Dan Venning's Reviews > Berlin, Vol. 1: City of Stones

Berlin, Vol. 1 by Jason Lutes
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Sep 30, 2011

really liked it
Read in November, 2011

Lutes' graphic novel, the first part of a trilogy set towards the end of the Weimar Republic, imagines the varied denizens of Berlin as it sits on the eve of collapse into Nazi chaos. The book only covers a short span of time: from September 1928 through a frigid winter and to the Berlin May Day march and massacre on May 1, 1929.

The central characters, Kurt Severing, a middle-aged Jewish leftist journalist, and Marthe Müller, a sometime art student, each observe these events from their particular perspectives, but the scope also involves the Braun family: the wife, Gudrun, becomes a Communist and separates from her husband, who becomes a National Socialist, the lesbian artist Anna, a young Orthodox Jewish man, David, who idolizes celebrities from Rosa Luxemburg to Harry Houdini, and many others.

At times it can be hard to remember precisely who is who (outside of Marthe and Kurt), but this seems to be part of Lutes' project: reminding us that Berlin in the late 1920s was a bustling city full of the promise of modernity, the excitement of differing opinions and competing ideologies (although some of them obviously nefarious), and the anonymity of crowds.

The nearly simplistic black-and-white art is actually quite beautiful, and Lutes effectively creates strong characterizations through it. At times, Lutes also uses innovative lettering to remind us that Kurt is a man of the typewriter, and Marthe works with pen, charcoal, ink, and oil. There are a few visual misfires: giant Edenic panels that sentimentalize the Romantic (and romantic) aspirations of people in a society that failed utterly.

My other main criticism is that the book is fascinating and compelling, but never hard to put down: it took me a month to finish, and I never felt like I had to keep reading. I think this was because I felt that Berlin: City of Stones ultimately lacked some sense of purpose, some clear idea. It is clearly a very political book, but not one with an entirely apparent message. Perhaps Lutes has something to say about our own increasingly divided, partisan society filled with social unrest, but that's the sort of message Tony Kushner imparts far more clearly and devastatingly in his astounding play A Bright Room Called Day.

I still highly recommend this as a fascinating graphic novel, but not one you need to put at the top of your list. I'm looking forward to reading Berlin: City of Smoke, but similarly, I don't think I'm buying it quite yet.
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