Jason Lutes: "Making the leap from cold history to something that feels more alive"

Babbel speaks with “Berlin – City of Smoke” creator Jason Lutes

The recently published “Berlin – City of Smoke”, playing in 1929/30, is the second book in an eventual graphic-novel triology. Its creator, Jason Lutes, talks about diving into German history without speaking German.

You hadn’t been to Berlin before you started the comic – How did you make a picture for yourself?
I did about two years of research before I started the project. My research consisted of just reading everything I could find about German history, Berlin, etc. All the texts I did consume were translated from German into English, so that limited the material that I had at my disposal. But I just got everything I could from books of art, to maps of the city, books of photographs, novels – anything I could get my hands on. It was until 4 years after I started the project that I actually visited Berlin for the first time – so from beginning researching the project to actually visiting was a period of about six years.
Did you recognize the city from your research?
I did, I was a little apprehensive, no, I was more than apprehensive, I was very anxious — almost terrified — to see the real place, because I was very worried that it would be so different from the story I was trying to tell that it would render what I’d done useless.

But I realized two things: One of them was that what I’d done, or what I had started to do, did feel at least connected to the real city that I saw – that was a relief. And the other thing that I realized was that there was no way I could actually really capture the density, the beauty and the richness of the actual place – and that also was a kind of relief. It is sort of futile to try and capture the spirit of a place – so I was able to just let go of that idea and realized that my version of Berlin is all that my story can be about. In the end, it is going to be my very personal, idiosyncratic notion of what the city is.
One of your main characters in the comic is Kurt Severing, a fictional character, who works for the magazine “Weltbühne”, which was an important critical voice in Germany at that time. Are there translations of their articles into English?
There are translations of select essays by certain writers of the ones that would become a little more well-known. I found a great book called “Germany’s Left-Wing Intellectuals during the Weimar Republic” which talks about the history of the magazine and about Carl von Ossietzky, and goes into some specific details about different writers. So there is some material out there but unfortunately I can’t read any in the original German.

Were there moments when you wished you could?

Definitely, yeah, that would have been great. And actually I tried. I went through a period of time where I made a concerted effort and try to learn. I don’t know if there’s a period when you’re an adult and it’s harder – nothing really stuck. It’s been frustrating and I really felt that it’s a great limitation to my ability to really engage with the subject matter as much as I would like to. It makes me regret only taking one year of German in high school, I tell you that.

Your novel takes place at the time when the  “Roaring Twenties” come to an end. Goebbels arrived in the German capital to lure the workers over to the Nazis, unemployement was rising – what made you choose this scenario?

It was an important idea for me, what it would have felt like to be there at the time, not with the benefit of hindsight. The thing that really drew me to that was the idea that it didn’t have to turn out the way that it did. It was a time when a lot of forces were pushing and pulling. And I don’t think that it was inevitable the way it did. I don’t know if it would been any better if the Communist Party had risen to power; it is obviously hard to figure that out. But I just became very interested in the circumstances that led up to Hitler becoming chancellor. Ultimately it came out of a desire to know more about the circumstances leading up to WWII and the Holocaust. Because I had had a public high school history education in America  and it was …eh… kind of lacking, to say the least.
The third book obviously will be about the rise of the fascists to power – so there will be no happy ending I guess?

We all know how it turns out in the bigger picture. I don’t want to have it be unrelentingly bleak. I want to try to be as honest to events as I can, but also to show that human experience in the darkest time is not all the stuff of depression. I do want to end it on a positive note, even knowing the events that have transpired. So I have a plan how to do that and we we’ll see how it will comes out at the end.
In the comic you sometimes show  bits of the daily life of people, which are not really important for the story as a whole – like a girl living on the street , or the Nazi Horst Wessels, who got famous after he got murdered. How did you get in the minds of these people, where did you get it from?
After absorbing all the information that I could , and after all the reading that I had done, I was trying to have an imaginary version of the city in my head, and ideas sort of occured to me. All of the characters are initially inspired by a photograph. In the case of Silva, the girl that you are talking about, I found a  book about German culture and there were some photographs of different aspects, different people in different circumstances. There was a picture of a German girl that appealed to me very much. So I took that picture and tried to make a copy of it. Then I put the photograph aside, and redrew the character from the drawing I made until she felt like more of a person, until I had a sense of who she might be. With all of my characters – there’s always a picture that I start with. And as I redraw that picture they sort of merge with my imaginary version of the city. And then the lives that they lead and the things that they do – I have to invent a lot and imagine circumstances or situations that might have happened to them.
You can do all the research that you want, but that act of imagining, making the leap from cold history to something that feels more alive – if people respond to the work at all, that’s what they respond to, the attempt to bring all that stuff to life.

What would you say is the point in time when things could have gone in a different direction back then?

There is no way that I can point to one thing. When I look at any volatile period in history, it is like a web, it’s like chaos theory – everything is interconnected and the smallest change somewhere could affect things elsewhere. It would be hard to pick one thing, but if Horst Wessel hadn’t been shot things would have unfolded differently, not that differently, but just as an example. He could have survived that, it didn’t had to turn out the way that it did. He probably would have still been considered some kind of martyr for just being shot. But the fact that he died really added energy and power to what the National Socialists did afterwards. And earlier than that: Karl Liebknecht und Rosa Luxemburg, they were forces of serious change; they had a lot of ability to get things done. If things had turned out differently for them, it would have been a different picture.
Which books would you recommend on Berlin?
For me one of the great influences and just a great experience was “Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Döblin. That was just a wonderful textured depiciton of not only Berlin at the time, but it has the feeling of what it must have felt like for the world to be changing so quickly with increased urban density and advances in technology. That book really captures the feeling of a modernizing, chaotic, changing world. And portraying people in the midst of that in a very affecting way. If people are really interested in thats period that is the one book that I would recommend to read.