Reveries from a Twilight City: The Great Lost Portrait of Weimar Berlin
By Michael BlumMay 5, 2017
Walking in Berlin by Franz Hessel
Calling for the death of flânerie, a practice that peaked in the early to mid-19th century and occasionally involved taking tortoises out for a stroll, is a little like proclaiming, “Down with the Kinetoscope!” in the era of virtual reality. And yet, the allure of the flâneur persists. But it persists precisely as something outdated, unambiguously out of step with time, and, in a way, already dead. For flânerie to come alive, it has to verily be born again — configured differently, in hybrid form, and animated by some original design or inspiration (Surrealism or Situationism, for example). In 1929, Walter Benjamin published a piece that heralded just such a renaissance. “The Return of the Flâneur” celebrated the arrival of Franz Hessel and his Walking in Berlin, a sprawling panorama of cultural memory and miscellany, a vibrant catalog of metropolitan life, and a seismograph of a city on the verge of disaster. Thanks to Amanda DeMarco’s new translation, Hessel’s book can finally be read in English.
Walking in Berlin is broken down into short chapters, each chronicling a single walk. The book’s original cover bore the subtitle “Ein Bilderbuch in Worten” (a picture-book in words), but given the abundance and diversity of its imagery, it might more accurately be described as a literary photomontage. Hessel’s gaze is a grazing, egalitarian one. His walking tour of Berlin is genial and unprepossessing in tone, and as expansive in scope as it is sharp in focus — a stunning cross of Mr. Rogers and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).
Hessel is, indeed, a different kind of flâneur. Paranoia and phantasmagoria — staples of literary flânerie — are mostly absent from Walking in Berlin. Hessel is no Charles Baudelaire or Edgar Allan Poe. Neither dandy nor outcast, Hessel is less haunted, less foppish and aristocratic, and less irradiated with spleen. But although he doesn’t moodily gawk at the world from behind the upturned collar of a trench coat, his idle voyeurism can still render him conspicuous in the big city: “I attract wary glances wherever I try to play the flâneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.”
Hessel’s appetite for Berlin, his native city, is ravenous. He soaks up and elevates all that is ephemeral, unfinished, deemed unimportant or overlooked, privileging neither landmarks nor “hidden treasures,” but both at once and everything in between, from the wafting steam of Christmas market sausage carts to overgrown busts of forgotten Kaisers and kings. “Everywhere unremarkable,” Hessel writes, “is where you must go.”
Hessel relishes in peeling back the city’s layers, exposing bygone communities, structures, individuals, and events. Walter Benjamin calls it the anamnesis of the flâneur: “in the course of flânerie, far-off times and places interpenetrate the landscape and the present moment.” It’s no coincidence that Benjamin intuited Hessel’s practice so well. Twelve years Benjamin’s senior, Hessel was one of his closest friends throughout the 1920s. Hessel, additionally, was an editor at Rowohlt Verlag when it published two of Benjamin’s most important books, One Way Street and Origin of the German Trauerspiel, in 1928. The two reviewed one another’s writings, collaborated on literary translations (notably Proust), and regularly accompanied one another on walks that are believed to have inspired Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project.
And yet, as close as they were, Benjamin and Hessel diverge sharply as writers. Benjamin was a downright rat de bibliothèque, and was known to favor quiet, secluded working conditions. His writings about cities, accordingly, rattle with private ghosts and literary arcana — dreams, childhood traumas, philosophical trelliswork, gnomic aphorism, and invocations of Charles Fourier, Blanqui, and so on. Hessel’s work, on the other hand, reads as if it were written right on the spot, registering the rhythm and ambiance of nearly every lived moment, up to and including his own sensory experience. The pace of Hessel’s tread, the diversification of the ground underfoot (cobblestone, construction yard, grassy field), his growing fatigue as the day wears on — all serve to enhance the reader’s immersion in Hessel’s chronicle of Berlin.
While legs may be the motor of flânerie, the eye is its most esteemed organ. Hessel’s unending scan of his surroundings produces a unique semiotics — a more passive kind, largely devoid of any critical sting, but also less presumptuous, and brimming with curiosity: “The flâneur reads the street, and human faces, displays, window dressings, café terraces, trains, cars, and trees become letters that yield the words, sentences, and pages of a book that is always new. To correctly play the flâneur, you can’t have anything too particular in mind.”
