Books

How a Graphic Novel About 1930s Germany Feels Poignant and Prescient

Jason Lutes’s epic graphic novel series Berlin, which began in 1996, comes to a close this year. Little did he know how relevant his books would be.

Few events in Berlin occur without incorporating the politics of the time (courtesy Drawn & Quarterly)

It seems too easy to draw comparisons between 1930s Germany and the US today, but the parallels are inescapable: A society reeling from an economic collapse a decade before. New social norms around sex and gender clashing with conservatism. An insurgent left agitating for drastic political reform. A rising racist right vowing to restore a country’s greatness, baying for blood and attacking the left in the streets. A centrist power structure that is threatened by the right but can’t seem to do anything but protect the status quo, invariably taking the fascists’ side when left and right clash.

But author Jason Lutes had no such roman à clef in mind when he set to work on his epic graphic novel series Berlin. After all, the first chapter was published in 1996. If the many plot lines running through the book seem prescient, it’s because there’s an inherent timelessness to paying close attention to many facets of a society, and drawing out class differences and how politics run through every aspect of people’s lives.

Berlin has been a slow-burn labor of love for Lutes. The 22 chapters, published sporadically by Drawn & Quarterly over the decades, have been collected as a trilogy of books: 2000’s City of Stones, 2008’s City of Smokeand now City of Light, the last installment, released on September 4. (A 592-page complete edition of the series was also released on that date.) The books tell the stories of dozens of major characters from multiple overlapping political, social, and religious spheres in Berlin during the waning days of Germany’s interwar Weimar Republic, capturing both the epic thrall and the day-to-day mundanity of living in tumultuous times.

From Berlin (courtesy Drawn & Quarterly)

Against the backdrop of the rising Nazi Party, these characters evolve through their different attempts to keep up with the times. Marthe, an art student from the countryside, moves to the big city for the first time at the beginning of the series, and becomes both more worldly and more world-weary over the course of the story. Anna, Marthe’s friend and eventual lover, is a trans man who watches the queer capital of Europe slip backward from progress. Kurt Severing, a journalist, finds that his efforts to expose the truth seem ever more fruitless against larger machinations that continue to turn regardless of public opinion. One of the standouts is Silvia, a young girl whose family is torn apart (her father is a Nazi, her mother a communist), and after a tragedy winds up on the street. She eventually becomes a hardened communist scrapper. There are few real-life people in the story (major historical figures appear rarely, and only to illustrate big changes), and none of the main cast does anything to impact history. This is about people who lived the past, not those who made it.

Lutes has a detailed bibliography for the series which demonstrates the breadth and scope of his research into the subject matter. With the complete freedom offered by the page, he has faithfully recreated the times lived between 1928 and 1933. The geography of the city, the clothing different people wear, the songs they sing, the ads and propaganda they look at — all of it is meticulously sourced and rendered.

A clash between Nazis and communists (the “browns” and “reds”) in the streets (courtesy Drawn & Quarterly)

Working with black and white and hatched shading patterns, Berlin is purposefully drawn to resemble wordless novels of the ’20s — an offshoot of German Expressionism which crossed with antique woodcut techniques to form an early ancestor of the modern comic book. This series, of course, is far from wordless, though it will draw back and let characters act as often as it will listen to them speak their minds. Lutes also defies certain Expressionist conventions, with an emphasis on white rather than black and an avoidance of exaggeration or abstraction. The drawings maintain rigid attention to realism in people’s facial expressions and gestures; no one will go off-model for the sake of an action sequence. Lutes cites both the book and film versions of Berlin Alexanderplatz as inspiration, but it also reminded me of the works of Mike Leigh, another filmmaker with an acute eye for human details and social dynamics.

City of Light brings to a head many of the series’ long-building conflicts, taking place on the cusp of the Nazis assuming control of Germany in 1933. If the previous two books were about living on the edge of cataclysm without fully understanding it, this one is about being compelled to act by the realization that the world is about to change drastically — or that it’s already done so without your realizing it. Each character reacts to the changed Berlin in a different ways. Some seem to doom themselves, given  what we know of the events to come, while others apparently ensure their survival. But we don’t know any of their fates for sure. There is no “Where are they now?” epilogue; only a montage which transitions the Berlin cityscape from 1933 to after the war to the middle of the Cold War to today.

Young Silvia Braun and her comrades raid Nazi living quarters (courtesy Drawn & Quarterly)

With its completion, Berlin fully joins the ranks of canonical graphic novels. It is timely not just in our current tumultuous era, but for as long as societal deprivations build until clashing ideologies come to a head. The characters in the book frequently speak as if their fight will definitively settle the direction of world history. The events of the ’30s were not a specific warning for us, but part of an ever-in-motion cycle of consequences. Berlin began publication in an era which was supposed to be the “end of history” and now wraps up in the midst of a forceful reminder that there is no such thing. The book does not end with an epilogue explaining what happens to the cast, but by simply bowing out at an appropriate spot. There are no endings, only pauses.

City of Light by Jason Lutes is now out from Drawn & Quarterly.

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