September 2004

Berlin the Beautiful

Just in Berlin to do some research for this documentary project about that city since 1989.


Although I’d been there briefly last year, I was slapped in the face by the changes. Which was, by turns, shocking and rather stingingly pleasant. It’s not just the physical morphing of the place – my getting lost in a city where I lived for 6 years because new buildings had sprung up at junctions where there had previously been Biergartens – but also the shimmer of the place, the taste in the air.

It’s been 15 years almost since that fateful November night when a tired and confused Communist spokesman, Günther Schabowski, gave a tired and confused statement at a late night press briefing and seemed to intimate that the travel restrictions between East and West Berlin had been lifted. At which utterance, an alert and agitated populace poured down to one of the border crossing points- Bornholmer Strasse – to see whether this infact meant that the Berlin Wall was passable. In the face of so many bullish Berliners, the tired and confused boarder guards let them through. And thus the Cold War ended. And, in the World’s eyes, Berlin changed overnight from the grey, shameful bruise WWII left behind into a place of partying, where jolly, smiling East and West Berliners danced together on the top of the crumbling Wall and the future seemed impossibly hopeful.

15 years is a significant period. One could almost say that the post- Wende period is now done. (Wende is the mild German term meaning the “turning point” used to describe those momentous months in 1989/90.) 15 years after an event it starts to seem regressive and unhelpful to still define yourself by it. So the long slog of “die Nachwendezeit”in Berlin might be done. What happens now will have to have another definition. Perhaps post-Euro, or perhaps post-Accession of the Eastern States.

There’s no doubt that the effects of Unification (which took place at relatively breakneck speed, in June of 1990) are still being felt. Whether it was the cyclical run of macroeconomic recession that knocked the German economy for six in the late 1990s and early Noughties. Or whether it was the painful transfer of €1250 billion worth of subsidies from the West to the ailing East German economy it’s hard to say. Whatever the causes, the present economic situation is very brüchig. The goverment of Berlin is completely bankrupt with a debt of €53 billion around its neck. A drastic set of cuts to Germany’s generous unemployment benefits – a measure known as Hartz 4 – has left the whole population both jittery and angry. The night before I left I was walking back from Friedrichstrasse across the main monumental thoroughfare in Berlin, Unter Den Linden and got caught up in what’s known as the New Monday Demonstrations.


The Monntags Demonstrationen began 15 years ago, on October 2nd 1989, as the citizens of Leipzig bravely took the streets after a Monday evening Church service at the Nikolaikirche. This was brave indeed, given that earlier that year demonstrations in Berlin had been brutally supressed by the East German secret police (the Stasi) and protest in any East German city would almost certainly lead to mass arrests and dispersal. On this occasion the Police didn’t open fire and the protests gathered pace. By the 6th November, 500,000 Leipzigers (nearly the entire population of the city) were marching demanding fair elections and the freedom to trave. In the context of 40 years of ubiquitous police repression and political threat these Leipzigers, later Dresdeners and Berliners were extremely brave. And without them the Wall would still be in place.

That German citizens are now taking the name of the Monday demonstrations almost seems a travesty of the historical protests. In 1989 it was about freedom from an oppressive and unelected regime. In 2004 it’s about money . Under the austerity measures of Hartz 4, the long term unemployed will no longer get 65% of their last salary indefinitely. After a year they will fall back to a monthly lump sum of income support (around €300 a month). Clearly the well-feathered nest that most Germans enjoy is really under threat. Having grown up in an essentially Thatcherite work world, it’s hard for young Brits to really sympathise much. But from a German viewpoint it’s gaspingly harsh. I was talking to a producer in the TV industry who’s in his early 50s. He had worked for more than 30 years in the very lucrative world of German commercial TV, he’d barely been unemployed and had mainly been under long-term contracts. All that time he had paid hefty taxes partly to secure a safety net in case of extremis. (The standard rate of German tax is around 43%). With the collapsing job market in Berlin (currently at 18% unemployed) and the familar trend of employing only the young and attractive, he’s feeling the threat of unemployment keenly. And he’s from the most financially blessed quartal of the population. In some of the former East German States (states like Brandenburg which surrounds Berlin) people have already been unemployed for years despite numerous re-training schemes. They’re going to be hit hard by any cuts. A fear which is reflected in Brandenburg’s recent election of several members of the far-right NPD party into the State Govermnent.

So far, so gloomy. But there is another trend in the populace that I noticed: a sort of grim gaiety. Berlin doesn’t feel like a bankrupt city. Obviously billions of euros structural investment means the trams, trains. roads. the fabric of the city is so much brighter than even 5 years ago. In the central Eastern districts of Mitte, Prenzlauerberg, Friedrichshain, the galluping pace of gentrification has run its course and left a chic and freshly painted city-centre full of galleries and delightful cafés. But even on the once irremedial outskirts of the City, things look smarter. The Eastern airport Schönefeld is slick and simple. The people travelling in from the East on the S-Bahn are better-dressed, more smilining healthier looking than when I lived there. The formerly grey high-rise mazes of Marzahn and Höhenschonhausen have been relandscaped and given a lick of paint. Now law students from the Humboldt University move out there looking for cheap rentals in relatively smart surroundings.


