Anyone with even a passing interest in Berlin’s gargantuan 20th-century history would do well to start with the graphic novels of Jason Lutes. Back in 1996, the struggling illustration graduate found himself compelled to depict daily life on the streets of Weimar-era Berlin as the city slowly succumbed to Nazism. 592 pages and 22 chapters later, the work blossomed into a globally-acclaimed trilogy and become the artist’s unexpected magnum opus.
But just how did a New Jersey-born illustrator who’d never set foot in the German capital end up creating one of the defining works on Berlin history? And did he foresee the parallels between the political climate he documented and that of his home nation today?
Jacek Slaski of ZITTY caught up with Lutes before the Berlin leg of his tour to promote the final instalment and a deluxe hardcover edition of the trilogy: Berlin.
You live in the USA – how did your fascination with Berlin begin?
I decided to embark on the project in 1996, after seeing an ad for a book of photographs called Bertolt Brecht’s Berlin. I didn’t know much at all about the city beyond what I had seen in the films Cabaret and Wings of Desire, so researching, writing and drawing the story was a self-education for me. The initial choice was very impulsive, not based on any pre-existing fascination, but of course the more I learned about Berlin, the more fascinated I became.
When did you visit Berlin for the first time and what do you remember?
The first time I visited was in 2000, while I was on tour to promote my previous book, Jar of Fools (Narren). At that point I was about 200 pages into Berlin, and terrified that seeing the real city would render all of my work worthless. I remember coming into the city by train from Erlangen, and watching the first buildings on the outskirts slide by as the sun was setting. The first thing that struck me about this place that I had mostly experienced through black-and-white photographs was that it was in color! And beautiful. Once I got off the train and spent some time on the streets I felt relieved — my fictional city paled in comparison the real Berlin, which was infinitely more rich and interesting than anything I could imagine.
What was the main idea behind the three Berlin-based books? What was the story you wanted to tell?
My goal from the very beginning was to explore and try to understand the experiences of Berliners of all social strata during the rise of fascism: how political extremism took hold, how it affected them, how they responded. I wanted to understand how something like the Holocaust could occur, but not just as a matter of history; even back in the 1990s the undercurrents of white supremacy in American culture were nakedly apparent, and they concerned me. I wanted to understand the experience of Germans in the 1920s and 30s as a human experience, and find its relationship to my own time and place.
Which artists or books inspired you for the Berlin trilogy?
Too many to name here, but among the most influential were Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, and the drawings of George Grosz. Hergé was a great inspiration to me in my childhood, and the ligne claire style popularized in Belgian comics obviously affected my own approach to drawing. The work of American writers William Faulkner and Ursula le Guin impressed upon me the power of written language, and how the right words can weave a kind of spell over the reader. The comics of Chester Brown and Ben Katchor showed me that comics can be subtle and poetic, respectively.
Do you see any parallels in contemporary politics with the events that happened during the Weimar era?
Since 2016 the political situation in my own country, which has never been ideal, has descended into utter disaster. It’s easy to draw connections between the current American moment — which shares in the rise of nationalist movements worldwide — and the Weimar period, but for me it’s not a parallel or reference; it’s the same forces, subdued for years by attempts at functional democracy and progressive political movements, boiling up to the surface once again. There is very little difference between the scapegoating of the Jewish people in Germany in the 1930s and the villainization of brown-skinned immigrants in my own country in 2018. I am confident that policy adviser Stephen Miller has studied his Joseph Goebbels and is employing the exact same tactics to strike fear into the hearts of white, working-class Americans.
Does the reception of your books in the US differ from how we perceive them here in Berlin or Europe in general?
Yes, the reception differs very much. Most Americans who read my book experience it as something viewed at a great distance, and see me as something of an expert on the subject. For European and of course German readers in particular, the subject matter is much closer to their actual experience, and thus they tend to be (understandably) doubtful of my motives and perspective as a foreign observer. That being said, even those people who have expressed doubt or suspicion during my European travels have been unfailingly gracious. Something Americans are not always good at.
What’s your next project?
The book currently on my drawing table is a Western set in the Arizona Territory in 1865. The main character is a 16-year-old Irish-Mexican girl. It’s a straightforward action-adventure, but follows the sorts of characters that most Westerns ignore — the people who usually show up in the background. I find that I am drawn to settings charged with potential, where the future is unwritten but might take any number of forms. Weimar Berlin was such a place, and so was the American Southwest at the close of the Civil War. This book, however, will be a reasonable 96 pages long, so I can finish it and still have time to write and draw a few more before my hand stops working.