Remembering the Unrememberable

Probably because I just saw Midnight in Paris for the second time, I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia and how it affects people. The movie has been discussed half to death, but if you are part of the dwindling minority that hasn’t seen it yet (and in that case, get thee to a Kino as soon as possible), just know that it deals chiefly in the art of nostalgia. The main character’s nostalgia for a bygone area, or perhaps just a time in his own past when he had more choices to make, more chances open to him; our nostalgia for a Paris that we may have caught a glimpse of on vacations past, back when we also charmingly and naively thought we could move there in the blink of an eye; Woody Allen’s nostalgia for a career in which his every movie was hotly anticipated, instead of merely wearily tolerated. I saw the film for the first time in New York with J, and for the second time in Berlin with Nicole, who declared as we walked out of the theater that although she loved the film, it made her feel terrifically sad. What is it about that sighing, wistful longing for the past that is so strong, it actually ends up fueling our future? Is it that the older we get and the more we have to look back on rather than look forward to, the more we feel the need to talk about what we no longer have?

Berlin is the perfect place for nostalgia, almost its sister city. When I first came here three years ago, at the tail-end of August in the last few waning days of summer, and met my roommate and first friend Simon, I was immediately informed that I had missed “the greatest summer” ever. Although September and even early October would go on to be warm and lazy and wonderful, I still had to contend with images of the barbecues and lake swims, the boat rides and the outdoor films that I had missed, simply because I arrived just a few months too late. “Too late,” is a big theme for Berliners, as it was for New Yorkers and will always be. Saying that I got here too late to experience the fall of the Berlin wall is somewhat laughable, considering that when the Berlin wall fell I was not yet five. But somehow, every time I read an article or book about Berlin during the Cold War, I feel a bit responsible for my own lateness. (When I look back at what I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the Mauerfall nearly two years ago, I read my own frustration and annoyance over the constant competition of the journalists who wrote on the subject, each trying to outdo the others in proving how really there he really was then.) Could I not, I kept thinking, have willed myself into existence just a bit earlier, and somehow made my way to the center of the Cold War battlefield just in time for the exuberant end of it all? Just like Gil Pender, the hopelessly, adorably romantic hero of Midnight in Paris, I long for an old car (only in this case I suppose it would be a Trabi) to come chugging around the corner at midnight and invite me into a world that I can only catch a glimpse of in old photographs, that I can only, frustratingly, comprehend through the memories—the hopeless nostalgia—of others.

Yet nostalgia in Berlin can get a bit confusing, simply because there are so many different eras to have nostalgia for. Depending on your style, political outlook, and mood on any given day, you might wish to experience turn-of-the-century Berlin in all its Prussian splendor (I have a book for that, full of old photographs of Berlin Plätze or “squares”), 1930’s Berlin in its Weimar decadence (I have a book for that and you’ve probably heard of it—it inspired the film and musical Cabaret), 1940’s Berlin and its Nazi intrigue and horror (actually I don’t think most would admit to being nostalgic for this decade but hey, I have three books for that too: the Berlin Noir trilogy by Philip Kerr), and perhaps most likely, post-1945 Berlin and the thrill of being on an island in the center of the Communist world (I have many books for that). Sadly, the thing about this last one is that nothing has really topped it. Post-1989 Berlin partied for a year or so and enjoyed its hard-earned and short-lived status as the most important place in the universe. Then it got down to the business of rebuilding, but never stopped to consider, in its zeal for reuniting its two halves and the pride of momentary fame, what kind of city it wanted to be. Now it’s a city of layers, a palimpsestopolis, and no one can quite decide which ones to uncover, and which ones to knock down in order to uncover still more. Which of Berlin’s many histories is the one we want to stick with? Which era do we most want to have nostalgia for?

Sometimes my mind reels at all that I have missed and will never know. After I read the tremendously moving Stasiland by Anna Funder, I spent a few days walking around my neighborhood in a trance. For a moment it all came alive, and I could see and feel the people who had walked these streets before me, and I was filled with an immense sense of longing—not for their era, but for them and what they must have longed for also. The end reveal of Midnight in Paris (stop here if you haven’t seen it), the small twist that makes it all worthwhile, is a short sequence in which Gil Pender, by now having already been taken on the time-travel ride of his life, accompanies his delighted companion, a girl of the Jazz Age, even further back in time to turn-of-the-century Belle Époque Paris, where she resolves to stay. Pender realizes that we are all, none of us, ever truly happy with the present, yet we must still avoid becoming victims of nostalgia. It is a hard lesson to learn when you can’t possibly know what’s coming next, can’t ever see into the future to gain the assurance that at some point there will come some world event that will make you feel you were finally, at last, born into exactly the right time. My generation and my hometown had 9/11, and somehow, that seems unfair. The last one had the wall. No wonder they’re still looking back.