Life feels good when we can laugh and joke, drink coffee and eat chocolate cake. But in a world where we are disconnected, where we lose the will to care when we always should, where we no longer eat cake, this is a dystopian world.
Berlin is a fun city. You can sit and drink coffee with your friends, normally. If you enjoy music, live or DJ, you would find yourself in the right place.
But right now, it’s the wrong time for that. DJs spinning discs, and musical strings up on stage, won’t be heard.
You can’t hear the Jazz anymore.
The jingle-tap of a tambourine, harmony singers, soft voices in dark rooms, Rap, Techno, or 30 violins in an orchestra playing The Brandenburg Concertos. It’s all been shut down and locked up. We have been told to sit tight, at home, and just wait till it’s safe to live life again.
In normal times, to walk along the streets of Berlin, you feel all the things of life. Those important things that make life swing.
Late at night it gets very cold. Skip along the street on the way to the subway, to get down the steps and into the warmth as quickly as possible. You’ll pass groups of youth, neighbours, and walkers who have bumped into each other, a coincidence that leads to a conversation. Voices with puffs of cold condensation fluffing around their heads. Smiles, laughter, hands deep in pockets. It’s worth getting cold to spend five minutes chatting.
A street cafe offers beer to oil the conversation. On the short journey to the underground stations you’ll hear snatches of music, Turkish, American Rock, an old song from the Eighties coming from an open window. Doors slamming, phone conversations on a corner, then the traffic lights — always red when I arrive. So I wait. And I realize that it’s all gone silent.
The shadows seem deeper, the street lights are shards of broken glass that hurt the eyes. A car whooshes past, and when I look at the opening to the subway station, it appears like a gaping hole in the ground. Lights green, cross the street and enter. Down I go into the graffiti. Everything is visible, now. Normally the streets and steps are full, and flocks of people block the painted walls, they stand in the jagged lights of passing cars like silhouettes.
The station is already filling up with homeless people. They have been told to use all Berlin stations as a refuge. Good on the company. It’s minus 12 degrees outside, and people who try and sleep in bus shelters go into a deep sleep, they don’t wake up again.
The train comes in, I get on and immediately cover my masked face with my hand. The interior stinks. Homeless people are on board and some of them don’t ever wash. It’s not armpit smells, it is clothes imbibed with months or years of grime, piss, spilled food, and body sweat. It’s tough to live on the street. These people are not campers roughing it for a weekend. They are just there, on the streets, with all its harshness.
I have to change trains at Hermannplatz. A grand looking station that hasn’t changed much since the 1920s. The tiling on the enormous expanse of walls is the work of craftsmen from long ago. People who took their time to do a good job, so that it would last decades.
Hermannplatz and the underground station is one of the settings in the T.V. series, “Babylon Berlin”, directed by Henk Handloegten. Dark noir from the 1920s and the threat of Nazi infiltration in society. When I stand and wait for the train to come in, it becomes obvious why it offers itself as an authentic film set. The mood created by the high ceiling, the dark corners and a feeling that you’re a very small and upright object standing among many angles and shapes. Noises don’t echo, they just roll along the platform, then peter-out under a person’s shoes.
There are even more homeless people in this station. In the middle of the large platform there’s a scaffolding structure. If you look carefully you can see dark figures who have set up camp within it. Sitting silhouettes, hunched over and staring at the floor. Most often a bottle in one hand and cigarette in the other.
At the far end of the station a group of men and women are jostling each other. The group divides, arms are outstretched to fend off an attack. Their voices travel along the platform, and waiting passengers gawp at the rising situation. Close to me, two women with blue backpacks are whispering, they look along the platform. I can tell they are worried that something unpleasant is about to happen. Their whispers are urgent, their feet shift.
Another group of homeless men stand up and run past me, and the two women back up against the stair railings. The men appear like young children on the school playground, running towards the latest scrap. Except that they are grown men, life is a hard thing for them, and they are carrying empty beer bottles which will soon be used to threaten their enemies.
The end of the platform where the threatening voices come from is clearing, passengers nervously look up at the digital signs to see how much longer they must wait for a train.
I hear the two women murmur something, look at the steps behind them, then they sprint up the stairs.
I can feel the wind coming out of the tunnel. The digital display says a train is due in two minutes, but in cold weather time is slow, or long, and depends on who is taking up your time. The faint sounds of clanking metal and squealing brakes increase.
People start to move towards the edge of the platform, mobile phone filled hands come out of pockets, white masked faces with beady eyes fix onto the screens.
Noise fills the station as the train speeds out of the darkness and into the long gash of space where it finally stops and hisses. Doors grind open, the sound of smashing glass comes from the end of the station, and as I enter the compartment, I look along the platform and three people pushing and shoving each other. The others stand in a circle, waving their arms, grinning, laughing. One man is lying on the floor, looking at the ceiling. Two other men drift away from the fight, chatting as they as sip from their beer bottles.
A woman is shouting at passengers on the platform. She isn’t trying to get anybody’s attention, just shouting her disapproval of the men who are fighting. She is ragged, red faced, glassy-eyed, her body is bent, her voice is hoarse, but her words make sense, “stop this”, “stop this!”, “Please, stop this!”.
Nobody does anything, and nobody pays attention to her.
The last passengers have stepped inside and the train doors close with a thump. I look around, homeless people snooze in corner seats, the masked faces all look obediently at their screens. I fold my arms and look at my own reflection, a man with a black hat, a white mask, hunched shoulders. I can’t see my eyes, the reflection is vague in the dark glass.
The train pulls out, and we pass the fighting men. For a small moment, I hear the faint voice of the woman demanding that somebody stop this. The lights flicker along the compartments and the train enters into the dark tunnel once again.