By Willa Rentel
With a blanket of grey sky over our heads, light rain hitting our cheeks, and remnants of a less than adequate night’s sleep on our faces, the FemGeniuses boarded a tour boat docked on the Spree River. As the ship began to creep forward, it quickly became clear to me that this tour would be unlike many of the critical and socio-political tours we have been lucky to take during our time in Berlin. As we glided down the river, passing under bridges and being urged to take notice of buildings on the banks, I felt a bit frustrated by the passive site-seeing our guide facilitated due to his failure to attach any sort of critical lens to his comments on the various sites and buildings we passed. What frustrated me further was the idea that some of the tourists that surrounded me might not have the opportunity to understand the plethora of narratives I have been lucky to learn about on this trip. If this is the only information about Berlin they are being presented with, they’re bound to have a more-than-skewed and less-than-full understanding of the social, political, and cultural history of this politically-charged city.
“On our left, the TV Tower, which houses a wonderful restaurant with spectacular views of the city!” I found myself waiting for the guide to shine light on the socio-political meaning behind this tower, which, according to Simon Arms, stands as a symbol of the legacy of political history in Berlin. A tower so socially and politically charged that East Berlin graffiti artist Tower created his pseudo-name with it in mind. “Tower, as in the communist TV tower; Tower, as in the skyscrapers that dominated the skyline of almost every major city—built not only for the people who lived there, but for the egos of the people who ran them” (3), Arms writes. Next, we were urged to direct our eyes to a building known as The Palace of the Republic, once the site of the German Democratic Republic parliament, now home to various restaurants, hotels, and auditoriums. I chuckled at the thought of such a shift in function of this building. Could it be yet another representation of the development of Germany’s political past, evidence of a shift toward a German capitalistic society during the last half-decade? Disappointingly, the guide failed to present any critique or delve past the functional importance of the structure.
The boat also passed the Jewish Center, a building hidden peaking through a gap in the buildings well beyond the riverbank. As the guide directed our gaze to the center, stating not much more than the name, I thought of Sabine Offe’s interpretation of the critical functionality of Jewish museums in “Sites of Remembrance? Jewish Museums in Contemporary Germany.” She argues that Jewish museums “are places of remembering. Or, rather, they are sites that have been established intentionally to make people remember, institutions representing collective memory […] the result of political decision making, even in those cases where they came into existence by seemingly quite individual motives” (79).
As the guide pointed out the Moltke Bridge, I was not taken in by the architecture of this beautiful red, brick structure, but by the graffiti that covered the concrete on either side of it. I considered what this graffiti was communicating to its viewers, what political and social message it was sending, and how it represented an act of resistance. Because of this, I was reminded of Jonathan Jones’ article wherein he writes of the importance of the first graffiti on the Berlin Wall, Thierry Noir. Jones writes, “This scar running through a city had provided novelists, musicians, and film-makers with a dark subject matter and surreal inspiration so often lacking in the safe, consumerist world of the postwar democracies” (1).
As our pace began to lessen and the boat slowed to a stop on the bank of the river, I began to question what frustrated me so about the tour, why I felt so unfulfilled by the site-seeing experience I would have once been happy to enjoy quietly from my seat. Yes, the buildings were beautiful, the architecture of the bridges we passed under was intricate and admirable, and I loved being on the water, but after three weeks of critical examination of Berlin’s past and present through exposure to a breadth of narratives, passive enjoyment of buildings around me felt impossible. I couldn’t seem to quiet the corners of my brain that were begging for an acknowledgement of the socio-political implications of these sites, and I can thank this course for that.
Willa Rentel is from Croton, New York, and will be entering her second year at CC this coming fall. She is planning on majoring in Sociology and absolutely loves people and good conversation. The Sociology class she took 5th block of last year focused on the growing income gap in America revealed to her an interest in majoring in the field. An avid thrift shopper, Willa loves searching through racks of clothing to find great, quirky gems. Willa loves music and is constantly altering her playlists on Spotify. She prides herself on being open to most any genre, but currently loves listening to The Talking Heads, Al Green, FKA Twigs (and most everything in between). Willa really, really loves strawberries. She also loves lying in hammocks, the smell of lilac flowers and swimming (in the ocean and ponds particularly). Her favorite television show of the moment is Broad City, and she is currently making her way through season two with impressive speed. Willa has a strong passion for social justice and feminism and would like to use her degree to pursue her passion further.