Berlin Diary

Seeing Family and Films in the Crossroads City

By Rasha Refaie

I stare at the squiggles of red, black, blue and gray on the U-Bahn Linie 6 subway seat. It's like a vinyl padded loveseat bench, shining in the bright overhead lights. The floor has little sparkles, as if someone had spilled a vial of glitter while running out the subway door. We haven't left the station yet. The electronic sign above the platform says we'll leave in one minute. I feel like I might cry or have muscle spasms. It's so hard to be out in public, alone among foreign strangers, when I'm jet-lagging this hard, this raw.

This U-Bahn station always smells like salty French fries and fresh newspapers. The walls are orange and yellow, which makes it kitschy and retro -- like, how did these crappy design choices ever gain clearance to be in one of the coolest cities in the world? Two very young women sit near me and laugh and talk. Their German comes out fast and angular and makes me feel soft and incompetent. Like I'm moving underwater and all of these strong, angular Germans carrying on with their gray day are more efficient and wise than me. My black tights with the white stripes that I'm wearing have a few random, pale cat hairs attached to them. I don't have a cat. It's my cousin's. He's about fifty years old, has three grown kids, a wife who is perpetually busy, and a house at the outskirts of the city. He has lived in this city his whole life.

I'm not used to being in Berlin again, even though I've been coming here for forty years. I'm back this time to say hello to my family and to catch some of the 66th Berlinale, the annual film festival.

I came here for the first time in 1975 with my mother, father, and sister when I was seven years old. That was to see where my parents came from and who still lived here. My mom was born and raised in this city; my father was in his thirties when he came to Berlin from North Africa.

It was a trip I'd do over and over again as the years passed, with my family, then on my own as an adult. I've seen Berlin in a lot of phases and periods, and my mother saw it before that, having grown up in the city during WWII. (Yes, her parents hated the Nazis.) I never quite know what to expect. I was in Berlin when the brilliantly graffitied Wall was up, when Turkish döner kebabs were not yet a thing, when the cool immigrant Kreuzberg neighborhood was not yet expensive, when no one had blogs about the history of the Wall or Potsdamer Platz. It was, well, not Paris, and a lot of people were into Paris, which is exactly half the size of Berlin.

Berlin was cool to some of the kids I knew in high school, the ones who had seen the movie Christiane F and thought she was a role model. And Heroes. We loved that album. Berlin meant Bowie, bathtub planters and a lot of terrible behavior. We thought that was awesome. I got over that. But I had grown up wanting this place to accept me because I had inherited my mother's homesickness. I wanted to go home too -- to her home -- and become a German girl.

When you're a member of the Family Who Left, though, there is a burden to bear. Resentment, maybe even a bit of hurt feelings -- subtle, but definitely there -- from the Relatives Who Stayed. They never got me, never got us, because to them it was like, "Who are you trying to kid? We know where you really come from, where you really belong. Stop the nonsense and come home now before it's too late." And I made no sense at all to them, because I was American-born and bred, yet I was theirs, anyway.

The first day of this trip is dedicated to washing machines. I'm in the laundry room at my family's place. There's usually the sound of a fan whirring, a machine running, and the fresh smell of detergent. But today the laundry room flooded after a pump died. My cousin has to install a new one. Later, on Twitter, I have a long conversation with a German woman about an interview with a granny who didn't want the recent refugees to get free washing machines. That's essentially what the immigration/refugee problem comes down to: free washing machines. Who gets them, and who doesn't. And shouldn't that free stuff be saved for the good Germans. Cleanliness and ownership are endless themes here. Germany, land of washing machines.

I get on the U6 to Stadtmitte. A one-way subway ticket costs 2.70 euros, valid for two hours. Berlin is gray today. It feels soothing. The sky has curlicues of gold and white and blue patched around the gray. I like this part of the city, Mitte. It's for tourists. There's H&M and Starbucks and Bo Concept. I don't shop at them, but they're familiar talismans I want around me to help me get through jet lag. Everything is sleek and sheer and smooth, angles and windows and neutral colors. I want that comforting mall anonymity. I'm resisting being here. I miss New York, which never happens. It smells like cold. The gray is inescapable. It's in the sidewalk, in the architecture, in the sky, on people's clothes. Buses huff and trundle past. Dark statues lean in toward each other in front of old, ornate buildings. Sleek new glass and renovated old brick stand side by side on Leipziger Strasse. The only bright colors seem to be the randomly placed stickers on lampposts, square splashes of neon pink, green and blue. I can't believe I'm German, and then other times I can't believe I'm also Egyptian, and then other times I can't believe I'm an American. Nothing about me makes sense. Maybe I came here mostly to be in the basement again. To hear the white noise of the fans and the laundry machines, a few birds chirping, and otherwise nothing.

