Berlin: Sex, death and pop-culture — not in that order

For better or for worse, I came to Berlin not particularly wanting to deal with WWII and Holocaust remembrance. With only 48 hours in the city, it seemed worse to do it in a slipshod way than to not do it at all. Besides, I tend to think those things are more for people who aren’t aware of them than for people who unavoidably are.

But what I discovered is remembrance is unavoidable in Germany and in Berlin melds with the city’s location in pop-culture in a way that’s both seamless and weird. Because this is not just a city that’s engaged, constantly, in the act of remembrance, but a city engaged, constantly, in a reenactment of itself as it was before, between and after the wars.

This reenactment is both a performance for tourists and a performance for its own residents. Berlin has been wrenched out of time by its own history repeatedly, and it seems even the people who live here are constantly trying to catch up to moments that were stolen from the city.

So no one told me the Brandenburg Gate would be like Hollywood Boulevard, with people in costume charging fees for tourists to take pictures with them. From Mickey Mouse to Berlin’s bear mascot, to a number of military reenactors in uniforms of multiple nations (the exception, of course, being anything from the Third Reich), it’s all out there.

But perhaps the most inappropriate (but to be frank, I laughed out loud, it was so brilliant in its inappropriateness) was the dude dressed like a Stormtrooper. You know, like from Star Wars? But if you don’t get it, go Google. I’ll wait. The street dance team doing a routine to the Chariots of Fire theme was also pretty amazing in terms of Berlin’s bizarre intersection with the pop-culture world.

But for all the milling around and weird party atmosphere of the Gate, it’s still impossible not to notice things like the Room of Silence tucked up off to the side or the Eagle atop the chariot atop the Gate, or all the signs pointing to all the things you might possibly want to see: like the Reichstag, or any number of Holocaust memorials, including the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism.

That memorial itself is in the Tiergarten, right on the edge, and it wouldn’t be hard to find, except the sign is at a funny angle and I didn’t know what I was looking for. I actually found it by accident, thought I hadn’t, and only figured it out when I doubled back.

Why couldn’t I figure it out the first time? Well, the Memorial has been graffitied with the words, Smile. You Are Beautiful. That’s much better than all the times the glass on the side of the memorial that allows you to view film of same-sex couples kissing has been smashed.

The seal having been broken on my attempt to avoid memorialization and my realization that this is a topic I should care about, not just as a Jewish person and a gay person, but as a person who is deeply engaged with communal ritual around death and that ritual being used as acts of claiming, I also visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which I also saw referred to as the Field of the Stelae. It’s a brilliant memorial, in that it is striking and evocative not just of death and remembrance, but of a sense of fear and oppression. When you get deep down into the field, you never know when someone will come around a corner; you never know what will happen.

But here’s the thing about the stelae — people play there. They leap from stone to stone. Children run and screech and play hide and seek in it. Lovers use it like a maze and chase each other for kisses. And it may seem wrong if you’re not there to see it, but it feels like a great good thing, at least to me.  But it is weird.

Eventually, after wandering several markets, the National Memorial for the Victims of War and Tyranny, and the crypt at the Berliner Dom (I have been to the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome, and I have never been in a city more of the dead than Berlin), I was fresh out of cope and went back to my hotel before my 9pm reservation at the Kleine nachtrevue.

The Kleine nachtrevue views itself as traditional German cabaret, burlesque and erotic artistry. While I can’t speak to its authenticity, I can speak to the fact that the audience was about 80% German, mixed in terms of gender and sexual orientation, and that burlesque in Germany involves a hell of a lot more nudity (seriously, I saw a great deal of vulva last night) than it does in the US. Performances ranged from comedic strip teases to fully naked, ritualistic ballets.

There was also singing, lip-synching, gender illusion, BDSM content, and trans bodies on stage. Everyone was charming, I got adopted by a random hen party from Glasgow, and the first number of the night was to “Roxanne” from Moulin Rouge. Sometimes the world rewards you for being exactly who you are and this was one of those moments. Other pop-culture references in the performances included everything from Benny Hill to David Bowie to the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

At the end of the night the whole audience sang along in German-accented English to “Falling in Love Again.” And there was nothing, nothing at all, that felt incongruous between the beginning of my day and the end of it. Smile. You Are Beautiful.

My flight out is at nine tonight, and after I write this I’m going to go see more things and watch more people. If you get a chance to come to this place, you should. It’s hard, but Berlin knows that it’s hard, and it will hold your hand through the worst of it and tell you, you are doing so well. Promise.

9 thoughts on “Berlin: Sex, death and pop-culture — not in that order”

  1. I last went to Berlin in September 1989 on a school trip when I was 16 (had also gone in 1988) and have very different memories of the Brandenburg Gate… we were shown bullet holes left over – the wall obviously was still up as well. We had a day trip to the Eastern part – all I mainly remember is the foul taste of the lemonade and seeing the Youth rehearse a parade for the 40th Anniversary of the GDR. We also had a visit to the Camp at Plötzensee which made an impact on me, you could still feel the desolation of the place. I hope that makes sense.

    After your report I think I should make an effort one day to go back and experience it as an adult and see what has changed – a lot I would suggest

  2. Fun fact: for two Euro, you can have your picture taken with the Star Wars Stormtrooper. I was there on business in 2010 and, of all the oddities marching near the Brandenburger Tor, that’s the one what leaps to mind first. Maybe because of the inexpert way he carried the light saber, I’m not sure.

    By that point, of course, I’d been in the city for a week, and it didn’t faze me. I didn’t notice the incongruity until I checked it with my return-trip luggage.

    1. Amazing! I sort of love that he’s had a long career, I mean, as far as these things go. I wonder when he got there.

      For me, it was nearly the first thing I saw not in the taxi from the airport. I stopped at Galleries Lafayette for macaroons, but then it was right to the Stormtrooper!

  3. You know I have my own obsessive maps of Berlin, and I was curious how yours would intersect. Unsurprisingly similar and different, same and other. I’m impressed, though, at how much more you’ve made me think about a city I already think about all the time.


    1. I’ll look forward to talking to you about it when I get home, in part because I want to hear you talk about when you’re not just trying to give me the guidebook overview (thank you, btw, that was a brave effort).

      Obviously, I have to go back, which is thankfully easy from here. Two days isn’t enough to do anything than to sort of take in all the stuff Berlin smacks you in the face with unavoidably. Also, I really want Patty to see it, although she’s probably glad she missed the self-indulgence of this first trip.

      Finally, despite getting around with really no problems (and a decent amount of help from that epic email you wrote me), I could not find that memorial to the burnt books. I looked three different times, and I suspect I just walked right by it and spaced it.

  4. When you started mentioning memorials I wondered if you’d been to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I was only in Berlin for 8 hours but it is one of the things that stands out the most in my memory. My first reaction was “I don’t get it” and then we started walking in among the stelae and they went from tiny ankle high stones to towering over your head. And I got it. I’m not sure I could really explain it. But it is very powerful.

    I’m was interested in your comment about Berlin being a city of the dead. I didn’t think about it that way but I wrote a lot of post cards saying something about how close to the surface history is in Berlin. I think it’s probably a similar idea.

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