The inside cover of Jason Lutes’ compiled Berlin depicts a sprawling map of the city. The map underlies not only the crossroads Berlin and her peoples are certain to face over the course of this text, but also the entangled matrix of lives, political movements, class conflicts, and private struggles that form the living heartbeat of the multifaceted and ever-changing organism that is Berlin. Lute’s Berlin is a painstakingly made masterpiece, and its twenty-two-year construction has outlasted even the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic which it depicts. This carefully crafted omnibus is not only a fabricated nexus of interwoven lives – both historical and fictional – but a masterclass in the complexity of comics symbolism and composition. Lutes’ thoughtful and impactful storytelling is symbolically dense from the outset as a steam train chugs along the first three panels of the book. The train not only foreshadows the horrors of the Holocaust to come, but also the inevitable intertwined destinies of a progress-driven, war-torn nation and its citizens.
As the reader moves from an external to an internal view of the train, the vestiges of civility can be glimpsed lying under the threat of sleeping fascism (5). A dormant member of the National Socialist Party is propped in a corner, a black armband half-hiding an absent swastika. His position between the unassuming Marthe Müller and the shadowy figure of Kurt Severing is an indicator of the political regimes and conflicts that will wedge themselves between individuals and communities over the coming years and across the next 550 pages of text. These two characters, Marthe and Kurt, are themselves established as symbolic manifestations of the powers of words and images – she the artist and he the journalist. It is no coincidence that the graphic medium combines these powers to form its discourse. This combination, the text suggests, is the only safeguard against totalitarian regimes and their ideologies. As the political struggles within the text are cultivated, so too are the dangers and difficulties of self-expression.
Berlin is as much about the study of people in transition, and the inevitable rise and fall of the nations those people subscribe to, as it is about the artistic process itself. Lutes’ clean line and high contrast style are sharp enough to cut. Depicting the city as equally luxurious and dilapidated through his meticulously fine line and ample detail, Lutes juxtaposes this finessed and finished cold hard world with the soft suppleness of Marthe’s sketchbook throughout the text. Using panels and pages of the story that privilege her way of seeing, Lutes implies the artistic view as perhaps humanity’s only saving grace. If Lutes depicts the human hive that is Berlin through the use of cold, hard godlike perspectives, Marthe’s sketches add a softness and subtlety descriptive of a place and a people not quite finished, but in process. As Lutes’ grand architectural and underbelly view of Berlin focuses on the whole, Marthe’s musings patriating people into their paraphernalia – an armband, a pair of glasses, a prosthetic leg, and a cap – distills the human subject to an individual materialistic sign (28). “They all have stories – that’s the problem.” Martha tells her friend and lover Anna, “Because you can’t know a person’s story just by looking at them, can you? You can guess at it, you can see that they have a story, but you can’t know it.” (347). Through the process of observing and articulating in different ways and from different perspectives, Lutes confronts the reader with the importance and diversity of the artistic perspective.
It would be folly to attempt to analyze the complexity of the Berlin omnibus in this review, so instead, I will focus on the interrelation of two themes – revolution and reflection – and their manifestation throughout Berlin. The Oxford English Dictionary defines revolution as a “cyclical recurrence, esp. of a point or period of time” or alternately, as “alteration, change; upheaval; reversal of fortune” or otherwise, the “overthrow of an established government or social order by those previously subject to it.” Berlin subscribes to each of these meanings of revolution and certainly interconnects these ideas throughout its text. These manifestations come in the form of slippage in time and place throughout the narrative, in its formal structure, and in its key theme of social unrest. The idea of reflection, or recollection, implies a cyclical thought structure, which deconstructs the forces of time and suggests that past, present, and future are simultaneously experienced.
