The first things I saw as I exited the cab at the dorm were the cranes, looming over the night horizon. Three stood at various points within the neighboring construction yard, monstrous right angles hovering over their progress, cables dangling down. I came to realize in the following days that this was a frequent sight in Berlin –our tour guide told us one major project required over one hundred cranes. The common image of Germans as being industrious soon came to life in my head, especially after walking down the sidewalks during morning rush hour, with every man and woman speeding forward single-file with coffee and cigarette in hand.
One of the major reasons I thought I needed to leave the United States for some amount of time was that it’s such a young country and has such a strange relationship with its own history. A city like Berlin has to grapple with various epochs of the history of its land, stretching from warring tribes to empires to divided nations. How does a place like this live alongside its history? In Berlin’s case, the history of destruction often obscures any sort of pre-modern historical narrative. Berliners seem to tear down the old, figure out the best specific purpose for the space, and after much consideration, build the new at a rapid pace. The city is constantly redefining itself and its spaces, and moving straight on ahead with an intensity that I’ve never before witnessed.
This productive, destructive atmosphere is a bit scary, though simultaneously inspiring, which is a quality I had hoped to find in this new temporary home of mine. Colonel F.N. Maude wrote in his 1909 introduction to Carl von Clausewitz’ seminal On War that “the Germans interpret their new national colours – black, red, and white – by the saying, ‘Durch Nacht und Blut zur Licht,’ (Through Night and Blood to light).” This phrase has stuck with me ever since I read it a few years ago. Of course the colors of the flag have changed since then, but the remnants of this spirit seem to still survive in the hearts of Berliners.
I wrote that I hoped to find an inspirational atmosphere here, because my main goals for this semester are to complete various creative projects: they include a second draft of a feature horror script I wrote last year and a new screenplay which takes place in nineteenth century Europe. I find my most productive hours, in terms of brainstorming and writing, are late at night when I take walks. But to my dismay, these hours have been becoming less and less productive at home and in New York City. Looking back on it now, I think it’s all tied to the fact that I couldn’t get lost anymore. Getting lost, but not too lost, and letting my internal compass lead me back home while I write is such a rewarding experience. So on maybe the second or third night of being in Berlin, I decided to go out for a walk very late at night, and I got myself lost. And it’s exactly what I’ve been searching for and thought months ago I wouldn’t find again for a long time.
The cranes seem to be a perfect metaphor for this mysterious (maybe only mysterious to a foreigner) beautiful air blowing through the cold streets. Surely and slowly, in a meditative constant quest, they move their stones and blocks and beams, and build up a newer, better city. In a city that seems so anti-Taoist, with the active intervention in the natural flow of things, the cranes are somewhat visually comparable to the Taoist ideal of water: the most powerful substance that can carve mountains, given enough time and persistence.