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My First Day in Berlin Last Spring

I took the prescription sleeping pills before take-off but slept only in the thinnest intervals, perhaps one hour out of eight. This was to prove of some difficulty on my first day in Berlin, since my strategy for overnight flights is to knock myself out on the plane, then stay up as late as possible on the day of arrival in Europe.

Finally, at seven the next morning the end of the flight emerged tantalizingly from the Hessian mist. Once on the ground, I stumbled through the Frankfurt Airport, caught my connecting flight, and by nine was in Berlin. 

After dropping my bag at the apartment I was staying in, I headed out to the western precincts of the city. 

The purpose of my trip was reconnaisance in advance of our ultimate move to Berlin a few months later. My first task was to have a look at the bi-lingual, publically-funded English-German elementary schools. (In the end we opted for total immersion and dumped our kids in the local German schools, but we’d had some good reports from timid Anglophones on the benefits of these bilingual schools so I had been sent to investigate.) 

Not surprisingly, these schools are located in zones of the city which were under English and American control after the second World War. Ferried hence by the fabulous Berlin public transit system I was on the grounds of the Charles Dickens School in Charlottenburg in time for midday recess. Various friends had cautioned me that however strong the linguistic integration may be in the classroom, linguistic self-segregation would inevitably occur on the playground and in social circles, thus impeding the learning of the other language. 

As I walked through the playground I heard some young girls speaking English nearby. Twenty feet away a group of young German girls. Indeed, linguistic segregation appeared to be occuring. I stopped to observe, or, put more exactly, lurk. 

Sporting thirty hours of stubble, airplane hair, angrily bloodshot eyes, and a scraggy sartorial ensemble topped off with a black, rubberized raincoat, I must have appeared not altogether unlike the homicidal Peter Lorre character in the later scenes of Fritz Lang’s M, the first shocker-murder movie about a serial-killer who preys on young girls. 

In Homeland America I would probably now be serving out a lengthy sentence in a federal penitentiary. In my experience, schools in America are obsessed with “security.” Even in our local elementary schools in a town on the edge of middle America, the administrators and their courtiers spend hours meeting with parents to develop “security procedures” and the like. 

Whenever an adult enters my daughter’s school he is supposed to sign-in and then put on a badge that proves he has a legitimate purpose for being in the school. Such bureaucratic procedures are a potemkin village, no deterrent whatever to any evil-doing adult with half a brain. 

But one of the problems with living in the midst of such nonsense is the way in which one internalizes these rituals of self-deception simply by going through them everyday. That is afterall one of the great uses of ritual: to numb the analytical faculties, to erode critical detachment. 

So as I continued to lurk, not registering at all on the radar screens of the distant playground supervisors, my chaotic, jet-lagged thinking sent me skidding towards depths of American-style paranoia: So any old weirdo can just come waltzing onto this playground and offer my little-ones bon-bons and bratwurst and then god-knows what? Good Lord! Have these Krauts no sense of decency? 

This laxity prevailed in all the schools I lurked in over the next couple hours in Zehlendorf, the neighboring administrative unit once in the American Zone. 

Even the gleaming John F. Kennedy School accommodated my unannounced and unnoticed arrival on the playground and in the halls without comment or question. (During my roamings I happened into the music room, where I listened for a few ghastly moments to the worst high school orchestra in NATO viciously approximating the first movement of Mozart’s Paris Symphony.)

Thus when assessing the safety of American school children in Berlin — many of them children of diplomats — we might say this: here are our precious youth in a foreign city with a vast Islamic population, not to mention an overdeveloped sex industry, and patrolled here and there by heavily-armed skin-heads, and yet there is no security presence at the gates of these schools? 

I certainly approve, and, especially after the jet-lag cleared a few days later, was glad that we would be away from the preposterous America security culture for at least couple of years.

Slipping unnoticed from the JFK, I picked up a newspaper and headed back towards the apartment in Kreuzberg. On the subway I came across a story about a Leni Riefenstahl photography show at a gallery called Camera Work. On display were still photographs taken at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, an event, you’ll recall, that Riefenstahl depicted in her epic and unforgettable film Olympiad. She was then Hitler’s “official” filmmaker, having completed the previous year Triumph of the Will, that one about the 1935 Nazi Party Conference in Nuremburg. At the Camera Work show not only was Riefenstahl’s Olympiana on offer but also examples of her famous work on naked Nubans, and bagatelles like her portrait of Mick Jagger.

On my first day in Berlin Riefenstahl was still alive at an unrenpetant 100, and had been in the gallery the week before. Riefenstahl rejected all complaints that her films had, at the very least, glorified the Nazi regime. “Everything in my films is true,” she maintained until the end. “I did not make anything up.” 

I got off at the next subway station, changed trains and headed for the gallery in a swanky part of Charlottenburg.

Camera Work takes up two floors in a building at the back of a lovely 19th-century Berlin courtyard. On the first floor were the Nuba in the all their nakedness: the women oiled and gleaming, the men covered in ash. They are beautiful pictures, and in many, especially in a series of two teenage girls dancing, one can sense the dynamism of Riefenstahl’s camera. I recalled those motion pictures of Leni herself, then in her sprightly 70s, dancing around the Nuba with her camera, grinning euphorically as she captured on film the glories of their naked bodies and pre-industrial rituals. 

