On the evening of Monday November 9th I ride my bike up Unter den Linden to meet a stranger about bookmarks. I seem to have found the magical half hour where traffic is thin and everyone’s either home or warmed by restaurant heating. The conditions encourage a kind of near-freedom: half respecting unavoidable road rules, half riding with local park freedom. It’s quiet, private joy to be surrounded by the implication of so much, and move with the temporary reality of so little.
PULL QUOTE: I ride my bike up Unter den Linden to meet a stranger about bookmarks.
Past the Brandenburg Gate I turn left, ride along the eastern edge of the Tiergarten, then cut through the centre of Potsdamer Platz – past a billboard of inhuman breadth, advertising the iPhone 6; past a swathe of names belonging not to Berlin but the World (Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, McDonalds); past the Sony Center where in a few weeks I’ll watch, on a screen as large as the iPhone billboard, the new Star Wars film – into the commercial district’s eternal inverse: culture. In a row to my right is the Berliner Philharmonie, the Gemäldegalerie, the Kulturforum. The first building on my left, however, is the one I need tonight: the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.
I’m early, so I stroll around the overwhelmingly large lobby, itself larger than some of the libraries I’ve worked in. The recognisable library outposts—a line of computers for catalogue searches, an information desk—contend with the trappings of the nearby houses of high culture: optional coat check, swipe-access entrance gate. Yet these all feel pushed back from the empty centre, like nervous teenagers hugging the wall to avoid dancing. The emptiness is, of course, the point: the unhurriedness of time, the unfillability of space. You’re meant to understand what you’ve come here for, and I do. I find a seat in the corner, pull a paperback from my bag, and find my page using what currently passes for a bookmark: the business card of a restaurant where two weeks ago I ate the largest schnitzel I had ever seen.
Two days earlier, I’d made almost the exact same trip up Unter den Linden to see The Necks play at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.
My progress that day was blocked by 5,000 anti-refugee protesters.
I saw the first signs of trouble from a distance: flashing police lights and a solid-looking collection of backs that seems distinctly unmoving, anything but temporarily stalled. There was a large collection of flag-waving types pouring out from backstreets and on to the main road, walking towards the Brandenburg Gate and protected by police blockades. Soon enough I was told I couldn’t get through, that I’d have to go around. Just a bit right, a few roads down, and I’d be able to ride up without being turned back. I was told all this by police officers with English far more nuanced and fluent than my German. I later learned—reading online news via the cracked glass of Google translation—that the protest has been organised by the AFD (“Alternatives for Deutschland”), a right-wing populist party consisting primarily of the middle class and elderly and, if you believe various reports, a small but unmistakeable neo-Nazi element.
PULL QUOTE: There was something weary about their walk – the duty of defence, all those burdens of what to their minds resembled cultural responsibility.
Instructions received, I moved off and after a half-block of apologies and stop-start progress I could cycle freely. It seemed to be going well, and then I heard chanting, and, more overwhelmingly, the generalised tumble of sound that announces a large group of people nearby if temporarily unseen. Coming around the corner and turning left into an open road it seemed that, like Chaplin innocently picking up a dropped flag in Modern Times and waving it to alert its previous owner only to find himself leading the march, I had slipped myself perfectly in front of what seemed to be another protest. A counter-protest: no-one looked over thirty, nearly every item of their clothing was black, and more than half seemed to be wearing hoodies. And they were pissed off. Monumentally, feverishly pissed off. They chanted with force and walked with purpose. What could be discerned by obscured sight and cluttered sound from the AFD protesters was stolid, rehearsed, a trudge. There was something weary about their walk – the duty of defence, all those burdens of what to their minds resembled cultural responsibility. What moved parallel down these side streets seemed, comparatively, like a genuine near-riot, deprived of violence but retaining the animating energy.
I noted, selfishly, that this cleared my path. Not counting other un-engaged foot traffic and tourist types, there were two large bodies of people here —one permitted and orderly, one fragmented—arguing about a vision of the country they inhabited. I was just trying to see a band from home in a new setting: familiar in the unfamiliar.
A few blocks down we’d hit a park, and the wider roads and connecting lanes surrounding it. What was empty now felt again connected to life – this meant not just people but vehicles. A truck, intent on making a point (and possibly, as I was, just frustrated by the inconvenience) seemed to barely slow down as it approached us from around a blind corner, splitting the large crowd. Every foot available kicked at it as it passed. A few bottles were thrown. Having stopped due to the truck, I noticed a little behind the front line of counter-protesters a banner (which I couldn’t read) and heard more chanting (that I couldn’t understand).
