When I first visited Berlin, in 1981, it was a place of darkness. The streets were black, it was always night time and it was always raining, razor wire and walls cut the city in half. Junk was everywhere and everyone was on it. Punk rockers and anarchists seized neglected apartment buildings and fortified them with cop-killing devices like sharpened rams and nets full of broken concrete. The west was finally collapsing and Berlin was the orchestra providing the soundtrack.
As a kid from rural Oregon I was absolutely petrified at the time. But afterward, I had Berlin to think about. I had my own private derangement of the senses, an at-hand phantasmagoria of perversions and apocalyptic terrors that captured my heart, as it would any red-blooded American boy. Berlin was a little puppy you could cuddle up close to that would eat your guts.
When I returned to Berlin this summer I was stunned. Where had all the darkness gone? The wall was down and Berlin, I am sad to say, had become Frankfurt, a place for making money. A new building went up every day. Well-adjusted Germans looked frankly at their past and practiced nodding thoughtfully. Humboldt University had begun to regain some of its former glory.
One night S. and I decided to cross over into the former east Berlin and see an early Brecht play, “The Petite Bourgeois Wedding” at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where the ensemble had been in residence since Brecht returned to Berlin after the war. Although the façade of the building looked rather sterile and the foyer looked like a rock venue, the theatre itself was an exquisite rococo masterpiece: gilded finials, carved shields, bejeweled pilasters and red velvet.
The play, though early Brecht, was Brecht nonetheless, a farce about a wedding in which everything, from civility to romance to the stage itself winds up in pieces by the end. But that was not what struck us. What struck us was the smell.
It was an exhalation so heinous we almost left. And it was relentless. And, like the play on the stage, despite its obviousness, everyone pretended that everything was fine.
Perhaps it was a stage instruction. “Every five minutes, stick a piece of rotten meat behind a fan and blow the putrescence into the audience to underscore the rottenness of their bourgeois values.” Then we thought it was one man in particular, ahead and to the right, a gone-to-seed academic with bad hygiene. Gas? A mouth full of rotten teeth? A bag of spoiled melons? S. took to holding a perfumed handkerchief over her nose like a courtier at Versailles.
It was only later we figured out what it was. The nightmare in the theatre, which was repeated later on the street, in a barber shop, in the foyer of our hotel, in department stores and museums, was not the result of one man, nor of theatrical convention, not even of the propensity of Germans to eat nothing but pork sausage. It was the West, rotting from the inside out.
After we left Berlin we rented a car in Frankfurt and drove to Buchenwald concentration camp, where S.’s father was liberated on February 16, 1945. S. and I toured the 400 acre site in the cold rain. We were the only ones there. Hours later, wet to the skin, we stood at last outside the wire fence of the camp, in front of the last historical marker. It was placed on the road that led from the make-shift train station to the prisoner processing center. The marker said that 1500 meters, through the thick brush and not visible from where we stood, was the palace of the widowed duchess Anna Amalia of Weimar and her son, the future duke Karl August. There, Goethe had debuted many of his plays and poems and Weimar had become a byword through Europe for civilization and enlightenment. “In two hundred years,” I whispered, exhausted, to S., “from there,” and I pointed toward the palace and Goethe, “to there” and I pointed at the wet gray clay of Buchenwald.