An introduction to the countercultures of Berlin.
In the years before the Berlin Wall came down, West Berlin, writes American journalist Hockenos (Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany, 2007, etc.), was “a sanctuary for contrarians looking to lose themselves, to search and reinvent.” East Berlin, too, “sheltered a bohème every bit as raw and inventive as [West Berlin’s], perhaps even more so.” Dissent took many forms, “from sporting punk coiffeurs to communal living,” each one subject to reprisal. In his new book, the author offers a love letter of sorts to both halves of the city. He describes the “broad society of new wavers and punks, queers of all types,” and the artists, musicians, and squatters who created the countercultural life, whether above- or belowground, of both Berlins. Hockenos, who has spent most of his adult life in Berlin, divides the book geographically: he begins with the West, moves on to the East, and, at the end, includes a slim section on the “new” Berlin, the city of reunification. Despite those divisions, the narrative is largely unstructured and rambling. The author moves loosely from one topic to another, never digging deeply enough. He introduces us to many colorful characters—including fashion designer Danielle de Picciotto, French street artist Thierry Noir, and actress and musician Christiane F.—but doesn’t stick with any one of them for long. Hockenos also relies on cliché, a habit that doesn’t suit much of his subject matter—e.g., artistic innovation. A random sampling: “sowed the seeds,” “a thorn in the side,” “started a ball rolling,” “showed him the door,” “when push came to shove”—not to mention the too-frequent use of the phrase “do-it-yourself.”
The author’s loyalty and love for Berlin are evident and may well be contagious, but he is short on analysis and insight.