Hessel’s vision is as aleatory in its roaming as it is discerningly precise. The “unforeseen adventures of the eyes,” he calls it. But whereas the old flâneur’s optical adventurism typically spied the city’s bustling crowds, Hessel’s more frequently cuts across its buildings and structures. Berlin makes for an especially dynamic subject in this respect. A city seemingly always in flux, Hessel describes it as “a battlefield of razing and construction — a city of ruins and a city coming into being,” a characterization virtually as relevant to the Berlin of every other decade of his century, and ours. “Is it still worth speaking of the Alexanderplatz of today and yesterday? It will already have disappeared by the time these lines are printed.” Indeed, and several times over, at that.
Hessel is a careful observer of the new architecture and urbanism refashioning Berlin before his very eyes: “As soon as one of the buildings becomes dilapidated, or even just needs repair, the new architecture shaves every braid and tress from its boyish head, leaving a clear, linear facade.” Hessel watches on, with both hesitation and awe, as the materials, textures, contours, and colors of old are systematically discarded and replaced. Brick and marble are set aside for glass, concrete, iron, and gleaming bronze. Textile factories, transformers, power plants, and cranes whoosh and whirl amid construction and traffic: “All of this smoking, towering industriousness puts our luxurious inactivity and contemptible snail's pace to shame.”
Though Hessel likes to play the part of the obsolescent onlooker amid Berlin’s vast renovation, he’s also a hopeful participant. There’s a definite social impetus to the new urbanism, for example, that he readily accepts. Stopping by a palatial square, he lambastes an obtrusive, hulking equestrian monument to Kaiser Friedrich, flanked by gods: “Tear it down! The square and its amenities are dedicated to the good of the public, after all!”
But modernity is an equivocal thing. Hessel looks with wonder and uncertainty upon what he calls the festive tents of light propped up all around the city: luminescent flutings and contour lighting on building facades, floodlights saturating window displays, blue daylight lamps that mimic the sun, and electric writing scrolling across signs. “Whole buildings,” he writes, “now exist with a structure based on light.” Discussing an under-construction department store, he remarks, “The whole thing will be one enormous brightness: in day, the down-rushing sun all around; at night, the man-and-machine-made light.” Already discernible in this is the “daylight all night long” described in Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 — or the regimes of permanent illumination that condition communities for non-stop consumption, circulation, work, and exchange.
Weimar-era Berlin has been a wellspring of images and ideas for decades. It is endlessly cited as a paradigmatic, highly “instructive” moment in the history of Western civilization, and maintains its cachet as a hub of cultural production. We tend to conceive of Weimar Berlin as a kinetic arena for German expressionism, Brecht, Bauhaus, Weimar cinema — a swirl of radicalism, decadence, and hedonism teetering on the brink of disaster. The intensity of this imaginary is amplified by the works of George Grosz, Otto Dix, Christian Schad, and others, whose portraits and street scenes ghoulishly depict bourgeois decrepitude, intellectual clamor, and political jousting in the streets.
It’s notable, then, that Hessel’s presentation of Weimar Berlin is, with few exceptions, noticeably tamer, lacking the dynamism and bombast typically associated with it. Everyday life is blunted, even besieged, by a familiar sameness, leveled by the effects of the already-humming engines of capitalism. Cinema-going is “life by proxy for the millions who would like to forget their monotonous routine.” Excess and inequality are rampant, and the caste-like stratification of society is baldly imprinted onto seemingly every activity, however commonplace. The “esteemed ladies” in the department stores are “greeted so submissively by the saleswomen that one might think that the tides of absolute monarchy had not yet ebbed.”
