Book Review

Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes

the first part of a lauded comic about the weimar republic

I first read about this critically-lauded comic in the Guardian, maybe a year or two ago, and during a brief look around a Toronto comic book shop on World Comic Book Day I picked up a massively-discounted copy of Berlin: City of Stones, a collection of the first eight issues of this black and white piece of historical fiction, first published in 2001. As you can guess from the title, it is about Berlin, and though I don’t know how far forwards in time the narrative will travel during the second two thirds of the complete work, Jason Lutes here takes a reader on an intense, gritty and engaged tour around the lives of ordinary people living in Berlin from the Autumn of 1928 through until May Day 1929.

Berlin: City of Stones reads like an impressive, literary, novel. Much like A Fine Balance, it takes a wide cast of often-ignored people living during a threatening, worsening time of political unrest, and uses them to create a very real approximation of a city in a certain time.

City of Stones starts in roughly the same period as Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels (the inspiration, of course, for Cabaret, though I hope any regular readers already knew that) and, of course, it’s a time that many people know lots about. But what – certainly when I was at school – is taught isn’t the lives of “ordinary” people, but rather the history of the politics and the wars that the unrest resulted in. The Second World War is something we often associate with individuals, for example Hitler and his senior cronies, Anne Frank as microcosm of the tragedy of the Holocaust, others who survived the genocide and wrote their experiences (Primo Levi, for example), and also the people who fought the Nazis, especially those who had their efforts immortalised by cinema. Although Schindler’s List and that one about the enigma machine are examples of blockbusters about “real” people who worked against the Nazis, most of the other examples off the top of my head are fictional or fictionalised figures: Inglorious Basterds, Saving Private Ryan, and tbh Indiana Jones. Nazis were – until the resurgence of the far right bolstered by disaster capitalists seeking unrest and wedges to stick their clawed paws into – an easy cinematic shorthand for villainy. 

Most of the characters in Berlin fall into the second category: they are fictional, and for me this is the project’s only weakness – its identity as fiction rather than reportage. However, Jason Lutes comfortably achieves what he sets out to do, and his comic breathes irrefutable life into many near-true existences that are rarely explored.

Lutes illustrates, describes and evokes the individual experiences of many normal people. The city of Berlin, in the tail end of the Weimar Republic, is in social collapse. The economy is doing badly and thus businesses are failing, putting many people out of work. Rising out of the ashes of discontent are increasingly-militant Communist and fascist groups. The police respond with brutality to both sides, though increasingly find the Nazis paying lip service to the maintenance of the status quo and thus they stop hitting them as hard. We all know, of course, how this oversight plays out in the long run, but City of Stones isn’t about what happens next, it’s about what happens before, and in many ways it’s particularly fucking pertinent as this is the phase we’re in now, innit:

the fascists have the momentum and though the rights and protections of most middle class able bodied white cishet people haven’t been attacked yet, enough other people’s lives have been assaulted by the power of the right that by now those of us who aren’t fascist sympathisers should probably get out into the streets and kick off. I mean riots, not protests. There’s a risk in rioting at the best of times, but there’s no value in protesting when you have a permit. A protest with a street permit is a fucking street party. The world needs revolutions, not placards. Placards are social media for property owning hippies. Revolt revolt revolt.

I digress.

So, into this melange of warring factions, Lutes focuses on:

  • a separated working class family who have split along political lines,
  • a middle-aged police officer confused by rising anti semitism and his orders to increasingly favour the violent right,
  • a mature art student who has run away from a middle class engagement but soon runs out of money,
  • a journalist who becomes the student’s boyfriend, falling in love while he finds his attempts at impartiality increasingly impossible; and then – of course –
  • several Jewish characters, both working and middle class, who find themselves suddenly, daily, the victims of abuse.

There are cabarets and fights, there is love and sex and rejection. There is discussion of race and sexuality, of the slow collapse of hope and the rising rising rising tide of hate.

I will certainly read another volume of this at a later date: it’s moving, detailed, powerful prose and – as I said – is definitely a little prescient.

Another one I’d recommend. Yes, this stopped abruptly. I have other things to do. If you want higher quality posts here then use the links below to make my art pay so I can do less menial work. Thanks thanks thaaaaaanks.

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Order my raucous poetry collection via Open Pen.

Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.

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