In 2008 I celebrated 10 years of Fictional Cities with a new city, but it's not included in the main menu as when I did so it seemed wrong, in some indefinable way. It could be just the disturbance of change, but others shared my disquiet. It can be accessed from the back-up text menus at the bottom of each page.

This page was prompted by a visit to Berlin in July 2008. The city's past exists mostly in words -  the understandable desire to wipe out evidence of the city's recent history means that there's very little physical evidence left of the grim 20th century. Which makes sources of mental pictures somewhat essential. The years after the rush of enthusiasm in 2008 didn't see many updates, I'm afraid, but my second visit in October 2015 saw a bit of freshening.

(I'm sorry if the monochrome tendency seems a little melodramatic - it's just that all the films I watched were b&w, even the modern ones, so I went with it.)



Chloe Aridjis Book of Clouds
Paul Beatty Slumberland
Rebecca Cantrell A Trace of Smoke
A Night of Long Knives
A Game of Lies
Beatrice Colin The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite
Helen Constantine (ed.) Berlin Tales
Len Deighton Funeral in Berlin
Winter: A Berlin Family, 1899-1945
Berlin Game
Alfred Doblin Berlin Alexanderplatz
David Downing Zoo Station
Silesian Station
Stettin Station
Potsdam Station
Lehrter Station
Hans Fallada Alone in Berlin
Ariana Franklin City of Shadows
Pierre Frei Berlin: a novel
Paul Grossman The Sleepwalkers
Robert Harris Fatherland
Ida Hattemer-Higgins The History of History

  Christopher Isherwood The Berlin Novels:
Mr Norris Changes Trains; Goodbye to Berlin
Joseph Kanon The Good German
Leaving Berlin

Phillip Kerr The Bernie Gunther series:
The Berlin Noir trilogy
(March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem)
The One from the Other
A Quiet Flame
(set in Buenos Aires)
If the Dead Rise Not
(Gunther's back story, set in 1934)
Field Gray
Prague Fatale
(set in Prague!)
Gregory Lee Berlin: Day Zero
Ian McEwan The Innocent
Vladimir Nabokov The Gift
Laughter in the Dark
Piers Paul Read Patriot in Berlin
Michael Pye The Pieces from Berlin
Sven Regener Berlin Blues
Vikram Seth Two lives


Chloe Aridjis Book of Clouds
Well here's refreshing - a novel about Berlin that's not a thriller. And make no mistake, this is a book about Berlin, not just a book set there. Tatiana from Mexico is living in Berlin and getting what work she can, when she is put in touch with an elderly historian who wants her to type up the tapes on which he monologues about aspects of Berlin's recent history and how events inhabit the city's spaces. So Tatiana's life and wanderings through the city are shadowed by the historian's observations as her friendship with him develops. It's all very Berlin, and a quick and easy yet stimulating and resonant read. The city is recognisable but mysterious and one of the themes of the novel is vacancy - what's not there being as important as what is. This is truly one of those rare books that stimulates heart and head equally.

Len Deighton Funeral in Berlin
My first Len Deighton, and the style strikes as pacey but overloaded with detail and a bit padded generally. You get used to it, but describing every room, for example, down to the lino pattern, stains and individual pieces of dirty washing  and boxes of washing powder gets a bit wearing. Good sharp and witty dialogue, though, and cynicism and double-dealing a-go-go. Berlin looks and smells and feels authentic and period, and it's where most of the action takes place. There's London life too. Very much of its time, but enjoyable for that reason. I'm not enthused to read another one though.

Hans Fallada Alone in Berlin
This one cropped up up in a fair few lists of end-of-year recommendations when it was republished in 2009, which took me back to the 1980s, when I'd spent much time at work grubbing around in my library's fiction reserve stock, rooting out such forgotten gems as the works of Hans Fallada. The book was originally published in 1947, the year Fallada died, and has been translated into English before, but this is a new translation, by Michael Hoffman. The novel tells of an elderly couple's sudden disaffection with the Nazi regime, brought about by the death of their son, and how their decision to protest affects and, let's face it, drastically shortens their lives and the lives of those around them. Criminal and Nazi neighbours, policemen, friends, relatives...all are swept to their doom by the couple's decision. And the fact that their chosen form of protest - the leaving in public stairwells of postcards with rabble-rousing anti-government messages written on them - is ineffectual in the extreme lessens the subsequent brutality not a bit. It's a marvellously humane and involving book, though, and a riot of nuance and ambiguity. Not a single note jars either - this is a book you cannot but believe in, and which was based upon the exploits of a real-life couple. You no more doubt that life in Berlin in the 1940s is here truthfully evoked than you doubt that people would behave as they do in these situations. A genuine masterpiece.