Just under the consciousness of public and private psyche lie the ghosts of WWI, personal and historical forces shaping Berlin and its people which cannot be escaped. Loss and violence prefigure and shape the outcomes of the text. Like the symbolic train implies, the circumstances of this text have already been set into motion by the private and national trauma of WWI, which is pervasive yet repressed. Lutes elegantly expresses this idea early in the text with an elongated profile panel of Marthe, who relentlessly stares forward, but whose black hair gives way to the image of a fallen soldier in the back of her consciousness – her cousin Theo (10). Later, this private concept is taken up publicly in Marthe’s reflection of the uncared for and disfigured veteran begging on the public street – both visible and visibly-ignored by upper class society bustling by (16-17). In such overt and covert ways, time slips between the present time of 1928 in the book and the foundational moment of 1918, the end of the First World War and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Nostalgia for the fallen empire is also subverted by this time flux as the huddled figure of a WWI veteran in a windowsill goes unnoticed by passersby. The veteran, a liminal figure in a liminal space, slides between his present surroundings and his traumatic memories of the war. He remembers a disparate encounter with a soldier mere seconds away from death. The soldier, who is shown just long enough to state his name, Theo Müller, forges a connection back to Marthe. This small fragment of a larger recollection is enough to signal the first of many such relays regarding causes and effects between the characters, public and private spaces, and past and future times. In this way Lutes creates an intricate tapestry across the text to play out his overarching themes of revolution and recollection. The veteran’s stern and naked mother presented in this brief flashback is indicative of the bleak, unnourishing, and monstrous maternity of nationalism, and symbolic of the Imperial rule that led to the formation of the fledgling Weimar Republic (90-91).
Lutes establishes Berlin as an ever-changing and elusive entity, one that is revolutionizing itself faster than its citizens can process its changes: “Communists, socialists, nationalists, democrats, republicans, criminals, beggars, thieves, and everything in between. All mixed up together” (11). Berlin is a far cry from the national unity it ironically endeavors to represent. “There’s more of everything, and everything moves faster than ever. […] There are something like, I don’t know, 3,000 newspapers and magazines published right in the city” (11). These papers, which later include 80,000 copies of the daily Nazi bulletin Der Angriff, are yet another thematic indication of the ‘circulation’ indicative of impending revolution (411). Transformation and reiteration are at the heart of the multifaceted urban complex that is Berlin, of which Lutes can only – like the rest of us – triangulate for a moment in time. A period of stasis cannot exist. Berlin has been self-transforming up until the moment the text opens and will continue transforming long after the text closes. Change is the only certainty. Unfortunately, its citizens become a necessary casualty to the relentless march of progress while negotiating the beautiful and volatile city they call ‘home.’
The formal structure of the narrative’s panelization also contorts itself into a circular structure at times. Throughout Berlin, there are prominent examples of pages that are laid out in a ‘pinwheel’ structure. These pages establish themselves around a fulcrum panel, and suggest moments where narrative is pivoting around key instances – circling itself and its own ideologies. This pinwheel structure resembles the configuration of a swastika pattern, either attempting to come into fruition throughout the text, imposing itself on the structure of life and art, or otherwise being thwarted and disrupted by the circumstances presented within the panels. One such instance occurs early in the text that depicts David’s escape from a gang of anti-Semitic street kids – the panels of impending violence swirl around a central panel of David’s foot launching him into the air away from his attackers (44). Another instance is in the depiction of a May Day National Socialist Party demonstration, where a blank flag represses the swastika symbol – which is instead articulated by the surrounding panels of protesters (197). In a similar instance, much later in the text, when the swastika can no longer be repressed, its position in the central panel is surrounded by the homeless and orphaned girl Silvia’s exchange of stolen money for food – an image that belies the economic circulation of funds underlying the prevent social ideology (497). In various forms or in various manifestations, this pinwheel layout manifests or is disrupted according to the action of the text, such as when Heinz fails his imaginary S.A. inspection (512).
This circularity inherent in revolution and recollection extends to Berlin’s narrative experience. Even in the chaos presented by the comic, Lutes invites the reader to engage in a recursive reading strategy. By simultaneously focusing on the masses and the individual throughout the text, Lutes uses the omniscient view of the narrative perspective to pick connections out of the crowds and hone in on the particular moments of reunion and recognition or separation in the surrounding din. When the connection is made between two characters across time or space, the reader realizes Lutes’ direction was leading them towards this very connection all along. This visual storytelling technique makes the recursive reading of the previous panel or pages into a game of hide and seek between Berlin’s characters and readers as orchestrated by the author. This idea symbolically extends to the hiding or seeking that occurs within the crowd and within Berlin to uncover the motivations, ideologies, or simply the desire to live one’s life by one’s convictions and not another’s.