Also the threat of financial collapse doesn’t seem to have dampened the City’s spirits. Indeed culturally and socially it seems spunkier than ever. After more than 3 years of cutbacks and erosion of the generous social provision they grew up with, Berliners seem to have decided to just deal with it. Arena, one of the most vibrant exhibition/concert spaces in the city is a case in point. Based in a vast old DDR bus depot, right up against the former Wall on the Treptow/Kreuzberg border, Arena used to be a party space for big raves when I lived in Berlin and for occasional art events. (Mnouckine’s Theatre de Soleil played there, as did Peter Stein’s epic Faust perfomance). Now, just as the financial situation looks grimmer than ever, the owners have decided to pull out all the stops and push on with some huge new projects… The evening I was there Slipknot were playing in the main hall, down on the river they’d build a fantastical infinity pool of chlorinated water which floated in the grey waves of the Spree, with multiple wooden jetties with deckchairs and hammocks, there was a restaurant/bar ship called SS Hoppetosse and next door there was an extraordinarily fresh gathering of young Berlin Gallerists, called Kunstsalon.


The art scene is infact where the New Berlin Republic really comes into its own. Visual arts have always been very strong in the city, despite the terrible cull of progressive arts by the Nazis and then by the Communists. Since the Wall came down, the streets of Mitte and Prenzlauerberg, have become warrens of galleries and exhibitions space. Every other building houses a quirky gallery-space or a watering-hole for quirky artists and their gallerists. And the Autumn is the season for art. Collectors and artist from around the world crowd into town for the ‘art forum’ and the ‘kunstherbst’ in September, this year even more because of the opening of the controversial Flick Collection at the main modern art gallery, Hamburger Bahnhof. (Controversial because Christian Flick’s family wealth was in part the result of slave labout from the Nazi period.) The idea behind this Kunstsalon at Arena was to create a fresh space away from the already commercially-calcified ‘artforum’ which only caters to the big-hitters of the Scene. Based on the legendary art salon set up by the collector Paul Cassirer in Berlin at the beginning of the C20th which broke away from the formal Academy and talked about then-unheard of Impressionists and German Successionist painters, this ehibitions has 34 individual displays in the vast 40, 000 square metre Glasshouse at Arena. And having seen and been rather underwhelmed by the Flick Collection in the morning, I was swept away by the energy, vitality and wit of the stuff at the Kunstsalon.


berlinFar from gloomy, Arena seems to sum up the more dynamic go-getting energy in Berlin these days. Talking to the Press Officer for the place, Lone Bech, she explained how the gallerists who approached her with the idea for Kunstsalon were quite clued up about the marriage of art and money. After decades of enormously subsidised culture on both sides of the Wall, visual arts particularly have embraced the prickly forests of independent sponsorship. Other fields are less clued-up to these new realities according to Bech. For example, Arena is also planning a marvellous-sounding festival called “Berlin 36″ where 36 filmmakers are given 36 hours to storyboard, film, edit and screen their films in a concluding festival. The filmmakers involved love the idea but really freeze when faced with the stark need for meeting sponsorship application deadlines. It’s as if – after years of happy, Lotos-eating somnolence – the sudden need for concrete action and commitment is freaking some sections of Berlin out. Still, with outfits like Arena girding their loins to brazen out the current recession, this could be the most exciting time for the Arts in Berlin since…well, since the Wall fell.


Through the summer I’ve been presenting for BBC4 (the Beeb’s new digital arts channel) from the Proms – the greatest music festival in the World. What an honour. When I first came to England after Berlin, I would go to the Albert Hall through the summery park and think: how cool would it be, to be working here. And 4 years later here I am – cycling through the afternoon up past the Albert Memorial, tying up my bike and strolling into the Door 11 for a sound check. Sometimes the Czech National Orchestra will be changing out of their trousers in the corridor, or Harrison Birtwhistle will be sitting all portly and regal in the Arena during the run through of his new piece. Sometimes Graham Vick will be rehearsing members of the public for their climactic intervention in Britten’s Curlew River. Sometimes Simon Rattle will be marching politely past the Prommers queuing up to see him perform with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

74 concerts on 58 consecutive nights. No one else could do it. Bless the BBC for that alone. I could hardly believe – having been away for 4 weeks filming Cash – that the whole thing had continued every night in my absence. It’s such a mammoth thing.

But it struck me during this last week of filming, when I’ve been feeling rather tired and irritable, that music is so much related to the state of mind of the listener. I have huge admiration for some of my colleagues – like Charles Hazlewood, Ian Burnside, Fiona Maddox, Tom Service – who were able to speak dispassionately about such an incredible wide rage of composers and performers. I feel completely at the mercy of my subjective response to these things.

