Jason Lutes’ Berlin: City of Stones is a timely read in light of our troubled global economy. The graphic novel imagines Germany between the world wars, before Adolf Hitler stormed to power.
Germany had lost World War I just a decade before and the severe economic sanctions imposed by the victors had crippled the country. The weak Weimar Republic suffered from rampant unemployment, causing angry German citizens to join political parties with vastly different ideological bents. War veterans with amputated limbs hobbled through the streets as the nation attempted to rebuild. People were hungry, confused, and angry. And they needed someone to blame.
Berlin is a timely read because today’s economic climate gives a tiny, frightening taste of the frustrations that could have given rise to the Nazi regime. The book suggests that the Germans were not all passive citizens waiting for an authority figure, but also active dissidents who were violently silenced. The National Socialists were committed to order and authority; the Communists to a worker run state; the rich to sustaining their wealth. The country was ripe with tension, with riots and protests liable to explode at any moment.
Graphic novels never cease to impress me because of the ability of an author to painstakingly craft each panel and sustain a narrative. Lutes crafts his backdrops patiently, presenting carefully designed aspect shots — moving between a train, say, then a railroad switch, and on to passengers on the platform. In this sense, he gives a sense of place with cinematic assurance.
His ability to write in French, German and English also make the setting feel authentic, complementing his studied landscapes. His strongest moments include his discussions of German artistic theory and his own playful use of graphic storytelling.
But the story is also paced too quickly at times. He often dances between the thoughts of various characters in an effort to capture the frenetic energy of the city. The result tends to be confusing. Another point is that certain characters are drawn consistently but others are indistinguishable. Many of his children look like adults. Children didn’t dress in what we now think of as kiddie clothes in the late 1920s but in one scene I was lost for several pages as I wondered why a particular adult was so small — turns out it was a child.
The other setback to the story is that none of the characters in the menagerie — there are many of them — is appealing. Marthe, an aspiring art student, at first endears us with her wide-eyed innocence in the big city. But her pretentious art crowd and her love affair with the leftist journalist Severing lacks real feeling. Everyone is just trying to survive but the story lacks any compelling protagonist with which to identify. The result is sort of a sickly, voyeuristic sensation with no real feeling of attachment.
This compilation also feels episodic because it is comprised of eight separate issues. It is best read at that rate — I could rarely sustain more than a few pages at a time because of the dense nature of this meditation.
These shortcomings are forgivable because Berlin represents a laudable effort to reconstruct a pivotal time in German history. When viewed as a narrative of political movements and social undercurrents, the book becomes much more enjoyable.
Human rights stem from the underlying principle that people are entitled to certain rights simply for being human beings. Berlin attempts to penetrate the veil of Nazi-era barbarity by reminding us that ordinary Germans, too, wrestled with all-too-human daily struggles before succumbing to National Socialism.
Review written by and used with the permission of Deji Olukotun, who reviews stories about human rights at FictionThatMatters.org