Book Three of Jason Lutes’ vast and breathtaking Berlin trilogy, a quarter century in the making, closes as the curtain falls on the Weimar Republic
In 1994, Jason Lutes was flicking through a magazine when he came across an advert for Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin: A Scrapbook of the Twenties.
The ad had “a short blurb that sparked my interest,” he said.
Together with a knowledge of the Berlin of the period that went no further than “what I had seen in Cabaret and inferred through Threepenny Opera,” he decided that his next graphic novel was going to be set in that city and period, would unfold over 600 pages and would probably take him until he was 40 to complete.
He is now 51, and the publication of the third volume brings an end to a Meisterwerk that will echo down the centuries.
Weimar Germany is a period so overshadowed by the apocalyptic wars that bookend it that its chaotic experiment with democracy, economic woes and extensive cultivation of extremist tendencies often figure patchily in popular imagination.
For some people it’s Liza Minelli in a bowler hat.
For others it’s that chap with his wheelbarrow of banknotes.
All the better for Lutes to develop his “private idea” then, one that started with two solid years of pre-internet research into photos of the time in order to triangulate how things might have looked.
As he told PBS in the US “it’s easy to find images of the Brandenburg Gate or the Reichstag, but things like doorknobs and kitchen utensils are of much greater interest to me.”
City of Light opens with an ominous cameo of Adolf Hitler on a train chugging through the countryside.
Who knew then what history had in store for him?
He was just one of many lunatics on the political fringes, and Lutes takes great care not to make smart “it’s easy to win the lottery when you know the numbers” predictions.
Indeed, life was hard enough for people without having to divine patterns in the blackening political storm clouds and so they devote most of their energies to confronting the daily struggle.
The story also picks up the threads of the previous volumes’ characters, including doleful left-wing journalist Kurt Severing heading in a new direction – bottlewards.
The young artist Marthe Müller, who arrived in the metropolis in search of herself at the very beginning of the saga, has left Kurt and is now involved with Anna, who dresses as a man.
Silvia, whose mother was murdered in the 1929 May Day massacre in Vol I, is living with a Jewish family and wrapped up with the Communists – a double disappointment for her father, who has hooked up with the Brownshirts as a first step out of poverty.
Also losing their patience are the police (with bohemian, sexually experimental Berlin), and Anna (with her sexually uncertain girlfriend.)
Running out of options in the worsening economy, Marthe is confronted with the very worst future imaginable – having to return home to Cologne.
But as the brilliant – BRILLIANT – denouement shows, life is capable of springing even worse surprises than having to move back in with one’s parents.
A complete three volume edition of Berlin is also available, published by Drawn & Quarterly, £35.