“A unique and most beautiful evocation of a tantalizing city.”
Recalibrating time and space at the fault line of history
Ghost Dance in Berlin is an unlikely declaration of love by the American-born son of German-speaking Jewish refugees. From a temporary perch in a villa on Berlin’s biggest lake, Wortsman imagines the parallel celebratory haunting of two sets of ghosts, those of the exiled erstwhile owners, a Jewish banker and his family, and those of the Führer’s Minister of Finance and his entourage, who took over title, while in another villa across the lake another gaggle of ghosts is busy planning the Final Solution.
Where the Wall once stood dividing East and West the city remains bisected by invisible borderlines, across which the author hops with an eye for telling detail and an ear for memorable conversations with street musicians, winos, lawyers, bankers, politicians, a taxi driver, a hooker, and a Michelin star chef, with cameo appearances by Henry Kissinger and the shade of Marlene Dietrich.
Critical Acclaim for Ghost Dance in Berlin
“A fascinating portrait of one of the world’s most complex and misunderstood cities. With the keen eye of an American-born son of Jewish refugees, Wortsman captures Berlin in vignettes that are enlightening, moving, and darkly funny.”
—Tony Perrottet, author The Sinner’s Grand Tour
“Peter Wortsman brings Berlin to life—that complex, beguiling, and often euphoria-inducing city—with grace, wit, and beauty. A must read.”
—David Farley, author of An Irreverent Curiosity
“Ghosts dance and flicker in this vivid and haunting memoir of a magnificent, tormented, once divided city. Peter Wortsman writes with passionate nostalgia for a refined and traumatized civilization. Berlin drives the largest economy in Europe, and yet most of us hold outmoded stereotypes of Germans, and no clue at all about their emotional depths. Wortsman’s Jewish-Austrian roots, his fluency with the language, the culture and the angst of Germany make him the perfect guide to all aspects of life in Berlin—the best and the wurst of it.”
—Tim Ward, author of Zombies on Kilimanjaro
“Wortsman tears down the wall between East and West Germany, between memoir and reportage, between reflection and examination.”
—Tom Miller, author of Trading with the Enemy
Praise for Peter Wortsman
“I was particularly struck by the account of the visit to Auschwitz [in ‘Snapshots and Souvenirs’]. The behavior of the people was wonderfully human and moving—the sort of thing even the best writers find it almost impossible to invent. The unexpected in human behavior is difficult to take out of the air, as opposed to the usual, which anyone can invent. So that it is precisely these unforeseen details which establish the authenticity of the text, and which give it its literary values….excellent.”
—Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky
“A Modern Way to Die is a fantastic book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have never read anything quite like this, but my enjoyment was due to more than just novelty, it was a response to marvelous writing, wonderful craft, and the breath of imagination…. [Wortsman] succeeded so well in his craft and art that it reads ‘artless’ and ‘spontaneous,’ which to me is the highest of compliments.”
—Hubert Selby, Jr., author of Last Exit to Brooklyn
“Wortsman hangs with the masters.”
—A. Scott Cardwell, The Boston Phoenix
“His work reminded me some of E. B. White’s New Yorker stuff—observations turned into little reads but with a modernist twist.”
—Ruth Lopez, The New Mexican
“Wortsman achieves a level of spontaneity and accessibility…to which most writers can only aspire.”
—David Ulin, The L.A. Weekly
By Peter Wortsman
The last time I visited Berlin I made eye contact with the most beautiful woman in the world, only she was stone-hearted and more than four thousand years old, and didn’t speak a word of English or German, or any other living tongue. I looked her up again not long ago but she had moved. Displaced from the banks of the Nile to a palace in Charlottenburg, and from there to the Museumsinsel in the Spree, she’d changed lodgings yet again from the Altes to the recently resurrected Neues Museum, where she finally found a room of her own, her elusive look locked forever in a glass case on the edge of a smile. This being Berlin, all bets are on where Frau Nefertiti will turn up next.
