When visiting Berlin in 1892 Mark Twain famously reported feeling “lost”. Berlin, he wrote in a letter to the Chicago Daily Tribune,
"...has no resemblance to the city I had supposed it was. There was once a Berlin which I would have known, from descriptions in books…but that Berlin has disappeared. It seems to have disappeared totally, and left no sign. The bulk of the Berlin of today has about it no suggestion of a former period. The site it stands on has traditions and a history, but the city itself has no traditions and no history. It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen." (3 April 1892)
Twain was on to something. Berlin seems always to be renewing and remaking itself. Unlike Paris or Venice, which have maintained strict laws protecting their architectural history, Berlin has been chary of preserving its streetscapes. Bombing raids of the Second World War, of course, destroyed large sections of the city, and many of the buildings that remained were demolished during the 50s and 60s. But Twain’s letter reminds us that Berlin’s spirit of urban renewal pre-dates the post-war period. Each of the national governments based in Berlin—the 1871 German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, East Germany, and now the reunified Germany—initiated ambitious (re-)construction programs with little care for assimilating earlier styles, if not a desire to forget the past altogether.
Today, however, there’s an additional force encroaching upon the past, namely rampant commercial globalization. Starbucks and Subway franchises are easy to spot; soon a Hooters will open in the Großer Stern, in the shadow of one of Berlin’s most beloved monuments, the Siegessäule.
In choosing Berlin as a subject, American photographer Jason Langer has been motivated to search out and record the city’s past before it disappears. Langer is best known for his psychological and noirish visions of contemporary urban life. After New York, New Orleans, and Paris, Berlin is the fourth city to stand in pose before his lens, and after three visits there since 2009 a distinctive portrait of the city has taken form. Langer more here than anywhere else, concentrates on Berlin’s architecture, and in particular the remaining architectural “signs”, as Twain would have it, from its past. The ruin, the relic, the landmark, the icon – all are represented.
Langer’s photography has been praised for its “carefully crafted compositions reminiscent of the symbolist photographers” with “swathes of meticulously printed deep black tones characteristic of the gelatin silver process…as much Hopper and Raymond Chandler as Steichen” (Bomb Magazine). No less, his portrait of Berlin predominates in rich, moody blacks – the product of “walking the streets alone as a stranger in a strange land,” as Langer has put it. His concern to represent the city’s past is reflected in his photographic vocabulary which hearkens back to an earlier era of image-making, as if to create the two-dimensional equivalent of his time-worn and timeless subjects.
Were he with us today Twain would hardly have recognized the Anhalter Bahnhof, a former train station near Potsdamer Platz, which in 1880 was not only Berlin’s largest terminal, but the largest in continental Europe. Today it stands a ruin with only its façade remaining. Langer photographed it from what used to be its inside looking out, copies of Ludwig Brunow’s zinc sculptures, Day and Night, sitting sullen on top where a clock once ticked.
Much of the old Berlin Langer captures was built after Twain had returned to the States. The Reichstag, housing the first parliament of the German empire, opened in 1894, the same year Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered the demolition of the Evangelical cathedral on Museum Island. Schinkel’s neoclassical model, circa 1822, was replaced in 1905 by a much larger church in the neo-Renaissance style. That is the structure Langer photographs here, equal parts stately and ominous, its domes and statues wrapped in shadow.
Those masterpieces of streel-truss construction, the Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse and Swinemünder Brücke, came not long after. The bridge went up in the same year as the Berliner Dom, 1905; the train station followed in 1925, and remains today a popular tourist attraction.
The only Nazi-era structure on view in the show is the pair of rectangular pillars marking the entrance to the 1936 Olympic Stadium. Hitler’s massive sports facility is the exception to the rule: most of what was built under his watch, and survived the war, was later obliterated, but the stadium, after much debate, was renovated between 2000-2004, and architect Werner March’s original entrance has endured almost exactly as it was built. Langer managed to capture an alternative fate for the complex: pictured here the pillars appear like primitive relics on a snowy field.
If the Olympic Stadium entrance casts back to the dawn of some early civilization, it is Langer’s eye for the city’s mythological past that animates and connects many of his images of Berlin. From the statues of Day and Night atop the Anhalter Bahnhof to the striding heroes atop the Reichstag; from the fountain Neptunbrunnen with its Roman god commanding the four main rivers of Prussia to the Brandenburg Gate’s Victoria riding a chariot of four horses; from the Berliner Dom’s Protestant angels to the Siegessäule’s winged Victoria, Berlin is shown to be a city still animated – or haunted – by antiquity.
Only the Berlin Wall Memorial (Berliner Mauer Manmahl) appears from another, a future, age. In 1995 architects Kohlhoff and Kohlhoff won a competition to imagine a “commemorative landscape” for the Wall, still incomplete. Here one of two modern steel walls cuts a remnant of the original border fortification. It is foreign and inscrutable even as it replicates the experience of rupture created by the first Wall.
Berlin’s desire for a “commemorative landscape” at its center suggests that there is a limit to its modernizing spirit, that it has found an inherent good in monuments, literally historical reminders and warnings. Twain likely would clutch his guidebook and approve.
© John Hill, 2011