Drowning in Berlin

Berlin: City of Stones and Berlin: City of Smoke by Jason Lutes  – a messy review by Sarah Wilson, a non-comic reading sociologist


With a new instalment out, it might be a good time to offer something on the series….before knowing the fate of too many of the characters and giving too much away. I have a horrible feeling that the story might end where it starts…. on a train, but this time moving eastwards and away from the city. But first, a few apologies. I am not an avid ‘comic’ reader. I’m sure I miss many of the things I’m supposed to ‘get’ when reading them- and notably conventions related to following characters. I found some of the many blonde characters difficult to follow (these male Aryans are so alike!) I’m also a woman so probably focus in on female characters – of which there are many (hurrah!)- than some of the men. And finally, I didn’t read the books intending to review them. If I were doing this on a professional basis, I would go back and analyse away. But that’s too much like work and I really ENJOYED the two books so far…..

I’m not going to focus on story except to say that it is gripping and follows numerous characters from different backgrounds in a politically complex and fascinating period, the decline of the Weimar Republic. It’s the later 1920’s and Marthe Mueller has left her staid, middle class, small town home and is on her way to study art in Berlin. On the train, she meets Kurt Severing an older journalist who loves her drawings. So far, so conventional. Yes, they will later become a couple, document the murderous repression of a Communist demonstration together, and hang out with his fascinating but cruel socialite former lover, Margarethe. But this isn’t a conventional love story. Through her brief time at art school, she’ll also meet Anna, who dresses as a man and loves her and who’s a lot more open to fun and to new-fangled jazz music than the more conventional and classical Kurt. But Kurt remains important. Through him, we see diverse political movements and the gradual increase in power and reach of the Nazi party. Kurt is critical of the Nazis…. But unlike a former colleague, he doesn’t want to fight them alongside the Communists. He wants to maintain an ‘objective’, ‘rational’ distance…something to ruminate in our current ‘complex’ times.


But the story doesn’t stay with Marthe and the middle classes. We also follow the life model that she and middle class students draw at art school and assume is a prostitute. Does the model have a name? I can’t recall it. She also works at a cabaret where she falls for and protects a member of an exploited African-American jazz band …who are nonetheless freer and more able to explore their feelings and sexualities in Berlin than back home at one generation from slavery.

There’s no easy criticism here. There’s a police officer who having seen active service doesn’t believe everything he’s told …unlike his young colleagues who follow orders and beat up the reds. There are ordinary families divided between Nazism or towards Communism. One mother splits from her husband and moves into a Communist communal housing scheme with her two daughters. When she dies, we follow one of her daughters, Silvia, as she tries to survive on the streets on her own. At one point, she is helped by a poverty-stricken Jewish rag-and-bone man. Towards the end of episode two, when the Weimar Republic has failed and the Nazis have come to power, they are attacked in the woods by Nazis. He takes her to a Jewish family for refuge and escapes from Berlin on a train. We don’t know its destination. I hope it’s West to Paris/Amsterdam and then London. Or South and a boat to Palestine. I’m hoping that most the Jewish family, Anna, Marthe, Kurt, Silvia and the life model get out too. They won’t though, will they? It’s too late. Time to read Episode 3.

Berlin: City of Light by Jason Lutes published by Drawn and Quarterly is out now.

Dr. Sarah Wilson can be found on Twitter.



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