Saturday, November 27, 2004

Willy Römer

It was a fruitless quest, but at the end of it, I had a new hero.

A guy in L.A. asked if I could find a poster of a rather famous Nazi propaganda sheet on "Entartete Musik, or "Degenerate Music," showing a top-hatted, rubber-lipped darky playing a saxophone, a Star of David prominent on his lapel (a tiny version of it appears here). I thought I'd seen it at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which isn't far from my house, and promised him -- something like two weeks ago -- that I'd go and look.

Stupid idea. Of course they 're not going to be selling Nazi propaganda, except in books surrounded by texts pointing out how shameful it is, but this morning, I felt embarrassed by not having bothered to at least go look, so I did. Naturally, it wasn't there -- although a postcard with some kind of ad for coffee which was almost as offensive (but which was historic) was. Ah, well, I was on my way to Alexanderplatz to buy exotic goods (Parmesan cheese) anyway, so it wasn't exactly out of my way.

But the DHM has also got an exhibit called On The Streets of Berlin: The Photographs of Willy Römer, 1887-1979, and I'd been wanting to see it. Given that admission was only two Euros, I decided to go check it out.

Römer was not only a compulsive shutterbug, he also seemed to be in the right place at the right time in a way that any photographer would envy. He was fascinated by a lot of the same things I was: the city's oldest buildings (he himself lived in an old alley, the Krögel, which dated from the 14th century, and one of his pictures of it is number XI here), vanishing occupations, the historic moments he found himself caught up in, and the harbors and train stations of this central city, including the Stettiner Bahnhof, a major station that, I was amazed to find out about a year ago, stood at the top of my street: Römer, may well have been born very near where I live -- the exhibition said "north central Berlin." 1936 was the year of his downfall: his business partner was a guy named Walter Bernstein, and because of that, Römer's photography business was deemed "Jewish" and closed. In addition, the city decided to demolish the Krögel. Bernstein died (apparently naturally) two years later, and Römer found himself drafted and sent to Poznan to photograph for a Nazi paper there.

Not only did he survive the war, but his wife and children -- and the building they lived in, which housed all of his negatives -- survived, too, although the bombing of some nearby buildings cracked a number of his glass negatives, which had some of his oldest photos on them. He was pretty much unable to make a living after the war, which must have made those last 34 years pretty awful, but the DHM has paid him back in spades with this exhibit. I should have had a notebook and taken notes, but there were amazing photos of the workers' uprising in 1918 after the Kaiser abdicated, thousands of guys with rifles marching down Unter den Linden to occupy the Kaiser's Schloss; a transit strike that made kids get to school on roller skates; a bell-foundry; the Hinterhof musicians I wrote about a couple of days ago (as well as Hinterhof jugglers, dancing-bear owners, and ice-cream sellers); Hitler strutting around, and the USPD's opposition group (one of whose members is pictured with a Hitler-like brush moustache, so I guess it was considered fashionable back then instead of stupid). There are pictures of Berlin in ruins after the war, and traffic chaos in Potsdamer Platz, and there are portraits of Kurt Weill and Hannah Höch. There are tons of photos in this show, and they're all masterful.

It was the perfect diversion for an afternoon, and I didn't even mind skipping the others: one on Germany and Namibia, and yet another Burden of History one on the Second World War. One gets real sick and tired of the Burden of History when one lives here, lemme tell ya.

It was even warmish outside, and when I stepped back onto Unter den Linden, I saw that on the grounds of the old Schloss was a gargantuan Weihnachtsmarkt, so I walked over there and got a half-meter (19.6805 inch) Bratwurst (not even as big around as a nickel, though) on a baguette. I lucked out again: it was a real Thuringian one with powdered caraway in it. Not only that, despite the fact that I applied mustard to it, not a drop landed on my white winter jacket. Truly the gods were smiling on me.

And, in fact, after I got the groceries, I remembered I'd been promising myself an herb mill, which is so much easier than chopping parsley by hand, so I went to the housewares department (the groceries are downstairs) at Kaufhof and found just the one I wanted -- the only one left. It's €10 at Galleries Lafayette, this one had a €7 sticker on it, but when the woman rang it up it was only €3. I decided to scamper back home before the world caved in.

So I've decided my Christmas present to myself this year, assuming the folks who owe me pay me on time, will be the catalogue for the Willy Römer show (I'd post a link, but the best you can do is go to the DHM site and check the store: there's a nice big pop-up of the cover if you click it), since I opened it a couple of places at random and discovered plenty of photos that aren't in the show.

Amazing. No sauerkraut at all today! But...tomorrow is another day...


dlwilson26 said...

I enjoyed reading your piece on Willy Roemer. I'm only going on your description without seeing the photos, but his modus operandi sounds similar to two former Berliners from the prewar period: Walter Benjamin and Joseph Roth.

Benjamin comes to mind because he was a flaneur. He wandered around town aimlessly and picked up on a place's "vibe" through osmosis. From his ambling around he later constructed a social and cultural sketch that captured the essense of the people and the city. His analysis is so good, it shames most observers, be they travel writers or social scientists.

Roth wrote a series of feuilleton columns for the Frankfurter Zietung in which he would pick a building, a situation, or just an impression of Berlin (and elsewhere) and link it to a larger social, literary, or cultural theme or issue. (Hey kinda like you, right?)

Both of these gentlemen shared a sharp sense of observation and were able to communicate the insights to the public.

Ed Ward said...

Well, considering that Benjamin committed suicide and Roth died a drunk (albeit a drunk in Paris), I'm not sure this is entirely a compliment!

Seriously, though, I've never read Benjamin, and haven't liked what I've read of Roth, although his Berlin book sounds worth checking out.

dlwilson26 said...

They were "encouraged" to leave Berlin though.