Upstairs photographs of other pre-industrial rituals were an offer. Instead of gleaming black skin photographed in luminous color, here were Riefenstahl’s 1930s photos of Aryan athletes in Grecian poses: sublime Nazi youths in g-strings coiled with discus or hurling the javelin towards the future of the Thousand Year Reich. 

Flanking these references to Grecian statuary, were Riefenstahl’s slightly blurred studies of Greek ruins. The Nazis were very good at ruins, especially at making them.

Running throughout the gallery were perhaps one hundred miniature proofs (about two inches by two inches) from the 1936 Olympics. These had presumably been taken by Riefenstahl’s staff of photographers and showed scenes from the games, from the opening and closing ceremonies, to equestrian events, basketball, track and field, and diving. (In spite of the fact that she hadn’t taken the photos, Riefenstahl had signed every one in a flagrant effort to increase the value.) The most celebrated scenes from her movie, Olympiad, were those of the divers, and these were therefore the most expensive of the proofs, running somewhere between 300 and 400 Euros. There were also a few shots of Leni in the editing room standing before daunting piles of motion picture film cannisters as she set about editing several thousand hours of footage into a three hour movie. Legend has it that she slept in the editing room for a year to complete the project in time for the Paris World Fair of 1937.

Finally, I came to a close-up of Jesse Owens in the starting blocks for the 100 meter final; again it seems unlikely that Riefenstahl took the picture since she must have been busy directing her vast motion picture crew. But the photo is no less wonderful, capturing as it does the combination of Owen’s taut desire to win and an overriding confidence that imparts a sense of calm, even amusement to his face, as if he’s about to smile even as the starter fires his gun. 

This photo would be a bracing thing to have on the wall as one heads off to work every morning, though the ostentatious Riefenstahl signature makes the thing unbearably pretentious, as if you’re telling all who you successfully lure within viewing distance: “It’s a Riefenstahl.” I wouldn’t have the nerve to hang it in my house, even if I had 4,500 Euros kicking around. 

But Jesse had inspired me. I headed out to the Olympic Stadium near the far western edge of the city. By the time I got there it was late afternoon. After a long walk through the wooded periphery I came to the vast, virtually deserted plain in the middle of which is set the Stadium. There it was in all its simplified Roman grandeur, the classical style stripped of ornament in order to distill its message of pure domination. 

Fully expecting to be able walk out onto the track and stand where Jesse had stood, jump where he’d jumped, etc., I was flabbergasted to see that the stadium was cordoned off and was undergoing a total transformation into an American-style sports palace with luxury boxes, a partial dome, and all the rest. Vast sections of the monumental outer-shell were being jacked up and retro-fitted. Down in the sunken field a American football grid had been laid out and goal posts erected. A nearby poster informed me that a week earlier the Berlin Thunder (of the European NFL) had played aginst the Amsterdam Storm. 

When will the Super Bowl be played here in Hitler’s House? Soon, is my prediction. One can see the ads: scenes of Jesse running the 100 meters intercut with modern day running back dashing down the sideline; a dismayed Hitler standing up as Jesse wins the 100 meter intercut with shots of Al Davis brooding in the press box; the 1936 throngs giving the Hitler-salute intercut with the mass antics of American football fans. Nazis and Smash-Mouth Football: there’s a recipe for record-busting ratings if ever there was one.

Thwarted in my attempt at on-field communion with the ghosts of 1936, I walked around the stadium and went to the 500-foot-high bell tower and got a ticket for the elevator. I rode up with a man and woman of around 80 and a eleven- or twelve-year-old boy I took to be their grandson.

The belltower was by-far the tallest building in the area and I could see a long way. To my right ran the Jesse-Owens Allee (renamed after the war) along the southern edge of the Olympic complex. Spreading endlessly to the east was the modern city of Berlin engulfing the remnants left-over after the Allied bombs had fallen; I could make out the new dome of the Reichstage and next to it the Brandenburg Gate; beyond them, the space-age 1960s T.V. tower — the symbol of the former Socialist East Berlin — rose above the endless, white socialist apartment blocks.

To my right I heard the grandfather say to his wife, “Remember when…” I glanced over and saw him pointing down towards the field. The grandparents would have been about the age of their grandson at the time of the Games. They referred to some German names, presumably Olympic athletes.

I looked down at the field along with them. From this viewpoint, I was struck even more powerfully by the juxtaposition: a fascist exterior encasing the gridiron of America’s belowed, violent game.

Finally, I turned my attention to the back of the platform and to the giant bell hanging there, the same bell Hitler and Jesse had heard in 1936. Moving closer I examined its Nazi eagle astride the Olympic symbol, and below it the words embossed on the lip of the bell: “I call the youth of the World!” Indeed: I call them to devastation, death, extermination.

Was I hallucinating or was this Berlin? 

All of it was very weird and I was very tired and I had to stay up for another few hours. 

I went to the opera.

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