Every time I wound wider right then cut towards the Tiergarten I was greeted with yet another barricade and an officer telling me it was blocked off, before helpfully suggesting I try the next road, and keep working around. I did this three times until finally I seemed to be through – by this stage I had lifted my bike over an unmanned barricade, crossed the Spree twice at two different points, and swerved, at the last possible second, to avoid a line of police vans arriving noisily behind me.
Everyone on the other side of the Gate persisted unaware of the congestion and consternation nearby. The Victory Column observed, unconcerned. The autumnal dump of leaves made the slicked wet ground of the Tiergarten’s garden paths an unbroken and squelching line of the brightest yellow. I moved into the West, and amongst the other clutter of high-rises and commercial towers sat the tipless spire of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, unchanged, dominating the skyline, just as it appeared in the opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation back in 1979.
Fassbinder’s black comedy presents terrorism as essentially comic, its potential horror bled away with internecine squabbling and ideological incoherency. What should be chilling is instead ridiculous, darkly amusing. The film’s shootings and kidnappings arrive arbitrarily, and lead nowhere. For Fassbinder it was a fitting send off to the decade, the film his last in a modern setting. Fassbinder’s final films—not counting Querelle, a Genet adaptation—are historical efforts, investigations of the past. Such productions invariably require a budget, which by this stage in his frenzied career Fassbinder could rely upon; a convincing evocation of the past needs a good costume designer and sufficient period detail, whereas anyone, you could argue, can film the present. Walking around the Fassbinder-NOW exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau a few months ago, what filled many of the rooms was the finery and pomp of these later films (Lili Marleen, The Marriage of Maria Braun). What other material of a film director—beyond a screen showing selected clips, or a reproduction of a shooting script—can adequately fill a museum’s all-white rooms? Many of Fassbinder’s most crucial films dealt with contemporary concerns that even now refuse to shuffle off into easily classifiable historical memory: the romance across age difference and race in Ali: Fears Eats The Soul; the murderous dysfunction behind familial normalcy in What Makes Herr R Run Amok?; the doomed transsexual romanticism of A Year of 13 Moons. Mementos for these films weren’t available at the museum that afternoon. They might still be found on unidentified street corners, fields, U-Bahn stations – everyday places lifted into momentousness through a day of location shooting before resuming their unremarkable status.
PULL QUOTE: There’s history here, some banality, art surviving commerce’s transaction, commerce finding art and squashing it flat.
There’s history here, some banality, art surviving commerce’s transaction, commerce finding art and squashing it flat. A bookmark shaped like a gun from a New York specialist crime fiction bookshop, Murder Ink. Old tobacco ads always strike me as preposterously elegant constructions, and the bookmarks they adorn here—Rallye, Gout Anglais—are no exception. One bookmark, made in Kenya, blooms out as a zebra head from its leathery, and reportedly pungent, thinness. Some memorialise local, minor affairs in mass produced, laminated fashion: blood drives, forgotten sporting carnivals. Others are lushly bespoke, numbered or initialled, featuring woodcut reproductions, individual drawings. The earliest pieces seem comfortably of themselves, happy to sit under glass as objects of art retrieved from function. Others, invariably more recent pieces, are solely function, more often than not tied to a promotional push: the season’s big novel, or film.
In a corner of the library’s lobby sit six display cabinets, open to the public’s inspection, containing all of the above and more. This is the tip of the iceberg’s tip - Zora says this selection is culled from the over 35,000 bookmarks collected by Renate Gollmitz, former research assistant for this very library. She had passed them on to fellow librarians before her death, and Zora and her colleagues have spent the past few weeks creating basic catalogue records for them, and selecting a fitting representation—three hundred or so—for this small exhibition. The rest sit unattended in some corner of the library, waiting for proper bibliographic attention from a cataloguer of immense patience and attention to detail.
As we walk around the cabinets we joke about how humble our own bookmarks are in comparison. I mention my schnitzel card. For Zora, the latest receipt always seems to end up keeping her spot. Yet as commonplace as these bookmarks are—they will at no future point feature in a library’s collection—we still prefer this to the unrequested bookmark inserted for you whenever you pop out of an ebook. The ebook just knows, and will set you straight upon your return. It lacks even the meaningless mimicry of the actual, like the pins our phone invites us to drop on maps existing nowhere other than temporal, erasable space.
On November 10th, the night after visiting the library, I see the new German film Victoria. Its setup is simple. A Spanish girl new to Berlin and without much in the way of language meets a few guys outside a club, and makes an immediate connection with one of them. They walk, drink, climb, talk. A moment presents itself, a crucial decision is made. Beyond that resides the sensitive matter of spoilers.
