Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Nothing will ever smell as good to me as the bratwurst did at Bornholmer-Strasser station.

East Berlin is so dull it’s beautiful. Especially in the cold air, and rain, with the empty lots full of skeleton trees and the roads built on heavy iron arches. And in the middle of it burnt orange doors to the train station, and turquoise tiles, in these strange colours that feel as if they were picked by someone who had never seen colour before – peculiar, particular. The perfect colours to set off grey.

The Berlin wall looked unthreatening and thin, like a theatre prop.

It wasn’t really the wall that kept people in, I guess. But how frustrating to have such a flimsy barrier stand between you and the world. It was freezing there, just a small field with a piece of wall, and a visitor’s centre with a fifteen minute film that we didn’t watch.

It’s amazing how empty Berlin is at this time of year.

Catherine stayed in the hotel today, so my dad and I went to the Stasi museum. This was building 1 of 45; just the centre of a giant complex that seemed to have mushroomed around one man with a lot of power. Despite the fact that they were awful, you could tell that the flats surrounding it were nicer than the usual – pinkish pebblecrete with lightwells around the stairs. The doors are like the doors to a nice hotel:

The foyer has red granite columns and stairs, a weird blend of luxury materials and proletarian symbolism. The first and third levels of the museum are text board heavy, a lot of dry information in a well ordered series that tells you who the main officials were and an overview of their history, staffing numbers, influence, methods. There was a car with a plexiglass door and a camera set up to film through a 1mm hole around a corner. Some of the gadgets seemed over the top silly, like the watering can camera. The second floor has the well-preserved bits, with the Bond-lair boardroom:

The panel on the left is a map recessed into the wall:

And the casino room:

[Berlin has excellent stair rails: even in the East, with these Mies van der Rohe curves]

The offices reminded me of the Prime Minister’s suite in Old Parliament house, a 60’s political period piece. Full of phone banks and card file cabinets. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t understand all the recordings of Eric Mielke, or maybe it wouldn’t be necessary in a city where my parents’ generation could have had an active career as Stasi agents. But it seemed like the piece that was missing was personal stories about what it was like to be investigated, or to inform; why you did it, what it meant to you. The most affecting exhibit was a series of photos of informers and their code names; a man at the wedding of the couple he informed on, a punk singer performing with her band. Maybe the problem was that it would strike too many nerves, but that in itself would be interesting to address: an explicit acknowledgement of the trauma in families and society that a surveillance state causes. Maybe it’s too political, given reunification. We came back to go to a concert at the Philharmonic.

I keep on about the light but I really love it. All of these tiny lamps along the stairs and hanging from the ceiling, with bright pools on the carpet and dimness near the bar. They actually think about it here.

The concert itself was a chamber orchestra playing Bach and then a series of atonal contemporary Korean compositions and then Bach again. It worked about as well as it sounds like it would. I haven’t been able to make the aesthetic leap to atonal music; maybe you have to appreciate it on an intellectual level to do that. I was falling asleep with jet lag, and worried that I would embarass us by collapsing mid-performance. But it ended, finally, and we left.

Before all of this we’d been to the Natural History museum. I think it has been renovated recently. I was hoping for it to be half derelict, full of dusty taxidermy and dark hints at weird attempts at science, like measuring the mouths of parrots. It did, though, have a very impressive room of fish in jars, in a glass walled enclosure lit from behind:

It was very German – like the Australian museum but more organised.

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