Ariana Franklin City of Shadows
The setting here is Berlin in the early 1920s. Germany has lost the 1914-18 war and is now losing the peace. Inflation is rampant and the streets are empty of people, who can't afford to go out, but full of thugs and violence. One of the few people growing fat on the collapse is Prince Nick, the owner of various profitable nightclubs of ill repute. When he hears of a woman in an asylum who thinks she's Anastasia, the secret survivor of the massacre of the Russian czar's family, he decides to acquire her and groom her. The plan involves his secretary Esther - a Jew and a pogrom survivor with a hideous scar on one side of her face and too much wit and initiative to sink comfortably into her role. Then people start to get murdered and 'Anastasia''s suspicions of a man who lurks in forests and follows her have to be taken seriously. The final essential character, a policeman with shadows of his own, now gets involved, in more ways than one. There's a lot of plot going on here, not fast but dense, and a lot of history (real and imagined) slipped into the action easily and readably. Smooth, convincing, and confidently evocative of the city in another of its tragic decades.

Paul Grossman The Sleepwalkers
This covers not uncommon ground, being about a cop uncovering twisty plots and nasty experiments in early-30s Berlin. But the cop here is Jewish, and also famous for having solved the Child Eater case (shades of M) which makes him less easy pickings for the Nazis. A lot of famous faces appear (like Freud, Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich) somewhat gratuitously, in bars and at parties, but this is basically a tightly-plotted and atmospheric thriller-trip through familiar territory. The evocation of Berlin in 1932 is what sets it apart, though - the locations and bright lights leap into your imagination with telling detail and a feeling of authenticity. A good solid gripping read, then, and a true treat for those wanting to soak up Weimar Berlin.

Joseph Kanon Leaving Berlin
I very much liked Alibi by the same author and set in post-war Venice, and Kanon had published another post-war-period novel, set in Berlin, so the choice of novel to break my Berlin duck for my 2015 visit was pretty much made for me. Post-war Berlin is much more commonly-covered ground than post-war Venice, of course, and this one has all the rubble, ruined lives and developing cold war paranoia you could wish for. But this is a cerebral thriller - more talking than shooting - and so is also as subtle, convincing and evocative as you could wish for. It's the story of a writer, Alex Meier, forced to leave America during the McCarthy witch-hunts and return to Berlin, where the Russians are only too keen to adopt and parade him. Then there's the fact that he has actually been sent as an American spy. Alex is fictional, but he's also mates with Bertolt Brecht, who features importantly. The messiness of old relationships mixes with new complications and make for such twisty allegiances you'll almost need to scribble down a diagram to follow them. I managed to stay in control, I think, even through the somewhat  breathless final pages. A fine ride.

Phillip Kerr The Berlin Noir series:
March Violets; The Pale Criminal; A German Requiem

Kerr's PI, Bernie Gunther, investigates various nasty crimes against the nasty backdrop of pre-WWII Berlin. At first it seems odd to be concentrating on personal crimes whilst the streets are full of much worse transgressions, but the larger picture soon gets mixed in with the problems of the seemingly smaller fry. These books are real page-turners, to be sure, with only our hero's unfailing bedding of at least one willing female per novel adding a somewhat predictable note. The first two parts are set in Berlin, but the last book in the first trilogy takes Bernie to Vienna.

Ian McEwan
The Innocent
Almost a thriller, this tells of a young engineer's introduction to the life of a spy and the love of a German woman in just-pre-wall Berlin. He's involved in the construction of a tunnel to listen in on the East's sensitive phone conversations. The tunnel and his relationship are simultaneously undermined as politics and his girlfriend's husband both rear their ugly heads. This has the visceral touches of McEwan's earlier novels and the involving complexity of his later stuff. The ambiguities of the allies' relationship and the details of the tunnelling are well covered, as is the joy of sexual




Maik Kopleck
Past Finder - Berlin 1933-45
Past Finder - Berlin 1945-89
A matching pair of specialist guidebooks covering the war and the wall, basically. Both cover their ground efficiently and widely and are very smartly designed with good use of copious illustrations. They tell you where to go to find the scant traces and also give good background. They are both translated from the German, the first one with more style and smoothness than the second. Easy to find in Berlin, but not elsewhere.


Brian Ladd The Ghosts of Berlin - Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape
A mind-boggling investigation of the arguments that developed around the demolishing, renovating or rebuilding of Berlin's many contentious buildings, statues, and even commemorative plaques. When your recent history is so awful it's tempting to reach back to a time before, but to do so stirs up feelings and meaning too, as it can be argued that this period was what created the atmosphere for the way things developed. Not all the arguments and topics go in such a circular way, but this is all fraught and thought-provoking stuff.

Heather Reyes and Katy Derbyshire eds.
city-lit Berlin
Another in this sterling series of city-themed compilations, this one follows the pattern of short excerpts gathered into chapters, that this time vary from the arbitrary to the perfect. The simplest one is also the most gripping: it's called The past is another country, but don't let that put you off. Its
well-chosen pieces take you through Berlin's history from the early 19th Century to today, and make for an almost perfect, and very moving, slice through history. (It's interesting to note that even in the 1920s Berlin was a place renowned for building over its history.)  The book choices are as eclectic as you could wish for, taking in most of the authors listed above -  including the obvious choices like Isherwood, Kerr, Le Carre and Deighton - and some stuff new to me I'll be delving deeper into soon. Top of the list of latter include Ian Walker's Zoo Station and Beatrice Collin's The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite. Further interest is added by co-editor Katy Derbyshire's translations of bits from works not otherwise available in English. This manages to be not just a fine and fascinating introduction to the literature, but to rise above its expected status as a dipping thing to become a mighty fine cover-to-cover read in itself.

Ian J Sanders The Ghosts of Berlin - Images of a divided city
The is something of a vanity-published book.  The author is responsible for and seems to have decided to put his site into print. The result is an uncheap  floppy paperback full of black and white photos that are bleakly evocative of the place and time, but not reproduced to a very high quality, probably because they are derived from the colour originals viewable on the site.


Aimée & Jaguar

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
A day in the life of a city, with the streets, factories, cafes and people of Berlin filmed in an artless way in 1927, and made into something more arty by the addition of music and by the editing. This can't help but be a fascinating portrait of a city on the brink of so much and there's more than enough strangeness and ordinariness to hold the attention for its short length.
Berlin Alexanderplatz
Alfred Döblin's novel has been filmed twice. The first was in 1931 with Döblin himself working on the adaptation. The second was Fassbinder's marathon 15+ hour German TV adaptation from 1980.
The Big Lift
About the Berlin airlift.

Christiane F.

The Counterfeiters
Cycling the Frame
Cynthia Beatts' documentary of 1988, featuring Tilda Swinton cycling the wall, followed up in 2009 by The Invisible Frame.
Dr. M

Faraway, So Close!
The sequel to Wings of Desire.
A Foreign Affair 1948
Filmed in Berlin just after the war this is the story of a visiting  congresswoman learning more than she bargained for about the temptations and opportunities available to the occupying forces. The congresswoman is played by Jean Arthur and the soldier who shows her that all is not black and white is played by John Lund. The bar singer with the Nazi past here is Marlene Dietrich, and of course she has a 'dead' Nazi husband. The cynicism and sharp humour here are a joy, but clash somewhat with bursts of earnestness and bits of flag-waving. There are odd jarrings too in, for example, the jaunty music playing as our hero drives his jeep past the ruins to deliver a hard-won mattress to Marlene Dietrich (see screen-captures). The cynicism can sometimes smack of coldness, is what I'm getting at. But a fine film, with good footage from 1946, including aerial filming done by Wilder on a visit before the film was thought of. His next one was the wonderful Sunset Boulevard.
Funeral in Berlin
The second of a trio of Len Deighton adaptations starring Michael Caine.

Two screen-grabs from A Foreign Affair

The Good German
This is Steven Soderbergh's homage to film noir, and to films like The Third Man and Casablanca and so it's not just in black and white, it's presented in a 4:3 format too - so it's square like old films. It's set in Berlin at the time of the Potsdam Conference, so it's all about East/West mistrust and deception, with large doses of Nazi-chasing and moral ambiguity. George Clooney does his Cary Grant thing and Cate Blanchett glams up nicely as the prostitute with the possibly-dead Nazi husband. Post-war Berlin looks as full of rubble and ruins as you'd imagine, with some suitable sets and also digital backdrops reputedly derived from footage unused by Billy Wilder from the filming of  A Foreign Affair. Atmospheric and entertaining.

Helsinki-Napoli All Night Long
A Herzog-directed film about a Jewish strongman in 1930s Berlin, featuring Tim Roth and a strong flavour of the occult.

The Invisible Frame
Cynthia Beatts' follow-up to Cycling the Frame, her documentary film of 1988. This time  Tilda Swinton cycles the same wall route 21 years later. See here.

Judgment in Berlin
The Legend of Paul and Paula
The Lives of Others

In Berlin in 1984 a coldly efficient Stasi agent spying on a playwright and his actress wife suddenly acquires humanity. A moving picture of life in the GDR and state oppression. The East German locations have an authentic feel even if, as the IMDB reveals, the old-style interior of the couple's flat does not match the more modern Soviet-style exterior.

M 1931
Set in Berlin but filmed on sets. Having read about this for so long before seeing it. mostly in books about film noir, I was a bit disappointed by it not being all shadows and angles and atmosphere. Still, a cast-iron classic and gripping from the start to the sudden ending.
The Man Between 1953
Directed by Carol Reed, but not as spookily special as the The Third Man. Claire Bloom is Susanne, the younger sister of a British Army doctor working in Berlin just after the war. The doctor's new wife (played by Hildegard Knef) acts oddly from the start and as the plot develops her connection to Ivo, a shady character played by James Mason, becomes clearer and the murk deepens. I've never been a big fan of James Mason but he manages the mixture of slime and charm here pretty well, and Claire Bloom charms too, in a selection of odd upstanding collars, with a seductive mixture of virginity and bravery. The developing East-West divide is a major plot feature, along with the two leads' developing relationship which is a little unconvincing, but nicely played. And the ruins are everywhere, sad and atmospheric.
There was a time when this was only available on DVD in South Korea or Germany. In January 2017, though, a restored and gorgeous version came out on DVD and BluRay. It's presented in the correct 4:3 ration, and the extras include a very frank interview with Claire Bloom from a few years back.

One, two, three 1961
Thirteen years after A Foreign Affair Billy Wilder returns to Berlin for a cold-war comedy starring James Cagney as a Coca-Cola exec whose management skills are sorely tried by the arrival of the boss's daughter. She marries a communist from East Berlin, triggering the need for some subterfuge and much humour in the  East/West, poor/rich, democratic/communist vein. The commie boyfriend is played by Berlin-born Horst Buckhholz, a year after he played the Mexican member of The Magnificent Seven.  Some of the humour has dated and now seems a little obvious, there's a fair amount of the farcical, but also some mighty sharp lines, so this is still all pretty funny. The locations show more rebuilding than ruins this time, except in the East, where ruination still ruled, it seems (see right). The wall went up just after this film was made, thereby pretty much sucking all the humour out of the situation and dooming this film to a wait of 30 years for things to lighten up.

People on Sunday
Run, Lola, Run


Two from The Good German

From The Man Between

Shining Through
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
The 1965 film adaptation of John Le Carre's novel stars Richard Burton and Claire Bloom.

Tunnel 28 (Escape from Berlin)
Wings of Desire
(Der Himmel über Berlin)
Bruno Ganz plays one of the angels of Berlin, whose task and pleasure is to mind-read and monitor the lives of others, and so learn what it is to be human. Then after falling for a female trapeze artist he becomes human to meet her. This is a meandering, rather than progressing, film that might annoy you in its decision to 'go nowhere' but if you sit back and patiently let yourself go with its slow flow you'll be rewarded with some glowing monochrome photography, some humour, some moments of real humanity, and lots of Berlin. One of the things which this film is about is Berlin in the late 80s, and Wenders does justice to his favourite city, to say the least. The locations are very telling and therefore often pretty bleak. There's a lot of wall-spotting to be done and in one long scene an old man and another angel wander around a huge area of no-man's-wasteland that is now the  skyscraper-congested Potsdamer Platz.



Two from One, two, three


Two from Wings of Desire

Venice // Florence //London // Berlin