The heady mix of politics, culture and sex of the Weimar-era Berlin — the time period between the two world wars — has long been a source of fascination for writers and filmmakers. Jason Lutes’s long-awaited omnibus edition of Berlin adds a masterwork to this oeuvre in the form of a graphic novel.
This edition combines the 22 serialized issues of Lutes’s Berlin comics, previously collected in two separate volumes published in 2000 and 2008. The final third volume was being released at the same time as this complete edition. Lutes has spent the past 20 years on this project, and this lengthy gestation pays off in a historically nuanced, visually stunning and narratively complex graphic novel with lasting power.
Lutes is an American cartoonist who graduated with a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and then spent 10 years working in the vibrant Seattle comics scene for publisher Fantagraphics and the alternative weekly the Stranger. Since 2008, he has been a faculty member at the Centre for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., which offers a master of fine arts and certificates in comics and graphic novels.
Lutes’s fine arts training and design skills are evident in every elegantly composed, meticulously rendered black-and-white panel. He adopts a cinematic, noir-ish visual style that echoes the Weimar films of Fritz Lang and a kaleidoscopic narrative approach he admits is indebted to Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.
There are three main character groups whose stories Lutes follows from 1928 to 1933. The graphic novel begins with art student Marthe Müller’s arrival from provincial Cologne and her chance encounter with the jaded left-wing newspaper journalist Kurt Severing. They eventually become lovers, but their relationship is complicated by Kurt’s wealthy ex-lover, Margarethe, and Marthe’s transgender best friend, Anna.
A second main storyline follows a working-class family tragically divided between communism and Nazism. Through them, Lutes introduces key historical events, including the bloody 1929 May Day demonstrations and the electoral victory of the National Socialists in 1930. Most of the characters are fictional, but some historical figures also appear, including Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler and 1935 Nobel Peace Prize winner Carl von Ossietzky, whose exposure of clandestine German re-armament led to his arrest and death in Gestapo custody.
Another plotline about a visiting African-American jazz quartet features real-life dancer Josephine Baker. Lutes also folds in a variety of minor characters to represent the cosmopolitan world of Weimar Berlin, taking care to represent the Jewish community as culturally and economically diverse. Female characters are equally strong and multifaceted, from the wealthy heiress to the radical Communist to the cabaret performers and sex workers.
Even when they only appear in a few panels, Lutes’s expressive linework and subtle facial expressions convey the characters’ back stories and present dilemmas with devastating clarity. He also exploits the simultaneity of comics when he inserts Marthe’s letters in text boxes over the events she describes and draws crowd scenes with thought balloons over each person to reveal their largely banal inner lives.
Most strikingly, Lutes doesn’t fetishize the surface glitz of this era. He draws characters realistically, both emotionally and physically, and takes us through the squalid areas of the city as well as the halls of power.
In keeping with the long history of screen culture’s fascination with Weimar Berlin, from the 1972 film Cabaret to the recent German television series Babylon Berlin, Lutes frames all of the human drama as a product of the living city. His precise line drawings of Berlin’s streets, parks, office buildings, tenements, restaurants, and nightclubs — all criss-crossed by cars, buses, and trains — invite us to linger on the scenes contemplatively even as they pull us into the feverish action.
Berlin is a big book in every sense, an epic narrative drawn over many compelling pages and a landmark of contemporary historical fiction that uses the form of comics to bring that past alive.
Candida Rifkind is an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she teaches and researches comics, graphic narratives and Canadian literature and culture.