It was four thirty in the morning, it was bitterly, bitingly cold, and the entrances to Friedrichstraße station were already impassable.
If you were lucky enough, if you’d got here early enough even to get close to them, that is. From above, for the parasite riven pigeons sheltering in the roof, the broad concourse looked like an empty parade ground, paved only with a sea of hand cut and individually laid, black and brown hats.
For those thousands stuck outside, facing rows of foul-mouthed and officious soldiers trying to keep out the masses, the wind was as cruel as it had ever felt before. It bit through their threadbare coats. It abused them, chastened them.
But still they waited as the snow fell without pity or pause.
Inside, women held their babies as high as possible. To help them breathe, and to help them see. People jostled and argued, their elbows jutting out to buy an inch of space. Occasionally there would be a surge, a push forwards as one. Young boys and girls squeezed through the occasional gaps in the throng like water through the cracks in a pavement.
They just wanted to get as close as they could to the red carriage directly behind the engine just as it pulled into the station, a remarkable two minutes ahead of schedule. They just wanted to touch the hem of his garment as he stepped off the train.
It was the time that Charlie Chaplin came to Berlin.
Kurt Tucholsky wrote a poem about him, a little while later. It was written in Berlinerisch – the spiky and guttural language spoken and understood only by Berliners and their dogs – and called “Schepplin.” Tucholsky was fragile and very funny and, like Chaplin, had spent his life trying to show the humanity of the poor and forgotten classes.
Du kiekst bloß eenmal um de Ecke, un alles lacht.
“You just had to look once around the corner, and everyone laughed.”
I once picked up a slightly faded and dog-eared book, a curio published in the DDR on the Bücherei Oberbaum imprint, about all of this. It’s called Zeitgenosser Chaplin. 143 pages lovingly put together recalling how great socialist writers and thinkers covered Chaplin. From Walter Benjamin to Hans Eisler. How they saw his films as allegories. How they laughed with him and his cohorts, never at them. Their belly laughter was always saved for the times he fooled the police, the authorities, the oppressors.
I bought it at a flea market put on by my neighbours, the MLPD, the Marxist Leninist Partei Deutschland. They are excellent neighbours, if poor revolutionaries. At least in this corner of rapidly gentrifying Neukölln the revolution seems a lot further off than it did ten years ago when I moved here.
Charlie Chaplin met Bertolt Brecht on the night he came to Berlin. He spoke no English and Chaplin spoke no German. But they knew each other’s work intimately, and understood each other perfectly.
They smiled at each other and they drunk together and they laughed and laughed, and when they were silent it wasn’t because they lacked the words. It was because they knew they were sat on a precipice.
The papers were already split on Chaplin’s arrival at Friedrichstraße. The half against him were controlled by Fascists. The rest would be soon enough. This was Berlin in 1931.
The broken pavements of Friedrichstrasse looked gorgeous for a moment, bedecked with chubby piles of bright white snow. But it would all melt away within a month.
Leaving just the rubbish and the dirt and and the shit that had been preserved underneath throughout the Winter, to fester in the milky sunshine of the Spring.
Image By Waltramp – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61837102