Hessel’s portrait vindicates philosopher Theodor Adorno’s argument that “what the public […] nowadays thinks belonged to the nineteen-twenties was in fact already fading at that time, by 1924 at the latest.” Adorno’s rejoinder to popular sentiment is more than the hipster’s “well, actually…” It aims to show how fascism latently (and occasionally even overtly) developed within Weimar society — that it wasn’t an aberration or an imposition from without:
It was not, as is usually assumed, the pressure exerted by the National Socialist terror that brought regression, neutralization, and a funereal silence to the arts, for these phenomena had already taken shape in the Weimar Republic, and in liberal continental European society generally. The dictatorships did not swoop down upon this society from outside in the way Cortez invaded Mexico; rather they were engendered by the social dynamic following the First World War, and they cast their shadows before them. 
Hessel never had Adorno’s critical acumen. In fact, he is prone to occasional bouts of what Benjamin called a “rhapsodic naïveté,” as when he collapses proto-Nazism and its leftist opponents into a generic, ahistorical spectrum of lusty, human affect. Observing competing rallies of far right and left at the Sportpalast, he remarks, “Its walls impartially echo ‘Swatstika on the helmet’ and ‘This is the final struggle,’ just as they do the cries of the sports fans. All of it is the exuberance of the same unceasing lust for life.”
Elsewhere, though, Hessel’s account of Berlin offers foreshadowings of fascist cruelty. Interspersed throughout his observations of people, structures, and scenes are reflections and asides on the spiteful administration of public space, right-wing sadism, and a history of violence hidden in plain view. He touches on “misanthropic” road construction — “the only people who seem to have been given any consideration at all are the rich ones who travel in coaches.” And he notes the heritage and persistence of the völkisch cult of fitness, led by “hawkish lash, aggressive young men, and tyrannical murderers […] for whom freedom, fatherland, and the strengthening of their own bodies constituted one unified thought.”
When Hessel walks through the zones of Berlin’s dispossessed and displaced, who make human nests amid the rubble of modernization, his observations become almost journalistic: “In those places where the old is disappearing and the new is taking its place, a transitory world materializes, haphazard, agitated, impoverished in the ruins.” Hessel, atypical for a flâneur, is intensely sympathetic, and labels poverty and the factors that conspire to create it “the greatest enemy that humanity knows today.”
Hessel’s tone turns elegiac when he stops at the Landwehr Canal and reflects on what occurred there not even a decade earlier: “Looking at the treetops mirrored in the water here, you would hardly believe that this peaceful bridge was once profaned by villains. They threw the dying body a noble fighter into the water a few paces from here, a woman who had to atone for her goodness and bravery with her life.” This “noble fighter” is Rosa Luxemburg, the socialist writer and organizer who was captured and executed in 1919 by the Freikorps, a right-wing paramilitary order that included Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Höss in its ranks.
Passing by the Jüdenstraße and Jüdenhof, Hessel recalls the precarious history of Berlin’s Jews: the uniforms they were made to wear at different times, their exclusion from markets and fairs, the special taxation they were made to pay, and the ease with which prejudice against them has been switched off and on, like a faucet, at the slightest whim of whatever leader was then in power. He passes by a square where a “court Jew” was publicly tortured and quartered by the vicious successor of a man who viewed Jews quite favorably. But despite everything, writes Hessel, “they liked it here: each time they were expelled they came back again as soon as they could.” The sentimental obstinacy that Hessel describes here was also his own. Considered a Jew by law, he left Berlin very late, in 1938. As Benjamin wrote to Gretel Adorno, Hessel “sat in Berlin for five and one-half years like a little mouse in the rafters,” before fleeing to Paris. He perished there, in 1941, after a harsh internment in a camp.
 Elsewhere, Adorno writes of this dynamic even more scathingly: “The claim that Hitler has destroyed German culture is no more than an advertising stunt of those who want to rebuild it from their telephone desks. Such art and thought as were exterminated by Hitler had long been leading a severed and apocryphal existence, whose last hideouts Fascism swept out. Anyone who did not play the game was forced into inner-emigration years before the Third Reich broke out.”
Michael Blum is a New York-based writer and designer. His writing has appeared in Bookforum, Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.
LARB Staff Recommendations
James J. Conway discusses the flânerie of Franz Hessel with translator Amanda DeMarco....
Carl Abbott on what science fiction can tell us not only about the city of tomorrow, but also today....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.