After two decades' worth of serialized publication, the award-winning cartoonist has completed his nearly 600-page tome on the Weimar Republic, exploring how characters of different social strata lived their lives amid an unfolding Nazi takeover with consequences they could scarcely conceive.
Though Berlin is technically a compilation of previously-released material, the ability to approach the entire story at once completely transforms the reading experience. It allows us for the first time to see Lutes’ achievement for what it is: one of the most ambitious, important and fully-realized works of graphic literature yet created, a real masterpiece of both story and art. Lutes combines a keen eye for character and setting with a cartoonist’s skill for storytelling and pictorial composition. Berlin is drawn in crisp, clean black and white: European in its pacing, austere in its linework, and architectural in its simplicity, but full of brilliant details ... Such tight control of his craft allows Lutes to layer a complex story full of subtle moments, tonal shifts and poignant emotion, bringing different characters to the foreground like featured players in a symphony.
The cartoonist patiently drew his story in short, irregularly released pamphlets, gathered together every few years in paperback collections. When he finally finished the project and codified it in a hefty hardcover in 2018, what had once been antiquarian was now urgent. In the fraying and polarized America of Donald Trump, the Weimar Republic looks more like a mirror than a fading photograph ... When I first started reading Berlin more than two decades ago, I primarily admired it as a bravura feat of historical reconstruction. Everything—the trains, the buildings, the fashion, the faces—looked right, a testament not just to archival research but also, more importantly, to a style that channeled the imagery of the era ... Still, in reading the whole of Berlin, the immersion in a historical urban environment is secondary to the political dilemma that confronts the characters ... The achievement of Lutes’s Berlin is that it combines both sides of the gender divide in urban fiction. In so doing, it offers a more comprehensive way of looking at our own troubled times, which can easily invite despair and resignation.
The compositional principle of Berlin is montage ... And so the pages of Berlin cut, sometimes abruptly, from street shots to close-ups, from train tracks to interior monologues, from newspapers to parlor rooms, and from one character to another ... Berlin has no authorial voice, no narration, no overarching perspective. Instead it has an atmosphere of aloofness. It is this impassivity that makes reading this book a deeply unsettling experience ... the unspoken hero of Berlin is the city itself, in all its fractured and disordered glory. Lutes’s wordless pictures of the city, especially at night, are some of the most dazzling passages in the book ... If I were to pick one word to describe Berlin, it would be 'fragmented.' And this fits well with Lute’s montage aesthetic. In a process that amounts to a kind of social mitosis, one character meets another, causing a third and fourth to emerge. This splitting and multiplying of persons and viewpoints gives each one not only a connection to all the rest in a six-degrees-of-separation way, but also a strangely provisional status. They connect to one another, but not with one another. They are isolates colliding, particles in a world heating up ... Berlin is infuriating in its flatness and its blanks. But it is this painful act of reading, of watching these blinkered characters do their thing, or not, that gives Berlin its strange force. It shows how the most democratic and tolerant of societies—where people of every political stripe, every race, and every gender have some kind of real connection to one another—can devolve into total brutality.