'Berlin' comic book describes life in Germany before the rise of Adolf Hitler - Catholic Courier

‘Berlin’ comic book describes life in Germany before the rise of Adolf Hitler

NEW YORK (CNS) — In 1996, cartoonist Jason Lutes came across Wolf Von Eckardt and Sander L. Gilman’s “Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin: A Scrapbook of the Twenties.” Lutes was captivated by the history of the German city in the years before the rise of Adolf Hitler and decided to create a comic book on the subject.

Supplementing his knowledge with old maps, novels and radio broadcasts, Lutes has spent the last 20 years publishing “Berlin” (Drawn & Quarterly) which numbers 22 individual comic books. This year Lutes finished his story, and the complete “Berlin” is now available as a large, expensive hardback.

“Berlin” includes depictions of violence, sexuality and addiction as well as vulgar talk. While obviously not suitable for children, or indeed some adults, the book will engage the hardiest grownups with an interest in Germany’s doomed (and decadent) Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich.

“Berlin” is rendered in black-and-white, with a clean and almost childlike cartoon style that owes a lot to one of Lutes’ main inspirations, the French cartoonist — and Tintin creator — Herge (real name: Georges Remi). There are also echoes of another obvious inspiration, “Maus” by Art Spiegelman.

“Berlin” opens in 1928, when a cynical journalist named Kurt Severing (based on a real person) and a young art student called Marthe Muller meet. Both are on their way to the German capital. 

They become involved in a relationship, and from there the narrative expands to take in a large cast of characters: jazz musicians; artistic bohemians (who discuss such movements as the “New Objectivity” of the 1920s); Jews increasingly fearful and trying to find safe places to live; runaway teenagers; communists; and Nazis.

Lutes explores the city from the steamy cultural milieu of the cabaret and the struggles of middle-class people to the deaths of such real-life figures as Weimer statesman Gustav Stresemann and Nazi stormtrooper Horst Wessel.

There are stories of real historical events, like the communist march on May 1, 1929, that ended when police shot and killed 25 demonstrators. 

Told slowly but with care, “Berlin” exudes the gradually building tension of an overripe, dying culture whose final demise opens the way for something far more dangerous.

Hitler is largely absent from “Berlin” until he appears on a few panels near the conclusion. Lutes has said in interviews that while Hitler is taught widely in schools, the tumultuous years leading up to the National Socialist takeover of the government are largely ignored.

Lutes knew he couldn’t leave Hitler out altogether. But he didn’t want the dictator at the center of the action, either.

He wanted the passionate and often forgotten people of pre-Nazi Berlin to live and breathe as their own compelling subject. On that score, Lutes has succeeded.

The graphic novel contains suicide, war violence, considerable sexual content, including benignly viewed aberrant situations and nudity, drug and alcohol use and occasional rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, material whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. Not otherwise rated.

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Judge reviews video games and comic books for Catholic News Service.

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