As predicted, I didn’t wind up ticking off everything on my list of things to do in Berlin, but I didn’t do too badly. Let’s have a look at that list again and see what I did and didn’t accomplish:
The Brandenburg Gate - Yes, I definitely got to see that, and it was lovely. As I walked towards it from Potsdamer Platz, I found myself thinking, “Gosh, it’s a bit smaller than I imagined”. But when you’re standing in front of it, with the late-afternoon sun lighting it up from behind, it’s quite majestic indeed. And it was nice to finally see it from the front; when the Wall was still up, all you got to see from the West was four horses’ rear ends.
The Reichstag building - Oh yes, I got to see that too. The line to view the dome wasn’t too long when my friend Natalie and I got there, so we queued up and were eventually herded into the building, through security, up an elevator and out onto the roof of the Reichstag, where we were confronted with the awesome dome and an amazing view over the city.
The light was great—all ominous clouds and piercing shafts of sunlight which lit up the autumnal swathes of trees around the Reichstag. The dome was as cool as I expected it to be, with Norman Foster’s typical combination of shiny futurism and comforting humanism. For me, the only slightly odd thing was seeing so many German flags flying. I know it makes perfect sense, seeing as it’s the seat of the German government and all, but you don’t otherwise tend to see masses of flags flying in Germany, a country with an understandably ambivalent stance towards patriotism.
The Jewish Museum - I didn’t wind up going here in the end, as much by design as by chance. Time was in rather short supply in Berlin, but if I had really wanted to get here, I would have found a way. Ultimately, though, visiting the Jewish Museum started to feel more like something I should do rather than something I really wanted to do. I certainly intend to see it at some point, but this just wasn’t the trip for it. The same applies to the Topographie des Terrors exhibition, which I didn’t go to see either.
The Holocaust Memorial - Natalie and I passed through the Holocaust Memorial on our way from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburger Tor. I wish I could muster up more enthusiasm for it (or, alternatively, more vitriol), but to be honest, it just left me rather cold. While I sympathize with the demand for a public reminder of Germany’s dark past right in the heart of Berlin’s government quarter, I find myself coming down on the side of the critics who say the memorial is too abstract. I understand that it’s meant to be abstract, a “place of no meaning” as the architect, Peter Eisenman, has apparently said. And maybe abstraction really is the only way for a purpose-built memorial to address an event as incomprehensible as the Holocaust—again, as Eisenman himself has said: “The enormity and scale of the horror of the Holocaust is such that any attempt to represent it by traditional means is inevitably inadequate.”
Nonetheless, I found myself expecting something…more. Maybe it’s just me; several other people I know who visited the memorial found it to be an emotionally powerful experience. Maybe it was wrong of me to expect an emotionally powerful experience in the first place; maybe the memorial’s symbolic significance outweighs its calling to provoke a strong reaction in the visitor. Or maybe, as Jeremy pointed out, the fact that I had spent the previous weekend at Bergen-Belsen colored my perception of the memorial in Berlin. Whatever the case, my feeling towards the Berlin memorial was much like my feeling towards a lot of contemporary art and architecture: I can appreciate it on an intellectual level, but it fails to move me.
The museums on Museum Island and the Museum for Pre- and Early History - I did make it to Museum Island briefly, and Natalie and I took a quick trip through the Pergamon, a museum I clearly remembered from the first time I was in Berlin with my parents. The Pergamon has some absolutely stunning exhibits, including the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, and I was pleased to find that they’re as enormous in real life as they always have been in my memory.
I never did get to the Museum for Pre- and Early History, though Jeremy and I did get to the building which houses the museum: Schloß Charlottenburg. It was our last morning in Berlin and we didn’t really have the time or energy for a detailed visit to a museum, so we ambled through the corridors of the palace instead before grabbing lunch and heading out the airport for our flight home. I’ll hit the museum the next time.
The Film Museum on Potsdamer Platz - Jeremy and I did take a tour of the Film Museum on Jeremy’s one full free day in Berlin. The museum had some nice exhibits on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis, but I found one of the most interesting sections to be the Nazi propaganda exhibit, largely because of the museum’s treatment of the subject.
While the exhibits in the rest of the museum were housed in normal glass display cases or shown on wall panels, the Nazi propaganda exhibits were hidden away in large steel drawers set into the wall. I think I get the concept behind this—by concealing these film clips and documents, the exhibit organizers have avoided placing the propaganda films and filmmakers on the same level as the other films and filmmakers of greater artistic and political merit. (Incidentally, this reminded a bit of how information on the perpetrators was handled at the Bergen-Belsen memorial: folders on various camp officials were organized on recessed shelves in the exhibition—not hidden, but not given the same exposure as information on the survivors. By the end of the opening day, the alphabetized folders had been rummaged through and become completely disorganized—and that’s how they were left.) The drawback to this otherwise clever treatment of the propaganda material is that it would be fairly easy to overlook these drawers, and thus bypass a grim but significant period of German filmmaking. Nonetheless, an interesting museum.
The food hall of the Ka De We department store - Jeremy, Natalie and I made it here for lunch on Wednesday. The food hall is absolutely massive, and since we didn’t have a floor plan, we meandered through without ever knowing what we’d come across next. The hall is a mixture of shelves with foodstuffs to buy and take home, food stalls where you can sit and eat, and deli counters filled with cheeses, fresh meats, cured meats, breads, cakes, smoked fish, fresh fish, salads… It was only slightly overwhelming.
Natalie took the healthy option and had a Thai stir-fry for lunch, while Jeremy and I plunked ourselves down at the stall with potato-based dishes and had a marvelous lunch of cured herrings and potatoes fried with bacon and onions. We also indulged in fancy coffees and made a few take-home purchases as well. All in all, a fantastic foodie paradise.
So, overall, I feel pretty satisfied with what I achieved during my (almost) week away. I got to see the stuff I really wanted to see, while leaving some things for me to do on my next trip to Berlin—which will hopefully be sooner rather than later.