Tuesday 25 November 2014

from Schoeneberg to the Oberbaumbrücke with Finn

photo by Alexa Vachon
A native of Bangor, Northern Ireland, Finn has found a home in Berlin.  Sometimes places simply call us, and who are we to not listen...

I first visited Berlin in the summer of 2008 to look for accommodations, already convinced that I was going to move here. I was living in England, where I was studying, and felt ready to move on somewhere new. Berlin captivated me first through its cinema - my favourite movies of the time were 'Goodbye Lenin', 'The Edukators' and 'The Lives of Others' - and then through its literature. I was already a fully-fledged Berlin nerd before I ever even visited. I came to Schoeneberg searching for the queer scene, found my apartment here, and returned a few weeks later to move in. The night I landed, there had been a huge football match on (not being the greatest football aficionado I now find myself looking up the details: it was the UEFA Euro semi-finals, in which Germany beat Turkey 3-2) and I'll never forget taking a taxi from the airport to my new home and seeing in the distance the whole city exploding with fireworks.

You work also for Queer Berlin which has you touring a lot in the former West.  With the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall just behind us, do you feel Berlin has fully 'reunited', or do you experience a particular change in atmosphere from former East to former West?

I do feel myself to be something of a 'Wessie', since I live in Schoeneberg and tend to spend most of my time either here or in Kreuzberg or Neukoelln, other former 'Western' boroughs, when I'm not at work. In fact, having to regularly traverse the whole city (and beyond) on our various tours is something for which I'm particularly grateful, since we do have a notorious tendency in Berlin to stick to our own 'kiez' or mini-neighbourhood. There are definitely differences in atmosphere between the different boroughs, but in the central districts this is probably less attributable by now to the East-West divide and more to the demographic shifts which have occurred in the last few years. The atmosphere in, for example, the gentrified Eastern borough of Prenzlauer Berg isn't so very different from the bougier parts of Kreuzberg; at the same time, the Western boroughs had their own dilapidation to contend with after WWII and also had their own enclaves of Communist support, like Schoeneberg's 'Rote Insel' or 'Red Island', so the supposed ideological chasm between East and West 
was probably never that clear-cut. Plus, due to the vastness of the city, regional consciousness is very strong here in a manner which seems to supersede the East-West divide: it seems to me that people are first of all proud of their 'kiez', then of their borough, and then of being a Wessie or an Ossie. Not to mention the fact that the city is evolving and diversifying so quickly that so much of its identity is still in flux and being perpetually redefined, which is one of the many things that makes it so exciting to be here at this moment. There are certainly problems associated with the new phenomenon of 'Ostalgie', 'nostalgia for the East' or what we might call the commercialism of communism, which to my mind promotes an unreliable understanding of the Cold War, but also garners a certain amount of wry humour. My favourite meditation on the reunification is probably Thorsten Goldberg's installation on the Oberbaumbruecke, the bridge near the East Side Gallery which formerly straddled the border between East and West: two neon hands, one on either side of the divide, playing a game of 'rock, paper, scissors' from nightfall to sunrise.

Your PhD is in film studies.  Do you work in the field also?  Can you write a bit about the film community in Berlin, which has an incredible history from Babelsburg to Weißensee... 

I've been involved in the production of a few films since moving here: as an actor, and also helping out behind the scenes on shoots directed by my partner, Liz Rosenfeld, who has just finished off a trilogy of movies set in the Weimar era. I'm officially Liz's 'historical advisor', but she has a true artist's quest for atmosphere superseding the more minor or factual details, so we have to agree to disagree on certain anachronisms! Berlin's film industry is truly rich: Babelsberg studios in Potsdam, the oldest functional large studio in the world, has been in action for over a century. Before the coming of sound to cinema and the subsequent language barrier, Potsdam was certainly neck-and-neck with Hollywood, and in many ways more innovative; you just have to look at 'Metropolis' or 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' to see how ambitious early German cinema was. Of course the Nazis put a temporary stop to all that in producing their odd and suffusing mixture of bland genre films and overtly racist propaganda; but during the Cold War, Germany produces some of the most creative directors in the world: Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders... and it's typical of Berlin's tenacity that it's now the focal point of the New German Cinema with the modern classics that first sparked my own fascination with the city. Since we walk through numerous different filming locations on any of our tours, I love to point these out to cinema fans!

