Berlin is an intricate and sprawling story in which graphic novelist Jason Lutes examines the society, class, and politics of Weimar Germany through the lives of Berliners. Two of the characters in Lutes’ cast are Marthe Muller and Anna Lencke whom Lutes uses to introduce the reader to the bohemian, queer community of Berlin and the ways its members intersect or not with other Berliners in addition to the impact of enforcement of Germany’s penal code.
Marthe comes from a well to do family living in Köln; some of the Muller wealth comes from stock investments. Her father, a retired Army major, and mother have arranged a marriage for their 29 year old daughter. Marthe has come to the realization that she needs to make a better life for herself on her own terms. Much of that involves moving to Berlin and enrolling part time in the prestigious Art Academy. Marthe enjoyed making art till a family tragedy occurred when she was 18 and suppressed her creative nature.
Lutes provides insight about Anna’s past and family in two key areas while leaving the rest to reader speculation. Passages of dialog, such as when Anna cuts short her Christmas visit home, reveal a tense parental relationship, especially with her mother who insists Anna, who wears masculine garments, wear “proper clothing”. Anna does not comply. During the same visit Anna delights in spending time with nieces and a nephew. In a scene in volume two Lutes reveals Anna’s family, though once well enough off, was in extreme poverty during the Great War. Anna recounts a friendship and first kiss with Gertrud, the daughter of the town’s candy maker whose business was shuttered when supplies disappeared. Anna laughingly rejects talking further about Gertrud.
Anna and Marthe’s paths cross because they’re both students in a life drawing class. Anna has attended the academy at least one year and has a well established circle of friends. Anna and Marthe bond by complaining about their very strict instructor and Marthe soon finds herself spending time with Anna and Anna’s male friends discussing life in general, philosophy and art. Marthe has no interest in art movements such as Objectivism and Expressionism; she simply wants to get at the essense of people and their lives.
The friendship soon will become complicated because Marthe is unaware that Anna is falling in love with her. The secret is unraveled only after Anna becomes sullen upon learning Marthe has begun an affair with a journalist named Kurt Severing whom she met aboard the train coming to Berlin. Severing showed Marthe a kindness and she promised to stay in touch. Quite accidentally Marthe will also find Anna naked and in bed with a woman; thus validating for Marthe her suspicion Anna is lesbian.
From this point on the lives of Anna, Marthe, and Kurt will become even knottier though none of them will realize it. Marthe will drop out after her first semester and move in with Kurt just as his journalistic efforts to uncover truths behind political corruptness intensifies. A newly found love for jazz and the joyous abandon it creates for Marthe will serendipitously play a part in Marthe and Anna having sex and becoming a couple. The relationship with Kurt ends though Marthe’s romantic and sexual feelings for Severing continue secretly. They will continue to be friends though Severing dearly misses Marthe and will let work and depression absorb him.
Marthe will share Anna’s room in a boarding house, presumably at Anna’s invitation and the couple manage somehow to keep their relationship secret from the other lodgers. Lutes shows them to be happy and content in several scenes all the while keeping a recurring issue between them off panel until they’re both caught up in a police raid that will humiliate Anna. The arrest exacerbates the matter and upends their lives. After a period of intense examination, Marthe is able to accept Anna on Anna’s terms – that of being a trans man who is attracted to women.
Lutes never uses the word “transgender” in reference to Anna because the term was not known in the time period. The extensive resource list which accompanied volume three shows the amount of research Lutes did in preparation for and throughout the story. Transgender people certainly were part of German society as author Livia Gershon discusses in “Gender Identity in Weimar Germany”. In 1910 sex researcher and political activist Magnus Hirschfield invented the term “transvestite” to identify people who would today identify as transgender. Hirschfield’s term has long fallen out of favor and is considered a slur against transgender people today and instead is used to identify people who find pleasure in wearing clothing primarily associated with the opposite of their birth sex. With regard to Marthe, one might assume her character is bisexual or perhaps pansexual. In any case, Anna and Marthe were a couple whose friendship became stronger after the romantic relationship ended.
Several scenes throughout the story insight into queer life. The first look appears in volume one when Anna coaxes Marthe into an evening out soon after meeting in class. The pair enjoy themselves at a performance at the Underbelly cabaret. While all the performers are women, many of them are wearing men’s clothing, in particular tuxedos just as Marlene Dietrich once did; drag being a common occurrence in early 20th century queer culture whether in the cabarets of Berlin and Paris or Harlem’s balls as it is today. They leave the club walking arm and arm and singing a song performed earlier.
The Underbelly will be featured as a location several times in volume two in relation to Johnny Delacroix, the Cocoa Kids, and Miss Pola, the nude model from Anna and Marthe’s figure drawing class. One of these scenes will include Herr Karl, the Underbelly’s manager. Read Johnny Delacroix’s profile here.
The second occurrence appears in chapter four of volume two. Marthe arrives at a discrete, below street level side door and gives the required password to gain admittance. The interior resembles sophisticated and glamorous bars featured in contemporary Hollywood movies: wainscotting, fabric swaths draped on walls, sconces creating intimate lighting, small tables decked out with table cloths, and a coat check. Anna introduces Marthe to another couple, Fraulein Hanke and Herr Scheidt. One imagines the other patrons include a slice of the queer community from gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans folks in addition to Anna and Herr Scheidt.
The final peek comes in chapter two of volume three and based on visual details in the scene this appears to be a different establishment from the previous two. The interior space is more intimate with a small stage for a piano player and a solo singer performing a feminist protest song. Many of the clientele are well dressed men. Lutes interrupts this scene with police raiding the establishment and arresting patrons on charges of violating Paragraph 175 to show the changing political and social climates towards fascism as Hitler consolidates power.
Volume one marks the first appearances of both Marthe and Anna in chapters 1 and 2 respectively or issues #1 and #2 in the original single issue format.
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