Letter from Berlin

It’s back in Berlin. I came here in the ’60s to study and stayed in the divided city for a decade. In those days, living in an island in the Communist East, West Berliners got construction subsidies and hardship salaries and tax breaks just for being there. As for us students, we occasionally received a bonus labeled Zittergeld (tremble money) every Christmas. The Wall absolved all of us. After all, were we not all Berliners? «All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words: Ich bin ein Berliner.» In retrospect, I feel proud for having been among the vast crowd, in front of the city hall of Schoeneberg when, on June 26, 1963 (I recall the date well), President John F. Kennedy visited the city and spoke those famous words. Furthermore, I remember when the most radiant Greek film star ever, Aliki Voyouklaki, participated with «Astero» at Berlin’s Film Festival, when film director Nikos Koundouros got poor reviews for his «Outlaws» and was later amply rewarded with the Silver Bear for best director for his «Young Aphrodites.» I still see Katina Paxinou sitting with the International Jury, and the late Aglaia Mitropoulou addressing the German audience as the director of the Greek Film Archive. Now the two Berlins that I have known no longer exist. The change over the past few years has been astonishing. Yet the Berlinale, Berlin’s Film Festival which provided a valuable display window for movies from the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War, is still going strong. In its 52nd anniversary, from February 6 to 17, films from Hollywood will no longer dominate the program, as was the case in recent years. Among films in competition this year are Bertrand Tavernier’s «Laisse Passer» (France), Peter Greengrass’s «Bloody Sunday,» «Bridget» by Amos Kollek and Anna Thomson (USA/Israel), «Lundi Matin» by Otar Iosseliani (France), as well as Greek-born Costas Gavras’s «Le Vicaire» (France/Germany) with Bruno Ganz. Now, if one were to mention some premature festival scandal, that would have to be the spurning of Martin Scorcese’s «The Gangs of New York.» «They pretend they did not accept the film because it is not ready yet, which is just not true at all,» a German journalist let me know. «It’s simply wretched.» Now the good news is that a Greek film has been chosen for the first time in 11 years. Constantinos Yiannaris’s «One Day in August» («Ein Tag in August,» as the German title has it) will be shown «at a very propitious date and time too,» as one of the organizers whispered in my ear. With three opera houses, eight symphony orchestras, 18 theaters and 300 art galleries, Berlin is a genuine cultural metropolis. As always, this city had, and still has, nothing to do with the tedious, rich civilities of West Germany. Strolling around the Zoo district late on a rainy Saturday night, one could see hippies, punks, druggies, and drag queens. Everything and everyone that tidy West German cities can’t quite deal with seem to end up in Berlin, drawn by a congenial way of life. The born-again capital of a united Germany, the spot from where the worst of Germany’s history was decreed, is always the place where one can still savor all the delights of sweet old decadence. It is a city of innumerable bars and restaurants with highly flexible opening and closing hours. Most of them don’t get going until after 11 p.m. or midnight, and close only when the last customers leave, any time between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. (or even later). With its blood-red murals, the 12 Apostles, a cosy restaurant at Savigny Platz, which I discovered recently, serves Italian fare and recalls the sophisticated salon ambiance of prewar Berlin. Here, a generous dinner for two with beer is just under 50 euros. It would be more in Athens at a similar establishment in a lesser setting. Yet this is just the sideshow. Politics matter here a lot, too. Last weekend, an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (in its English edition) stated: «So far, the participation of the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party to East Germany’s ruling communists, in the governing coalition of the city state of Berlin has done nothing to advance the cause of inner unity.» Last October, when a bland social democrat, a 49-year-old lawyer called Klaus Wowereit, became Berlin’s mayor, the media seemed more interested in the fact that he was Europe’s first openly gay mayor than anything else. Now, Klaus Wowereit is being blamed for failing «to notice that a major historical party, like the PDS and its communist forebears, is not a harmless label but a symbol,» as a member of Berlin’s Parliament, described by FAZ as an «intellectual outsider,» put it last week. Cristoph Stoelzl added that «this frivolous and dangerous liaison with the communists could cost the Social Democratic Party its soul.» Nevertheless, analysts tend to agree the former Communist Party, known as PDS, can no longer be dismissed. How could it? In the good old East Berlin its still commands up to 40 percent of the vote. Its leader, the witty and telegenic Gregor Gysi, is Berlin’s new economy minister (his father lived next door to the Kokkalis family in the suburbs of East Berlin back in the ’60s). A splendid orator, Gregor Gysi last year condemned the construction of the Berlin Wall and recently he also renounced elements of the ideology to which his party owes its existence. Seeing the city that became a symbol of the fight against Communist tyranny being governed by the successors of the Communists, inevitably causes some discomfort here. For all its cosmopolitan energy, Berlin sometimes seems to be a huge, politically eerie memorial.

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