What distinguishes the film is its formal ambitiousness—the entire night is filmed in one take over two and a bit hours, one sweeping, physically boundless dive and swoon—underground club to rooftop, apartment to hotel room, in and out of cars. In Victoria, life is tinged with mystery, then beauty, then romantic possibility, then danger. It’s a baffled blending of emotions that insists, formally, on unity, and makes all art that concerns itself with the maintenance of a single mood or sensibility feel like a kind of lie.
The film’s most ecstatic and emotionally overwhelming scene takes the viewer from ecstatic relief to voluminous terror in under five minutes.
PULL QUOTE: There is nowhere to drop your bookmark, your pin. Nowhere to gain your groundings.
To speak glibly, as a tourist, it’s possible to think of the film as capturing something of what Berlin life is like: uncertainty on a financial front, but a romantic and temporal front too. Rapture to rupture in one scene. But of course there’s no “scene”, no divisible unit of dramatic action – only a perpetually unwinding skein of occurrence and consequence. Everything that is added to the film’s heedless progress has to exist, however awkwardly, with what has come before. There is nowhere to drop your bookmark, your pin. Nowhere to gain your groundings. You just keep moving – first a walk, then a run.
Next to the bombed husk of the original Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church sits its contemporary child, sharing a name but not design. It is, for lack of a better or more original word, beautiful. It seemed from the outside a perfect cylinder. Inside are set, in the place of overt Gothic trappings or other more historically minded works of ornamentation, 21,292 stained glass inlays. Wikipedia tells me that while the dominant colour is blue, there are “small areas of ruby red, emerald green and yellow”. Impossible to tell, so overwhelming is the sea, the sky, the primary pigment. In the minutes before The Necks start I was compelled to walk around and capture, however feebly, some of the church’s radiance with the smaller and less visionary glass inlay of my phone screen, displaying to me, at split-second delay, whatever my camera phone can hope to reproduce of the church’s un-reproducibility.
Pre-gig photos are the only kind that will be possible this day. Even if I were tempted to reach for my phone at a later point in the afternoon to commemorate the concert, I could not. Like ninety per cent of the audience, I faced away, not towards, the band. The arrangement of the church’s chairs, and the position of the organ, raised on a platform above the church’s entrance, means instead I faced a large gold crucified Christ. When the music started, three clear choices were available: look at him, look at the walls, or drift into your own world and experience sound free from accompanying vision.
And there was, of course, the light. When all but the lights accompanying the musicians were turned off, the soft blue pushed into the room more clearly and forcefully, the late afternoon outside arriving tinted, a submergence.
By the time the band had finished the afternoon light had dimmed, forcing me home sooner than I liked. My bike was not equipped with front or rear lights. Soon I’d be unspottable. I rode back to the Brandenburg Gate, hoping by now the trouble had cleared. Approaching it in the dying light, at first it seemed my wish was granted. Police lingered, and there was still something up ahead, but between an early line of disinterested officers letting me through and the Gate there was a long stretch of empty road that looked like a perfect invitation. Only when I got closer did I see what should have been obvious – the rally was still taking place, the road empty due to everyone else pursuing alternate paths home.
PULL QUOTE: It arrived to me as noise, not sense.
But what I heard in those few frustrated moments as I moved closer to the Gate was more interesting. A harsh, bellowing sound, the clichéd bluntness of the German tongue bouncing off its audience, happy to echo, declaiming with passion. It arrived to me as noise, not sense. A perfectly unpleasant mixture: the bark of the voice behind the magnificence of such architecture, framed by the purpling of the dusky sky. I should be embarrassed, remembering it now, to think of how readily my mind turned to obvious historical precedents. But then I read later that week that many of the counter-protesters yelled “Nazis!” at the AFD members, and I suddenly feel OK about reaching such a conclusion.
Some of the earliest bookmarks in the collection memorialise the achievements of German culture. Four pieces from a series of over four hundred are displayed, each bookmark bearing an etching of a representative cultural figure. The four here are Theodor Fontane, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann and Richard Wagner. Other bookmarks speak a more assertive language, addressing the reader directly: “Wie Bleiben Freunde” (Let’s Remain Friends) reads one, while another gently chides with “Hier Schlief Uhein” (Here Fell Asleep). The strangest bookmarks in this cabinet are the ones designed for German youth, dense with miniscule text and featuring numerous exhortations about life, ambition, health, activity. Every time a young man or woman opened their book they were hit with a demand, an order.
There is a slightly awkward moment in my conversation with Zora when I ask about the obvious lacunae in this cabinet: the war years are unaccounted for. She confirms that a few bookmarks of historical value were left out for the sake of tact, and to avoid controversy.