This type of reading also extends to a cause and effect type visual scheme which I refer to as ‘mousetrap’ relays. The Mousetrap, or Rube Goldberg machine, is a constructed mechanism that relies on a relay of serial causes and effects which link together to create a domino effect (Wikipedia). In much the same way, across twenty-two chapters, Lutes creates Berlin. The story’s visual narrative often resembles a ‘mousetrap,’ where innocuous causes and effects, often depicted through shot-reverse-shot perspectives of the scene, show the reader at once how disparate and connected individuals in this city are by making passing, casual, intentional, arbitrary, or violent connections with one another. These connective relays, like a large circuit, also speak to the text’s circularity and exemplify the circularity of social unrest throughout history. Perhaps the most elegant example, combining many of the above-mentioned narrative strategies is illustrated on pages 361-362 of the text.
Discovered and confronted by the S.A. in their forested hideaway, Silvia and Pavel - a travelling vagabond who has taken Silvia under his protection - fight to escape their impending violence. Silvia’s escape is constructed in alternating shots and reverse shots manipulating the background and foreground of the image. As she makes her escape, the S.A. is alternately depicted in the background or foreground of the panel, implying the level of threat she and Pavel face for their Communist and Jewish beliefs. Once in hiding, Silvia’s view of demonstrators across the spree denotes the small spatial divide between S.A. and Communist forces within which she is trapped. When the demonstrators are prominently foregrounded on the following page, it is revealed to be May 1st, or May Day. This anniversary recalls the previous May Day rally when her mother was killed. The previous rally also marked the ten year anniversary of the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg for which the rally was formed. As leader of the KPD (the Communist Party of Germany) Ernst Thälmann calls for revenge for their fallen fighting comrades. Silvia’s minuscule form in the panel’s background acts as a subconscious reminder of the irony of Thälmann rhetoric. The S.A. in the extreme background of the panel past Silvia act also as an ironic reminder of their martyrdom of Horst Wessel for the S.A. and the many other unidentified lives that are used for and hang in the balance of these revolutionary movements. Deepening the irony of this moment is the underlying natural revolution that demonstrates how small human problems can seem next to the natural forces which create such revolution. The conjunction of the May Day political rallies coinciding with the springtime revolution of rebirth underscores the senselessness of revolution through violence and death. As Marthe says to Kurt overlooking the same spree: “The trees, the grass, the water, all of this beauty and life – The changing of the seasons, year after year, since long before we were born… No matter what happens to us all of it will still be here long after we’re gone” (371).
Often throughout the text, windows operate to construct the start or end of just such a connective relay in a sequence. However, while windows function as conduits to this circularity showing the penetration between public and private spheres (and vice versa) they also function both as invisible barriers and sites of reflection. During the May Day March, as Marthe and Kurt dine at a café, the window pane is suddenly pounded by an activist calling attention to the class divide between the workers and the bourgeoise. The panels themselves transform into this invisible class barrier, the gutter becoming the invisible barrier of the windowpane through which the activist’s yells are muted (191). Windows also represent the ideological divide between individuals such as Margarethe and Kurt, former lovers, who are caught on opposite sides of pacifism and totalitarianism. Each is separated from their observation of the other through this window barrier (283; 532). Just as windows can be looked through, they can also act as a reflective surface, with characters often looking at their own reflection while recollecting the past or anticipating their future (548). The most dramatic example of this comes in Kurt’s final panels, where his reflection in a passing window gives way to his perspective of a typewriter and a pistol side by side (547). The decision to live and write, or to give in to overwhelming forces, prevalent in his perspective. But these conduits and places of reflection can be broken by violence that penetrates from the public into the private sphere. As Berlin becomes more volatile, violent revolution is signaled by the appearance of broken windows (483). When the Schwartz’s Antique business is vandalized, its broken window, through which the family is framed, foreshadows the coming of the Kristallnacht (510).
In Lutes’ Berlin, even the conceptual symbols that form the text are broken and remade in this same fashion, constantly changing, turning, twisting, transmuting, and reflecting back on each other. Continually revolving, conduits through which we form meaning and connection are readily made, unmade, and remade. Lutes creates a text like the world which it reflects, constantly unstable beneath our feet. A painstakingly crafted fictional account of the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic, through revolution and reflection, the reader cannot help but recognize the turbulence of our own times and the remaking of our own world in this same image. Lutes’ narrative of the private and public seen and unseen forces that permeate our existent is a poignant reminder that the only thing we can count on is that even as everything changes, things still remain the same.