Prewar Berlin Inspires Crime Novelist's Dark Side
Today, East Berlin's Alexanderplatz is a sprawling mass of concrete featuring acres of chain stores, neon signs, billboards advertising toothpaste and an endless stream of cars. Amidst it all, a big statue of Karl Marx casts a disappointed eye over what remains of his legacy.
It's hard to believe this drab expanse of East German architecture was once the physical and emotional heart of the city.
"It was pure Berlin" says novelist Philip Kerr. "Dirty, vulgar, full of rogues, cheats and thieves — and full of policemen, many of whom were rogues and cheats and thieves themselves."
Kerr should know: his novels, set in the 1920s and 1930s, follow fictional detective Bernie Gunther as he works the homicide beat and witnesses the rise and fall of both the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich.
Gunther's city is a mix of extremes: People are flocking to fascism or communism. Berlin is trying to emerge from the shell-shock of defeat in the first World War, hyperinflation and later the stock market crash of 1929. It's also a city whiplashed by rapid modernization, where the attempted orderliness of Weimar republicanism runs smack into the excesses and debauchery of Berlin's dirty nightlife.
"Berlin in the 1920s was the most liberal city in Europe — I mean anything went," Kerr says with the raise of an eyebrow. "Sex, drugs, cabaret, open nudity — you name it. Whatever you wanted you could get here. And for gay men, I imagine, you must have thought you'd died and gone to heaven. There were flamboyantly gay clubs across the city."
Kerr and I take to what's left of Gunther's streets on foot. We head to Linienstrasse, which today is part of the gentrified, Mercedes-lined gallery district where people in carefully ruffled attire sip cappuccinos and try to look artfully bored. The white-walled sterility of the streets betrays nothing of what the area once was.
We arrive at an address that used to be home to the Blue Stocking, a notorious Weimar haunt where some of Berlin's estimated 100,000 prostitutes would accommodate just about any kink, perversion, or taste. The Blue Stocking was known for hookers called "gravel."
"Gravel were prostitutes who were disabled," Kerr explains. "They either had one leg, or they were disfigured in some way or had one arm or possibly no legs at all."
The buoyant market for gravel in the 1920s was a result of high numbers of men who had returned from the war without limbs, and felt more comfortable with prostitutes with similar disabilities. Today the infamous club address houses a physiotherapy studio.
A Survivalist With A Moral Code
In Kerr's novels, detective Gunther watches as the city he loves for its edgy openness slowly becomes oppressive and is taken over by jack-booted thugs. Gunther believes in democracy and the Weimar republic, yet he's not passionately political — he just a professional who wants to do his job. But when dead communists and Jews begin turning up on Berlin's streets, it becomes impossible for Gunther to ignore that it's the fascist Brown Shirts who are doing most of the throat cutting, shooting and strangling.
The fascination for me writing about crime in Berlin was the idea that there was this much bigger crime taking place in the background, a fantastically epochal moment in history which is just going on.
Next to what's left of the Berlin Wall, at an outdoor exhibit called "The Topography of Terror," Kerr and I take in the red-brick outlines of basement cells. It's all that's left of the Gestapo's main headquarters and prison, the place where anyone the Nazis hated — communists, Jews, political dissidents, gays, social democrats and Roma (Gypsies) — were interrogated, tortured and often killed.
"Really what terrifies me most is that nearly all of it was done by lawyers," says Kerr with a shudder. "These people were intelligent, urbane, articulate. They knew perfectly well what they were doing."
And if you survived Gestapo interrogation and weren't shipped off to a concentration camp, they took you into the garden at Gestapo headquarters here and shot you — usually at 11 a.m. sharp. It was said that people who lived in the area could set their clocks by the sound of the gunfire.
For his part, Gunther opposes the Nazis, but doesn't always stand up to them. He is, as Kerr puts it, a survivalist. But his moral code sometimes gets in the way. He works his beat with the shadow of terror always hovering over him.
Kerr says he deliberately chose to set his novels during Berlin's most tumultuous era because "it is certainly, for my money, the most important historical event of the millennium, certainly since the Reformation anyway. ... It's only 50, 60, 70 years [ago] — which is nothing in historical terms, nothing at all."
Kerr was trained as a lawyer but quickly gave up the profession his parents wanted him to pursue and followed his passion for writing. He has published more than 20 novels so far. His sixth novel featuring Bernie Gunther, If The Dead Rise Not, is due out in the US next year.
He says his work has stayed vibrant by staying away from the cookie-cutter formulas that often tarnish the mystery and crime genres.
"It's parochial stuff. How many murders can you have in Oxford, for Pete's sake?" asks Kerr. "The fascination for me writing about crime in Berlin was the idea that there was this much bigger crime taking place in the background, a fantastically epochal moment in history which is just going on. ... That just sort of makes the whole thing have a greater resonance."
This piece was produced with production help from Esme Nicholson.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.