, but they walk the same streets, they breathe the same air and they fight passionately for their causes, as the reader is artfully reminded.

Moreover, MacLean affords heroes and villains equal airtime — knowing that no human is ever really, simply, either one — peeling back layers to reveal greed, desire, desperation and courage.

The Jewish Walther Rathenau, for instance, chairman of AEG, championed a united Germany, in which diversity was seen as strength. Made a scapegoat through targeted anti-semitism after Germany’s defeat in the First World War, he was assassinated in 1922. In a tragic twist of fate, AEG later obtained the contract to supply the electrical equipment to Auschwitz.

Dieter Werner, born as Allied bombs fell on Berlin, grew up a staunch Communist, even as his soldier father suffered in Stalin’s gulags. He helped to build the wall which would split Berlin in two with his own hands, bidding a final farewell to his mother as he permitted her to cross it under cover of darkness. His regrets, recounted to MacLean decades later, make for difficult reading.

Kennedy’s monumental speech of 1963 flipped the fate of Berlin, and MacLean’s play-script chapter gives the reader, sitting in a bright Berlin café, goosebumps. Here is the turning point. Berlin is no longer the aggressor, but the victim. Its identity, on both a human and an international level, is suddenly fundamentally changed. The world feels a solidarity with Berlin – the same unity that David Bowie describes feeling as he sang his Berlin Wall-inspired ‘Heroes’ to a crowd gathered on both sides of that same wall in 1977.

Berlin’s creative, innovative spirit rose and is still rising, MacLean seems to be saying. Here, tragedy has been replaced by hope. This is a collection of tales crafted by a master, a writer who has succeeded in imbuing the city which captured his heart with a new spirit – one crafted of carefully-chosen, well-wrought words. There are passages to make the reader laugh, to cry, to pause for thought and to see this great city anew.

MacLean’s writing is hopeful, lyrical and simply sensational. His portraits fuse to create a mosaic of Berlin: a mosaic of life. After all, isn’t that what a city really is?

Rory MacLean’s  Berlin: Imagine a City was originally published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London (2014).

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