Berlin Before the Storm


by Jason Lutes
Drawn and Quarterly, 577 pp., $49.95
Jason Lutes/Drawn and Quarterly
A page from the graphic novel Berlin by Jason Lutes

In 1997 Jason Lutes, a comics editor and cartoonist in Seattle known for Jar of Fools, a graphic novel about an alcoholic magician and his senile mentor, set out to create an ambitious comic about Berlin in the late Weimar period, just before Hitler’s rise to power. The idea occurred to him when he happened to see an advertisement for a book of photographs called Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin. Before Lutes began his research—two years’ worth, as it turned out—most of what he knew of his subject, as he told me in an interview at a comics expo this past fall, came from the movie Cabaret. He didn’t speak or read German. At age twenty-eight, he figured the project might take him fourteen years to complete.

Twenty-one years later, at age fifty, Lutes was done. Although he published parts of Berlin serially along the way—first in small pamphlet-sized comics, then in three paperback volumes subtitled “City of Stones,” “City of Smoke,” and “City of Light”—the complete Berlin, nearly six hundred pages, can at last be read in one volume, a beautiful, fully baked brick. It includes a bibliography and a helpful key to the many persons, both real and fictional, populating the book.

The compositional principle of Berlin is montage. Lutes decided to structure his comic along the lines of Wim Wenders’s dreamlike movie Wings of Desire (1987) and Alfred Döblin’s epic novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), both of which duck in and out of various characters’ minds and lives. And so the pages of Berlin cut, sometimes abruptly, from street shots to close-ups, from train tracks to interior monologues, from newspapers to parlor rooms, and from one character to another. He devotes, for instance, an entire page to a (fictional) traffic guard thinking about the lunch his wife packed for him and whether the people he’s monitoring from his guard tower are more like cows or sheep. Then suddenly Lutes takes us inside the offices of the (real) newspaper Die Weltbühne, where the (real) poet Joachim Ringelnatz is making fun of the Nazi salute.

Montage, a staple of cartooning, is decentering by design. What Walter Benjamin wrote about Berlin Alexanderplatz in his essay “The Crisis of the Novel” can also be said for Lutes’s epic comic: “The texture of this montage is so dense that we have difficulty hearing the author’s voice.” In fact, Berlin has no authorial voice, no narration, no overarching perspective. Instead it has an atmosphere of aloofness. It is this impassivity that makes reading this book a deeply unsettling experience.

Bohemians, workers, artists, jazz musicians, thugs, and prostitutes fill its pages, but Berlin also has two main characters, both fictional. One is Marthe Müller, an unflappable young art student from Cologne, a newcomer to Berlin who carries her sketchbook around with…

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