7 books which will help you get to know Berlin

IMG_0767 (1)Alongside relishing delicious tapas, sunbathing, and swimming in the sea, I spent our two-week summer holiday in Andalusia last year reading “Tales of the Alhambra” by Washington Irving. Reading relevant books for the location is something I like to do – Henry James in Italy, Jan Morris in the Middle East, Alice Walker in the US – providing a more nuanced dimension to fact-filled travel guides.

I did this, too, when I first came to Berlin as a student – sniffing out obscure, vaguely relevant works in the glorious Staatsbibliothek on Potsdamer Platz. Though after 6 years here, my location-focused intellectual pursuits have been waylaid by work, family life and lots of other good, unrelated books I’ve been keen to read, I still believe books – both fiction and memoir – represent one of the best ways to understand the spirit of Berlin. Here are my top seven recommendations spanning genre and historical period – mostly available in translation – to help you get to know Berlin. 

1. “Die Poggenpuhls” / Theodor Fontane

Set in 1888 in what is referred to as the Kaiserreich, “Die Poggenpuhls” depicts an impoverished Prussian aristocratic family struggling by in Berlin. The father has died, the two brothers are away with the army, leaving the mother and three sisters in a pokey, rented apartment just on the edge of an acceptable part of town, desperately keeping up appearances despite the financial constraints. The novel shows the shifting of power and wider societal change at a crucial point in German history. Continue reading

Germany and Hollywood

Valkyrie movie posterBesides the glaringly obvious World War II thriller Valkyrie, opening Christmas Day in the United States, there are several other current or upcoming German-Hollywood connections. The more dazzling Tom Cruise blockbuster about the attempted assassination of Hitler by German Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg was directed by Bryan Singer (Apt Pupil, X-Men) and filmed largely in Germany for an estimated $80 million. But the much quieter film, The Reader, which opened recently in US movie theaters, was not only filmed in Germany, it is based on a German novel, Der Vorleser (The Reader), by Bernhard Schlink — a book made famous in the US by Oprah Winfrey. Directed by Stephan Daldry (The Hours), the film features Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, and a German actor by the name of David Kross, who plays the young character of Michael involved with Hanna (Winslet). It’s a Holocaust film with an interesting twist, looking at morality and guilt in a very personal way.

When I was living in Berlin last year, I kept reading and hearing about Cruise’s problems with German authorities about filming locations (and a film lab disaster in Germany that led to the re-shooting of some key scenes). Later Continue reading