For example, no amount of Proms literature will win me over to Dvorak – despite him being one of the featured composers this season. Beautiful and robust as the “New World” is, it doesn’t touch me or interest me in the way much moderm music does…. And when you’re tired and irritable, have too much on your plate and didn’t get a chance to meditate before the filming, Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is just the last thing you want to be listening to. I’ve never much warmed to Bartok. Is that because I’ve always been hungry or tired when I listened? Or is there something intrinsically un-Alistair in that spikey Hungarian’s language?

But yesterday evening – my last night’s presenting at this year’s Proms – I was lifted out of the membrane of Self by the music I heard. It may have been a trip to the gym, a healthy dinner and a long meditation in the Park, that made me so receptive, but Les Arts Florissants’ performance of Charpentier’s Requiem (Messe pour les trépassés) was my favorite concert this year.

It’s a French Baroque setting of the Requiem prose with a Motet based on the Book of Job mixed in. And musically it’s not exceptionally different from works by Charpentier’s contemporaries Lully, Delalande or Marais. But the performance that evening was spectacular. The unusual playing style of Les Arts Florissant band struck me: early music instruments played in an authentic style, which requires a lot more flamboyance in the playing to compensate for the weaker sound-production of the instruments. This means the ensemble wave and flourish in a much more individualistic way than your classic modern orchestra. They were like a multi-limbed anemone swirling and beating in the musical ether.

The chorus was also superb, maintaining exquisite intonation and acuteness throughout a long stretch of time – the mass lasts for about an hour. And from the chorus, in a constant dance of repositioning, members would step forward to become various combinations of soloists. The incredible high tenor of Paul Agnew and the more dramatic tenors of Topi Lehtipuu and Jeffrey Thompson really reached out through the vast space of the Hall and effected me almost viscerally. I had several bouts of that all-over-body shiver I get when rapt in music.

And this was what moved me so much. Despite the large architectural scale of the work and the building, the Mass was extraordinarily poignant and human. Far from being removed – it seemed that individuals were stepping forward to utter very heartfelt, but universal anxieties about what happens after death, about why we suffer.

Remember how these masses were first perfomed. There was incredible and sometimes macarbre attention given to Requiem obsequies. The cathedrals would be decked in black crepe, real skeletons would be draped over tombs, the space would be choking with incense and for days on end prayers would have been intoned by paid mourners. The sudden arrival of such exquisite music would have been dramatic and would have really spoken out through the gloomy air to the congregation sitting there contemplating their own mortality.

There was the most exquisite moment (in amongst many exquisite moments) when the small trio of soloists are singing against the main chorus in the Requiem Motet. “Miseremini mei,” they sing:

Have Pity on me
I pray you my friends
For the hand of God hath touched me.

This declaration of pain and the request for solidarity seemed so poignant, set as it is in the middle of work which articulates grief for the departed. In all moments of life, we as humans can suffer irrationally , and we can still ask for comfort from one another. This sense of real-existing communion is what thrills me about live performance. There was a triangle between the performers in the Hall, the music of the long-dead Charpentier and the throngs of silent audience sat listening. And while I know that I could listen to a recording of Charpentier’s work at home with my mind elsewhere and not feel a flutter in my heart, when all factors came into place it seemed like I was having my perfect Prom after all…


Just been to see The Motorcycle Diaries with Joshua and Richard. It’s a pretty thin film – beautiful scenery but a over simple linear narrative that repeats itself in cliches and heart-tweaking “moments”. It feels like a film from a much older age – where those simple virtues of camaraderie, generosity, idealism, political fire could exist without all the contemporary layers of irony, cynicism, mindful questioning. Which is of course the moment in history it sprang from: Ernesto Guevera’s political awakening. Before the Cold War, before the truths of Stalinism came to light, before Cuba became sclerotic.

But are those simple pure idealisms and virtues really naïve and oversimplistic like this film? Or are they still valid – yet our over-critical mediasphere has conveniently allowed us to brush them aside as foolish and childish distractions from the real business of making money and pleasing ourselves? Are we so mired in fatalistic “realism” that we ignore the simple fact that: helping other people is the royal route out of self-obsessed misery. It’s right and natural to support one another. The neo-liberal creed of greed is good is a recent fallacy that has simply be repeated so often (as Goebbels recognised) that it has become a truism. The fact is that it’s a lie: Greed gives us a headache, it makes us grasping, fearful we’re going to lose stuff and it breeds an atmosphere of ill-will and mutual suspicion.

I’m aware of this as I come to the end of a long period of work where I’ve been working in a team (which is good) but for a largely meaningless enterprise (which is questionable). Now the urge is to go and do stuff “that I want to do”, chase after sun, sand, sex and sangria. But as Sucitto says: we live in a membrane of self, banging our drum, blowing our trumpet and that’s SO BORING.

So when I was slouched in the cinema watching the adorable Gael Garcia Bernal as Ernesto helping lepers and giving his precious dollars to penniless migrant miners I didn’t feel unduely manipulated by the film – I remembered that doing something for other people is actually a real relief and I should be doing more of it. Life is messy and there are millions of people who are really in the shit on the planet. Cocooning in ever-refined searches for pleasure isn’t going to cut it. Perhaps a bit of aspiration wouldn’t go amiss…