Next door in the Pergamon Museum the packaged remains of several empires are pickled and preserved, including a section of the walls of Babylon and a scale model of the ill-fated Tower of Babel, the World Trade Center of antiquity, downed by an angry deity. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump to the site of the old Stadtschloß, once an emperor’s urban residence, flattened by Allied bombing and post-War ideological bulldozers, now a hole in the heart of the city. It’s a stone’s throw from there to the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz, the obsolete symbol of another lost illusion formerly upheld with a since-fallen wall. But the traffic rushes on and pedestrians throng the stately thoroughfare Unter den Linden, at the tail end of which the old Brandenburg Gate is open for business again.
Built on a heap of urban impulses, Berlin is a phoenix forever being reborn. Eight centuries old, it has managed with an uncanny resilience to remain ever young by reinventing itself time and again to suit an ever-changing geopolitical reality.
A city in constant flux, very much like New York, Berlin has kept reinventing itself, while going through makeover after makeover: primped up from provincial backwater to Prussian seat of government; built up by Bismarck into the Biedermeier Hohenzollern Imperial Hauptstadt, only to be deconstructed, upon the empire’s sudden collapse, into the short-lived Weimar Republican fever-dream of modernity and capital of the avant-garde; enshrined as grandiose Thousand-Year Reichstadt and redubbed Germania, only to be reduced a few years later to an occupied and divided rubble heap at the fault line of history; revived in a schizoid state of post-World War II duality; reunited and redefined yet again in 1989 when the Wall came tumbling down.
Like New York, I think of Berlin not as a proper noun, but rather as a “proper,” albeit transitive, verb—with a mass transit(ive) system that actually works—forever evolving, boomeranging, or “Berlining” (sich Berlinernd) into the city of tomorrow. With the flow of traffic regulated (symbolically at least) by the replica of the original traffic light—Europe’s first—at Potsdamer Platz, es Berlinert sich immer weiter… It keeps right on “Berlining. ”
I myself have witnessed the city’s dizzying metamorphoses over the last four decades.
First, at a gathering of Fulbright Fellows in 1973, when the divisions of East and West, emblematic of the split in the world, literally cast in cement, seemed insurmountable.
Next, to visit a friend in the East in 1986, on his thirty-ninth birthday, coincidentally the twenty-fifth anniversary of the erection of the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Protective Dike), as it was officially referred to in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). When, in a post office in East Berlin, I wanted to purchase a copy of the commemorative stamp marking a quarter century of protection against the perceived fascist threat to the west, the heretofore poker-faced woman at the service window actually burst out laughing, convinced that I was kidding, and I had to repeat my request a second time before, with a look of utter amazement, she slipped me the sticky, perforated image. No one had ever asked for the stamp.
And that was a mere three years before a hunk of the demolished Berlin Wall sold as a hot collector’s item at Macy’s in New York.
Then, in the summer of 2007, I walked along a line of bricks, an urban scar in the pavement near Checkpoint Charlie, that marked (and mocked) the erstwhile division where the Wall once stood. And from the glass dome bulging like a prescient eye atop the renovated Reichstag Building I saw the restless cranes of progress yet again reconfiguring the idea of a city.
Filmmaker Walter Ruttmann captured the restless rush in his 1927 documentary montage,Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis), in which legs and arms take on a life of their own and motion is the primary emotion. Novelist Alfred Döblin used a similar montage technique to mine the city’s ever-excitable subconscious, painting its fluid portrait in his epic novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929. At around the same time Georg Grosz’s penciled and painted grotesques likewise caught the crazy rhythm, and Kurt Weill and Friedrich Holländer sounded its sultry jazz riffs in songs interpreted by Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich, until the music was silenced and the dance forced into lockstep by booted storm troopers.
But the city’s indomitable spirit survived, and here I am again, still waiting for Nefertiti to blink.