But there's the film festival taking place in the heart of the city, in Potsdamer Platz. Potsdamer Platz has gone from city center to empty ragged landscape between worlds -- essentially No Man's Land between East and West Berlin -- and back again to shrill, towering city center and Berlinale headquarters. It's a long and anguished story.

Among other things, Potsdamer Platz now has a multiplex called CinemaxX, roughly the size of a department store with a Whole Foods stacked on top. There are several floors of theaters. Tourists linger on the cobblestones in front of the expensive restaurants across the way. Red Berlinale banners with their bear logo hang in almost every direction I look. L'Oreal has a makeup studio set up in the square; it looks like an alien ship has landed to provide makeovers. The Audi lounge is a similar spaceship. People take pictures, lock up their bikes, stand around waiting for someone else to arrive. Star-shaped ornaments twinkle warm white beads of light in the leafless trees.

My friend Lars arrives and parks his bike. My nose is cold. We go inside.

Miraculously, we manage to get tickets for an East German film that's screening as part of the fifty-year German film retrospective section of the festival.  The general theme of this year’s festival is Route 66. "The legendary Route 66 connects places in a continent, crosses highways and hubs," festival director Dieter Krosslick explains in the festival program. "That's what the Berlinale intends to do with the chosen films." This Germany-in-1966 theme is of personal interest to me: that's the year my parents and older sister left Germany and moved to America.

The only seats remaining are right in the middle of the first row. The whiplash seats. We lean back and tilt our chins up. The film is Jahrgang 45 (Born in '45), directed by Jürgen Böttcher, a painter as well as a filmmaker. It's a film with sparse dialogue, a lot of space, and stunning views of East Berlin's empty streets. Really, really empty streets. Böttcher gives a short talk after the screening. He explains that Jahrgang 45 was originally just the working title, but he was never allowed to change it because the film was banned by the government in '66. It was a watershed year for film in both East and West Germany, though in very different ways. In the West the "Young German Film" movement -- directors like Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders -- were just beginning to earn international recognition. Their counterparts in the East, however, were being shut down by the Socialist Unity Party. Half the films produced there in 1966 were banned. Jahrgang 45 didn't premiere until 1990, after the Wall fell (and he wasn't allowed to shoot the Wall while filming).

Böttcher also talks about an excellent scene with a busload of mesmerized, silent tourists snapping pictures and taking home movies with their 1960s cameras. It was not staged. The bus appeared during his location shoot and he simply went with it.

I remember being a tourist on a bus like that twenty years later, in 1986. We were visitors from another planet, taking photos of the moon.

Afterwards Lars and I stand outside, underneath heat lamps and a dark green awning at an elegant bar across the cobblestones from CinemaxX. We drink sparkling German wine, Sekt. Fortified, we make the long walk to Alexanderplatz -- from what was in 1966 No Man's Land to what was then East Berlin. We stop at sights that were in the film, like the neo-Classical French Cathedral (Friedrichstadtkirche) on the Gendarmenmarkt square, where the tourist bus had probably parked. It's so empty even now in 2016. The sidewalks are like an abandoned movie set. We cross the River Spree, passing the construction site of a new version of an old castle, going about as well as the construction of Berlin's new airport, which is to say, lots of snags and controversies. We head toward that iconic piece of Berlin, the giant disco ball on a toothpick, the Fernsehturm, the giant TV tower also from the mid-60s, shining over Alexanderplatz in the empty night.

Dinner is at a tiny Vietnamese restaurant. What look like little pizza slices or panini are actually chicken wontons (fragrant, herbal, sexy chicken), and I inhale the crunch and the aromatic flavors. We share fresh spring rolls and I eat a big bowl of Pho. Under the glass table top is a haphazard, wild collage of photos and notes customers have shoved there over the years.