After slowly inspecting each cabinet, I double back over a few favourites and take photos, hoping that they’ll aid memory when it comes to write about the exhibition.
I also try to take a few overview photos of the cabinets, which involves holding my arms as high as possible for maximum coverage, aware that later I’ll be able to zoom in on a half-memory, however much digital blur discourages me.
Writing about the exhibition now, with my phone at my right hand, it’s odd how even as unassuming an object as a bookmark loses its small measure of intrigue and charm under the iPhone’s lens. Already accommodatingly flat, they flatten further under the glare and unkind angle. What had been momentarily converted from knick-knack to art object in the glass cases falls right back down into the realm of the prosaic. A matter of attention and engagement, perhaps. And the technology permitting that attention.
On Friday 13th I see The Drones play in a small club in Prenzlauer Berg, a short walk from my apartment. I go alone, though within half an hour, after meeting some expats while ordering a beer—my lousy German, plus my Australian accent, is obvious to both strangers and the bartender—I drink and smoke with them. After a few months missing friends and not often talking to Australians, it’s fun to hear about Perth’s punk scene, or a stranger’s nursing career, or someone else’s memories of seeing Curtly Ambrose bowl at the WACA, or whatever these people I’ve just met want to talk about.
The Drones are astonishingly good this night. For a three-song stretch of “The Minotaur”, “Shark Fin Blues” and their new single, “Taman Shud”, every hyperbolic claim I’ve ever made about them feels utterly justified. And it’s a thrill to hear that new song live, carrying a visceral force the comparatively minimalist studio version lacks.
“Taman Shud” feels like a curse on a country. It deals in mystery and banality. The mystery is simple enough – who was the body that washed up on the shore that night in 1948, bearing no identification other than a slip of paper reading “tamám shud” (“finished” in Farsi) found in his pocket? Do we still care about him? Or, more generally, are we curious about anything other than the most obvious and answerable aspects of our existence? And thus the banality, which is straightforward. Each verse of the song itemises the things songwriter Gareth Liddiard claims to “not give a fuck about”—the carbon tax, Andrew Bolt, opportunistic Anzac Day celebrations, even Masterchef—while the chorus turns back to the essential, the spirit of curiosity (and its attendant emotion, mourning).
PULL QUOTE: We are poor cataloguers, hypocritical in our standards, inexact in our application.
For all Liddiard’s justifiable bile, perhaps we should marvel that the country once displayed such curiousity about an unclaimed and unknown body. True, the body was discovered on that most Australian terrain, the beach. Perhaps that decided it: location. Now when bodies strike the water’s surface, we’re happy for them to sink out of sight. However much we claim that the clockless incarceration we submit survivors to is sparing them such a fate, we know, we know. This is our ability, our great strength as an old and descending line of invaders and occupiers – to draw a line, to call time on a boundary we once thoughtlessly crossed.
We are poor cataloguers, hypocritical in our standards, inexact in our application.
We are nothing but exceptions forever convincing ourselves we are rules, then seeking to bestow the status of exception upon another.
Or, to put it another way, quoting the final line of “Taman Shud”: You came here in a boat you fucking cunt.
When I get home from the gig my wife has the television on and her laptop open. Paris has been attacked.
Zora offers to take me on a short tour of the library, and I immediately accept. We walk and talk at a strenuously low volume, and still receive a few dirty looks. The quiet in these rooms—its maintenance, its inarguability—is overwhelming. Noise that would remain unheard in most libraries (the rubbery squeak of a shoe, the hollow plastic thud of a computer cord placed on a desk) is here an audio event.
After ascending a spiral staircase unimaginable in today’s OHS-obsessed library, a truly heartening sight presents itself: the library’s reading room, perceived from angelic height. I haven’t seen Wings In Desire in a decade, large chunks of it now lost in a mental haze, but the scene of Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander moving about this enormous space, receiving unbidden the endless scroll of each patron’s unspoken thoughts, remains unforgettable. A little excitable and now very much the tourist, I take a few photos, angling myself so as to capture as much of the room as possible. Later that night, with contemptible ease, I turn the colour photos black and white before posting one on Instagram, mocking myself in the comments for the lazy monochrome impersonation while remaining impressed with the result.
Watching the clip again later that night on YouTube, the room seems almost unchanged. The same cannot be said for much else in the film. The Potsdamer Platz that now stands would be unrecognisable to anyone whose knowledge of the area was based solely on the 1987 film. The commercial empire earlier passed through to find the library offers nearly everything, but little of it’s very good. Still, there’s Arsenal, the city’s main repertory cinema, which will most nights screen something rare and brilliant. It’s here that a month or two ago I finally watched a film I’d waited nearly a decade to see on the big screen, Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth.
Opting for the isolation and imposition of a darkened room was the right move – time in Colossal Youth first slows, then stalls, then freezes. The Cape Verdean immigrants that make up the majority of the film’s cast inhabit the crumbling Portuguese shantytown of Fontainhas like ghosts who’ve slipped temporal bounds. The film unfolds in patient long takes, full of empty corridors, the bed-ridden ill, rooms filled with shadows more than humans. Costa’s eye is utterly empathetic, his connection to his subjects palpable, agonised, tender.
Before the film I see Costa and an associate drinking in a bar near the cinema, and am half-tempted to talk to him, though I have no idea what I would ask. As it is I leave him be, and return to my seat outside if nearby, where, still a little distracted, I do my best to turn my mind back to the novel I’m currently reading: Heinrich Boll’s Group Portrait With Lady, the story of a German woman doing whatever she can to get by before and after WWII.
What comes after Paris is grotesque and upsetting, if entirely familiar.
The attacks are used to justify all the usual ideological cruelties and savageries that sit in the dead hearts and minds of the expected names, those types waiting for events such as Paris to rationalise their sickness. People looking for a reason to tighten borders and deny safe passage to strangers—5,000 random souls walking up the road on a random Saturday afternoon, for example—are surely encouraged to double down on beliefs misguided and irrational.
It doesn’t matter if Syrian refugees are in no way responsible for the attacks.
It doesn’t matter that, mathematically speaking, Islam is as responsible for the deeds of ISIS as I, an Australian lost in Berlin, am responsible for the discography of The Drones.
It doesn’t matter that the widening of surveillance powers wouldn’t have stopped the killings.
It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. But there is a point to be made by those who live to make it, and facts and kindness and the rest of the complicating human work will have to wait.
One of the most specious tricks utilised to discredit the plight of refugees is to point out that many possess a phone. As if it were 1996. As if this was a rare achievement in 2015. As if the widespread availability of mobile phones hadn’t already changed the world utterly. As if this reality left no corner of the world untouched, even the corner desperately fleeing hellfire, war, complete annihilation.
These are the people we have to argue with. These are the people we must share the earth with.
We’re supposed to respect and rationally debate people who call refugees dogs, or cockroaches, or leeches, or worse. We’re meant to dismantle these would-be arguments with facts. As if the obscenity presented to us, demanding a calmly worded response, could be bargained with, talked down to, dignified.
People who claim to speak for civilisation, in defence of civilisation, in a language completely divested of civility.
Home is a place people rightly never want to leave, but sometimes must. It comes to be that even with neighbours against them, against the crushing weight of loss and an unrecoverable culture, a new place eventually passes for the old.
Culture never wants to change, but does so on a daily basis and still calls itself, at the end of the day, culture.
What sounds like a cry ends up catalogued as a song. A house built only to keep the rain out is eventually heritage listed.
Walking back to the lobby, Zora and I talk more generally about library work – what we like about it, what we want from it. We both agree that we want, fundamentally, to be helpful, to be of use. Our strongest and most satisfying memories of our various library jobs, based on this short conversation alone, involve putting information to use in some personally direct way. Too much future library work, we fear, will involve the endless shunting of files into reading lists and archives for future access by an unseen user. Zora mentions the story of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian from a small village who, via nothing more than the information gleaned from his public library, built a windmill to power his family’s house. An extreme example, but this strikes her as some kind of ideal.
On the ride home I think about one of my earliest library jobs, cleaning and culling an entire basement’s worth of mouldy and often water-damaged books. Nine months, five days a week. Down my colleague Elizabeth and I went every morning, Radio National accompanying the work most of the day, back up to sunlight for lunch and not much else. Boring but simple work, and I didn’t mind it. Each book needed to be checked off a list – discarded if it wasn’t found there and cleaned if it was. The cleaning involved rubber gloves, turps, Chux, and a designated spot on the library’s roof to rid the books of mould before leaving them to dry in the sun. Birds, bored before noon, would often attack. We were the first and least glamorous step in the process. After us the corrected list would be passed on to a cataloguer, who’d retrieve the books, with nothing but apt description, from their extended stay in disrepair.
Objects will forever take on the name of culture without having sought this status; everyday items, as common as cutlery. They mark time in a functional fashion and are eventually converted into something that speaks of decades and centuries in an entirely accidental way. Books and bookmarks alike. My mind turns back to the basement, the slow work. To the patient and persistent German librarian yet to catalogue those 35,000 pieces of converted culture.
Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Sydney Review of Books, The Age, The Australian, Kill Your Darlings, Fireflies and Seizure.