Table of Contents
I. GHOST DANCE IN BERLIN
1. My Winterreise
2. The Vectors of Alexanderplatz
4. A Gift
5. Of Sublime Ecstasy and Guttural Disgust
6. Dietrich Undressed
7. Poultry Epiphany
8. Wurst Lust
9. Walking on Water
10. The Return of the Frog King, or Iron Henry
12. The Museum of Things
14. Professors of the Pavement
15. The Publisher
16. Alexanderplatz Revisited
17. But Where Were the Nazis?
18. Spring Reawakening
19. In Search of Lost Shadows
20. Recalibrating Time and Space
21. The Phantom Flash
II. THE OTHER GERMANY: TRAVEL NOTES FROM THE FAR SIDE OF THE WALL
About the Author
Chewing on a mouthful bit off a half loaf of coarse Vollkorn (whole grain) bread bought bright and early when the baker at the S-Bahn Station Berlin-Wannsee opened for business, I am standing, knee-deep in snow, at the grave of writer Heinrich von Kleist, on a wooded knoll overlooking the Kleiner Wannsee (Little Wann Lake), where, with a pistol shot, the troubled Romantic put a last period on the sentence of his life. The warm dough kneaded between tongue and palate and the kernels exploding under the millstone of my molars make for a pleasant distraction from the cold, an inner armor that insulates and fortifies. Nobody knows how to bake whole grain bread like the Germans, it tastes like it just came out of the oven in “Hänsel and Gretel.”
Shooting up out of sleep at daybreak, thrilled to be alive, I waited for the darkness to dissolve before venturing out, bundled up, a walking seven-layer cake, wadded with boxers and T-shirt, long johns, flannel shirt, sweater, overcoat, hat, hood, and woolen scarf, reveling in the frozen silence.
The spectacle of the icy lake glimpsed through the blurry periscope of my tearing eyes is dreamlike, birds frozen in flight and sailboats iced in at half-tilt. The pillow of snow on the lonesome tombstone supplants the white hair Kleist, a suicide at thirty-four, never lived to grow. It’s a peaceful, melancholy spot removed from the road in a copse of evergreens—not quite as remote as Kleist must have found it, but almost. Hard to imagine it’s still within Berlin’s city limits. An unassuming carved wooden sign, easy to miss unless you’re looking for it, points toward a winding footpath, oddly discouraging access. I am the only living soul in sight, and though I understand they mean to make it more presentable by 2011, the bicentennial of his passing, for the moment at least it’s still conducive to musing.
The poet Rilke went to Paris to serve as secretary to the sculptor Rodin and managed to carve a memorable book from the experience. Secretary, in a manner of speaking, to Kleist—it’s my English take on his words that helped earn me this sojourn in Berlin—he would surely not have begrudged my extracting a few reflections.
Wannsee, the posh district of lakeside villas where I live, is named for the lakes. The Academy is considerably less intimidating than I had feared. The white wine helps. The nicest thing about it is the silence and the solitude when I want it, and then to emerge for limited spells of sociability at breakfast and dinner.
Gazing at me over the rim of his glasses, the bookkeeper at the Academy, to whom I’d come to inquire regarding the delay in the payment of my monthly stipend, caught me peering out the window at the Großer (Big) Wannsee, the vast frozen body of water out back, perhaps divining my intent. “It’s not really a lake, you know, it’s a swollen river,” he remarked with a clipped, nervous laugh, adding, “People have fallen in.” The poet Georg Heym, another casualty of German letters, fell through a hole in the ice. But this is my year of living dangerously, the coldest winter in decades. When the young women on staff dare do it, as they say they will, I too will walk across.
Wintry Berlin is a city largely devoid of color, except for a dirty white carpet of snow flung over a treacherous ice slick and a perennial gray cloud cover overhead, ice and sky running into each other, stained by the faint yellow trace of a distant sun that never quite breaks through.
Picture my surprise last Wednesday on my way back to Wannsee, at the sight of a green hand gripping the railing before me on the crowded tram and artificial ruby-
red hair flapping in a simulated tropical breeze. Part wildebeest, part uprooted palm tree escaping the inhospitable arctic chill into the hothouse on wheels. And in the startling blur—a sudden burst of color blinds—the green gloved hands became fluttering palm leaves and the electric redhead a fabulous fruit, a cross between a pineapple, a coconut, and a ripe pomegranate—more tantalizing and forbidding than Eve’s fabled apple of temptation. In vain did my nostrils flutter in search of an olfactory rush, for this exotic fruit had no scent. She was cold, an ice fairy, a Berlin mirage, dashing out ahead of me at Alexanderplatz, and promptly melting, the renegade burst of color immediately blending back into the ubiquitous gray.