We pull our film catalogs out of our bags. The Berlinale 66 catalog is the thickness of three Crate & Barrel catalogs stacked together. It's awe-inspiring how many films are in this book, in this festival. Page after page after page of films, new and old, from all around the world (including Hail, Caesar! and Chi-Raq from the U.S., and The Man Who Fell to Earth as a Bowie tribute). This catalogue is basically a novella. I feel thirsty to read it from cover to cover.

People stuff themselves silly on film during the festival. They take time off from work to plan a rigorous Berlinale schedule. Many see at least three films per day. A friend of a friend even sees a second movie after the eight-hour mega-epic from the Philippines A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, by director Lav Diaz.

The Berlinale isn't just about stars posing on the red carpet for studio blockbusters, although there is some of that of course. It's about human rights. Giving the Golden Bear award to Gianfranco Rosi's documentary Fire at Sea (about refugees fleeing war and terror and arriving at the island of Lampedusa), Meryl Streep says that connecting art and political understanding are the heart of the Berlinale. To me it makes sense that this festival takes place in Berlin. I don't know if it's a Route 66 city, but it's definitely a crossroads, politically, culturally, in history.

It rains all Sunday. I walk from Stadmitte under my red umbrella, gripping it against the force of the wind, passing the same bright stickers on the streetlight poles, the same dark statues and architectural mix of old and new. I get to Potsdamer Platz early, so I have a glass of Sekt again even though it's only noon, and sit under the same heat lamps alone. A guy suddenly stands behind me. He says cheers, and waits for me to talk to him. Instead I check my phone a hundred times, pretending to be busy. I toss back the rest of the Sekt and leave the man still standing there waiting for me talk to him, and I flee for the movie theater to wait inside for Lars.

The other film we see from the retrospective is Schonzeit für Füchse (No Shooting Time for Foxes), directed by Peter Schamoni and shot in Dusseldorf. His first feature film, it was originally screened and won a Silver Bear award at the 1966 Berlinale. The apartment in it reminds me of my now long-gone grandmother and her apartment. I see how they dress, how they talk to each other, how they spend their time.

When we get out there's a huge line to see Es (It), about a young couple's concealed pregnancy and abortion, which Peter's brother Ulrich Schamoni released in '66. We're bummed that it's sold out. I don't know if I would ever find these films in the United States. I wouldn't know where to look, or if anyone there cares about Germany in the 60s.

Lars and I talk about our parents as we walk in the rain, then stop at a tiny café and watch it through the window. My glasses steam up, and I have to keep wiping them clear. It strikes us that though one was East and the other West, Jahrgang and Schonzeit had similar lead male characters and similar love relationships. Slacker dudes who were "drifters, rebels, searchers" as the film catalog puts it, quite aptly. Unhappy ladies in barely functioning relationships (definitely not married) who seemed resigned. One generation not understanding the other. Germany was changing. German film was changing. It wasn't just my parents. It was in the air all around them.

We go to Zoo Palast -- in what was once West Berlin -- for our third and final film: Akher ayam el madina (In the Last Days of the City), a new Egyptian film directed by Tamer El Said. It wins the Caligari Film Prize at the Berlinale. The star, Khalid Abdallah, did a lot of coverage from Cairo for "Anderson Cooper 360" on CNN during the revolution in 2010. They were shooting this film when the revolution broke out, and had to stop. Since then I've been basically afraid to go back to Cairo to visit relatives. But with this movie, I get to return to the streets of my father's city. I get a sense of the tension and upheaval in the days leading up to the overthrow of Mubarak. In the film, the characters' private lives seem to be falling apart at the same time their city is. They're not sure where their home is, whether to stay or to go, whether staying means death or if leaving means another kind of death. I understand their story; in a small way, it's mine too.

So many films I didn't see. I barely sampled this festival, but I feel motivated to try again next year. I am reacquainted with both sides of my family at the Berlinale, which makes it feel intensely personal, autobiographical. When the sun finally comes out after days of rain, the switch is complete. Time accelerates once I get used to being here. I don't stare at the subway seat pattern anymore with self-conscious gloom. Everyone's German sounds normal and mine comes out easier. I feel that love for Berlin I remember having felt the last time I was here. And I feel at home.

Published March 4th, 2016

Rasha Refaie has written for The Normal School Magazine, Newsday, New York Press, and others. She lives in the East Village.