Berlin also has an incredibly rich queer history.  Do you feel Berlin has returned to or surpassed the openness of the 'Roaring 20's', or do you feel the city and community have a ways to go?  Can you tell us a bit about Queerstories.

A big part of my motivation in moving to Berlin was to seek out queer family, a concept in which I very much believe, and I feel very lucky to have found that here. I feel that our community today is very engaged with its history and looks back with awe and gratitude to the work of pioneers like Magnus Hirschfeld (who you can read a bit more about in Jared's post), one of the first gay rights campaigners in the world and an adoptive Berliner who lived here until the beginnings of the Third Reich. In fact, talking of cinema, Hirschfeld worked on perhaps the first prolific gay movie of all time, 'Different from the Others', produced in 1919. He also assisted the medical treatments of some of the first transgender people to obtain hormone therapies and surgeries; Karl M. Baer, for example, a transman like me, lived in Schoeneberg and obtained legal recognition of his male gender and surgery in 1907. If anything, I sometimes wonder if we are still catching up with Hirschfeld and his contemporaries - you can't help but imagine what Berlin could have achieved in the subsequent decades were it not for the rise of the Nazi party. But as usual, the city bounced back marvellously after the fall of the Wall. These days, queer culture in Berlin is so pervasive that the city celebrated with four different Pride parades this year. If anything, my only fear is that our own political differences of opinion (primarily but not only when it comes to sexual politics) can serve to divide rather than unite us as queer Berliners. I do run a specific Queer tour through Schoeneberg, and my own queerness certainly influences my fascination in these narratives, but on any tour in the city it's vital to remember that Berlin has been shaped by queer figures who have been pioneers in their own times, from Friedrich the Great to Klaus Wowereit. My own homage to Hirschfeld is that tour but also the monthly storytelling event which I co-host in the bookstore Another Country (one of the world's top ten bookstores according to 'Lonely Planet'): we meet for dinner in the basement of the shop, and then have a line-up of musicians and storytellers with some open space for anyone who wishes to tell a spontaneous tale. The night is called Queerstories and everyone is welcome: if you're in Berlin while it's on, please drop by!

In asking the last question I am reminded of a memorial in Berlin that has always touched me deeply, the Neue Wache, as it is a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny, without distinction.  In recent years a number of memorials have been added to Berlin's urban landscape.  Are there any you find particularly successful or unsuccessful?

I also find the Neue Wache extremely powerful, particularly on a winter's day when snow falling through the building's open skylight is dappling the statue below. In keeping with the last question, the Gay Memorial is one of my favourites: I love the way in which the artists who designed it, Elmgreen and Dragset, managed to produce a celebratory, joyous memorial in playing a loop of a montage video of people kissing, a surprise inside a slanted slab of grey concrete. Politics aside (if possible) the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park is always spectacular, particularly in the snow, and although as a tour guide you can expect to see the entire gamut of human behaviour here, for me the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe never fails to inspire awe. I find the politics of memorialisation in Germany very interesting - particularly when it comes to the nation's unique ability to gaze openly upon its history. You could compare, for example, the understated power of the Neue Wache with an 'Ehrenmal' or 'honour memorial' such as that on top of Kreuzberg's eponymous hill - or consider the curious tradition of adding to WWI memorials subtle plaques quietly commemorating the dead of WWII. To me, the most successful memorial is not only to be found in Berlin, but proliferates in the city: the 'stumble stones', small brass plaques outside the former homes, workplaces, schools, etc. of victims of the Nazis, which detail their fates. Whilst we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall a few days ago, we also remembered the 76th anniversary of the pogrom the Nazis called 'Kristallnacht' in 1938. Returning home from seeing the 'Lichtgrenze', the installation of illuminated balloons marking out some of the path of the former Wall, I was struck to see candles flickering by every 'stumble stone' in my street. That's Berlin as a living memorial, suffused by a history which it bears sometimes with ease and sometimes heavily, but never with complacency. It's a place of innumerable layers and complexities - the city still has memorials to build, but its past is always tangible.

Alongside guiding and acting Finn writes for Siegessaeule, the prominent queer magazine out of Berlin, and is the proud owner of these two pups.  Thanks for taking the time Finn!

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