Sunday, despite the sub-zero temperature, I trekked the considerable distance out to Charlottenburg Palace—Berlin is a vast urban expanse—to catch the closing of the Lucas Cranach exhibit. I admit to an erotic tingle at the sight of all those oddly titillating blond nudes: his quizzical Eve, fondling fig leaf and apple; a seductive Teutonic Venus engaged in a sultry bump and grind with a veil that reveals more than it hides; bold Judith, sword in hand outside the tent, just after beheading Holofernes; and the virtuous Lady Lucretia, all her soon-to-be self-sacrificed loveliness on display, preferring death to dishonor—the pin-up girls of antiquity priming and pricking burgeoning Protestant morality. But I was particularly taken by the small self-portrait of the painter, a personal friend of Luther, who, despite his considerable worldly success, opted to preserve this guilt-ridden gaze to pass on to posterity. My libido too numb to take the tingle along, Cranach’s uneasy look accompanied me on my chilly rush home.
At minus ten degrees Celsius, the frigid sunset over Alexanderplatz, where I emerged from the U-Bahn (subway) to catch the S-Bahn (elevated), made the ground feel like a glacier underfoot. There on the frozen pavement sat a hooded black man playing pipes. Not bagpipes, mind you, massive metal pipes, a makeshift instrument composed of lead fittings twisted pretzel-like and painted blue, on which he banged a primal rhythm and blew a ululating wail, a cross between the guttural groan of an aboriginal didgeridoo and the mournful lament of a landlocked leviathan still aching with life while divining imminent death. His Lied der Kälte (Song of the Cold) echoed in the arctic chill, each frozen note an inkling of eternity. Too cold to pull off my gloves, reach into my pocket, and pluck out a coin, I rushed by, stirred by the sound, wondering how long he’d have enough breath and dexterity left in his frozen fingers to keep blowing and banging.
Oblivious, meanwhile, to such rarefied aesthetic considerations, two homeless men, the one without gloves pushing the other, without legs, along in a rickety wheelchair with one wheel broken, the protruding spokes flicking a curious percussive accompaniment, went whizzing by to seek the tenuous shelter of the unheated station. Wintry Berlin is no place for beggars. From the corner of my eye I caught the legless one in the wheelchair shrugging at the musician, as if to say: He’s still got all his limbs, so what’s he wailing about? Or perhaps it was a grudging shrug of sympathy. Too cold to consider for long, we almost collided, exchanging chilly looks, and each rushed off to our separate destinies.
About the Author
A writer in multiple modes in English and German, Peter Wortsman has been dubbed “a twentieth-century Brother Grimm” (Bloomsbury Review) and “a delinquent Hans Christian Andersen” (by playwright Mark O’Donnell). He is the author of a book of short fiction, A Modern Way To Die (1991); two stage plays, The Tattooed Man Tells All (2000) and Burning Words (2004); an artists’ book, it-t=i (2005), on which he collaborated with his brother, artist Harold Wortsman, comprising Peter’s poetry and his brother’s etchings; and a novel, Cold Earth Wanderers (forthcoming 2014). Also a critically-acclaimed translator from the German, his English takes on German classics include Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, by Robert Musil, now in its third edition (1987, 1995, and 2006—and excerpted in Flypaper, 2011); Travel Pictures, by Heinrich Heine (2008); Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist(2010); Selected Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2013); and Tales of the German Imagination, From the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, an anthology he also compiled (2013).
His travel writing has appeared in major newspapers and websites, and was selected five years in a row (2008-2012) for The Best Travel Writing series. He is the recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award and the Geertje Potash-Suhr SCALG-Prosapreis, a prize for short original fiction in German, awarded by the Society for Contemporary American Literature in German. A former fellow of the Fulbright and Thomas J. Watson Foundations, in 2010 he was the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, where he wrote much of Ghost Dance in Berlin. An excerpt from the book won the 2012 Gold Grand Prize for Best Travel Story of the Year in the Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing.