I went to Berlin earlier this year for the first time as part of a month-long jaunt to Europe with a range of stops. I was most excited to see Berlin. I told everyone that the hipster trendiness appealed to me, that the old favourites of Europe – London, Paris, Rome – were growing stale and overrun by tourists (not unlike myself) with jaws hanging open saying, ‘oh my gawd!’ all the time, taking up pavement space and why did I come all this way? Why don’t you move?!
But the appeal of Berlin didn’t really lie in my thought leadership and general hatred of the beaten track. It was my look backwards. I was interested in the ghosts of World War II and the divisions made by the Berlin Wall (torn down a month after I was born). It was about David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ years. It was about Sally Bowles.
The best text I ever studied at school was Bob Fosse’s film, Cabaret. Released in 1972, it follows Brian (Michael York) who moves from England to Berlin to teach English. He meets a range of vivid characters, the most dazzling being a young American named Sally Bowles. Played by the wonderous Liza Minnelli, Sally sings and acts and dances in the Cabaret and it is amazing. But! Problem! The film takes place in the year 1931. Now, the audience (who has just been lectured on German history by their Lit teacher) knows exactly what this means but the characters are ignorant of what lies ahead. They just get this eerie sense of foreboding.
There’s so much tension in the air that in a memorable scene, as a train loudly rumbles over a bridge, Sally stands beneath it and screams as loudly as she can. Her voice is muffled by the train, but her technique is effective. She comes away giggling.
For me, Cabaret was formative and as we watched it over and over in my year eleven Lit class, we started singing the songs. Obviously, not as well as Liza, and of course the choreography of Bob Fosse involving chairs and precise movements was never attempted lest we injure ourselves before exams. Nonetheless, we had fun.
In Berlin, the Cabaret was one of the last refuges of the political dissidents. Their method of political action was satire. One song had the MC singing on stage with a lady gorilla wearing a pink tutu and hat. He sang about how he was in love with her, how he could see through all that was unappealing about her because of this love. He finally ends, ‘if you could see her through my eyes/She wouldn’t look Jewish at all.’
It was strange, perhaps, for a group of sixteen year-old Australians in the year 2006, to be singing these songs – a bar or two at a time – all day long. There’s something inappropriate about taking this part of German history so lightly. And yet, it was oddly satisfying and fun, precisely because the existence of the Cabaret did the exact same thing so many years ago. It was the best ‘Fuck you’ to Hitler we could muster.
Years later, reading his autobiography Moab is my Washpot, I found out that during an episode of school-boy rebellion Stephen Fry skipped a meeting of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London in order to repeatedly watch, with a friend: Fritz the Cat, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, and Cabaret. They had started on a Sunday and woke up in a West End cinema the following Wednesday. The jaunt led to Stephen Fry’s expulsion.
This anecdote makes me love Cabaret even more. It is a film I myself have watched many times (though not in a row) and I will keep watching. The Cabaret is a dangerous place in a time where it was very dangerous to speak out. It, evidently, is also a place to corrupt young school boys and lead them astray and into the world of exciting dance and liquor. Danger in film form is awfully cathartic for someone like me who wears a helmet when riding a bike and gets good grades.
But the reason why I keep going back to it is ultimately not for the cheap, vicarious thrills. It is for the other feeling: of foreboding, the start of what has yet to come but what must be. It captivates me. It is both a moment of intuitive, vague worry and a moment to treasure. It is the second before the whole world ends.
Before I was in Berlin, I was in Copenhagen. After I was in Berlin, I was in Dresden. In both Copenhagen and Dresden I felt fine, chipper even. I was somewhere new with beautiful things to see. In the in-between time – a week in Berlin – I suffered abject misery.
I don’t tend to diarise much when I’m travelling, but my one entry during my stay in Berlin is extracted: ‘I saw the Berlin Wall today. It is mostly dismantled but bits are still up to remember the shittiness that happened, the shittiness we still recreate… I am so depressed.’
There was nothing obviously bad about Berlin. Granted, the architecture was not as grand as some other cities and the landscape was still being fixed post-war. The streets were also grittier, but this is customary of a bigger city. There were plenty of good things, clean and reliable public transport, cool museums scattered everywhere, most of the attractions felt more meaningful than wandering through the palaces of dead rich people (a prominent tourist activity throughout Europe).
My husband and I (this was our honeymoon) stood on the Western side of the Berlin Wall and thought of David Bowie in our peaceful re-enactment of his song: ‘I, I can remember/standing, by the wall/and the guns shot above our heads/and we kissed as though nothing could fall/and the shame was on the other side/oh we can beat them, for ever and ever.’
I stood at the carpark with the remains of Hitler’s bunker buried beneath me. There is no commemorative plaque, just a bunch of shiny German cars. Untouched and unmarked, we protect ourselves from his potential martyrdom.
I walked around the Jewish Holocaust memorial, a maze of dark concrete boxes of varying heights. It is like a black river which makes your heart bury itself protectively. I tried to contemplate evil, and how it has been able to survive in beautiful places populated by regular people. I tried to figure out how to kiss and how to sing in the face of a gun. But I got distracted by the sheer amount of jubilance from those around me. And their selfie sticks.
Cabaret is based on a play, which is based on a collection of short stories, Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. I read it while I travelled and realised that the main character of all these iterations of the same story was never really Sally Bowles. The main character is the narrator and, in a way, the writer. Brian in the film is Christopher Isherwood in the book. Though Cristopher notes that the work is autobiographical though, he uses his own name out of convenience. It is, he claims, a work of fiction.
Cristopher reflects, ‘I am a camera’. A famous line which aptly reflects how I felt in Berlin, but also in my life generally. We exist to observe, to record with as much verisimilitude as we can muster and which our capacities allow. Ultimately, however, we are impotent. We cannot change the course of history.
The metaphor is a good one, but not perfect. Although Christopher presents himself in the books as a nonjudgemental recorder of what is, it is clear that unlike a camera he has both emotions and ethics. He gets annoyed at other characters and what he does when he is annoyed ultimately affects others and the story itself, albeit in small ways. Moreover, the times mean that he is forced to take a political stand simply by doing the things he usually does. One day, he enters a department store owned by Jewish people despite Nazis telling him not to. A camera doesn’t have to make a decision here, but Christopher does. His choices (arguably, all of our choices) have ethical immediacy.
Being a camera is more of a subjective feeling than an objective truth. While it is clear that Christopher is anti-Nazi, all he can do about it really is either hedonistically distract himself or go home.
It was helpful to read about his Berlin despondency as I experienced my own. So many struggles were presented before me and there was no way around them. There are things humanity has done to try to stop future atrocities like implement international law and the articulate human rights, but they too have proven impotent in more recent times. There is also no way to change what has been done, and the intergenerational trauma that continues to touch people today. It has already happened.
In Berlin, it seemed obvious to my camera-like gaze that most of the people of the world have suffered most of the time. The reiterative ‘shittiness’ I referred to in my diary was laid out before me, a long timeline of darkness with only tiny dots of light. I cannot write, or think, or kiss, or sing my way out of this. I can only mourn what has been lost: that last moment when all was well, which had so much potential, and where nothing was done.