Berlin’s appeal is not obvious. It can feel grey, unwelcoming. Streets full of apartment blocks built in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s; awash with autumnal debris in what should be the depths of winter. A cold wind. It feels harsh, and hard. It doesn’t wrap it’s arms around you.
We spend a lot of time in Ostkreuz, in the East Berlin of the past. The echoes of that time can still be felt, but as a mark for something being sloughed off and left by the side of the road. The place is moving, expanding, evolving; at such a pace that you miss it if you keep your eyes fixed on the buildings, and the weather, and the scenery.
As we walk the neighbourhood, I notice the feuerwerk stores. Obviously temporary, they are squatters open for the few days prior to New Year’s Eve. Typically a door in a wall, you can’t see inside for the posters stuck on the inside of the glass, full of graphics of explosions, sparklers sparkling, skyrockets rocketing, tearing up the night-sky. Each of these stores is marked by at least one “Feuerwerk!” sign, plastered somewhere on its façade. There seems to be no-one going into or out of these shops, but they are dotted all around town, so they must be getting a fair number through the door. The frequent crackle and bang of distant fireworks, day and night, attests to this. I imagine container loads of cheap fireworks being secretly ferried into the Hauptbahnhof, run into the city under cover of darkness, stocking and feeding an insatiable – and apparently clandestine – pyrotechnic yearning.
Leaning outside the hotel window at night, a flickering light plays against a building, followed by a crackling, as a rocket takes off from the vacant lot over the road. Despite the proximity, I can never see an actual person letting them off, just the occasional shadow. Some of these explosions have the force of a car bomb, their locality betrayed by a flock of frightened birds taking off into the sky.
On New Year’s Eve – Silvester in German – I notice a cop down on the street below the hotel window bail up a group of people he’s spotted jay-walking across the road. I can sense their frustration mounting, as he keeps them for a full 30 minutes. Apparently seeing this as the key to crime-prevention tonight, stopping the minor infringements before they escalate into full-blown anarchy.
Jay-walking – a gateway crime.
As we walk out of the hotel, it’s quickly apparent that the firework activity has both amplified and enlarged. We walk up Simon-Dach Strasse, surreptitious battles going on around us. Furtive groups of boys stand around in tight bunches looking over their shoulders – suddenly, someone runs out of the crowd and throws an object into an empty space. Not directly at anyone, just vaguely towards another group. You notice a tiny fizzing spark, that seems to quietly sputter out. After about half a second , a bright light – tiny, self-contained, intense. A shockwave, the air seems to shudder in a circle about a metre wide. All of this gives your heart a tiny moment to brace itself for the deafening, ear-splitting bang that follows, that slams into your chest. Everyone jumps, despite knowing it was coming. These are the “car-bombs”, like flash/bang grenades. Someone fires a rocket in retaliation. No vindictiveness intended, just mischief, things starting to intensify.
Suddenly, an attack from above – buff, singlet wearing, he makes his foray out onto a balcony firing sky rockets down onto a group of passers-by. Hardly innocent bystanders, they’ve been firing every which way moments before. As explosions occur around them, they look for the culprits, expecting to find them at ground level. It takes them a moment to realise they are being fired on from above, and they direct their own arsenal upwards. He is well protected by his balcony and the angles required to shoot from below however, and if things get too hot, he simply steps back into his apartment. As they fire above them, another group across the road fire into their flank. Everything good natured, extremely dangerous, but no-one ever seems to get hit. And no one trying to hit anyone – just wanting to see who might blink first.
We edge our way down the street, trying to be as invisible as possible so as not to become targets. The Pax Germania seems to hold, as the combatants respect the rights of the non-belligerants to pass by in peace, without molestation.
On Simon-Dach there are masses of people, many of them carrying supermarket bags full of explosives and beer. I watch an old couple, fearing for their safety. Probably in their mid to late 60’s, they look middle-class, tweedy, out of place. They have paused for a rest on a park bench and we come across them as they are just preparing to leave. Looking as if they may have just been disturbed having a picnic lunch by a group of young trouble-makers, they are packing up and scurrying away to avoid any further trouble. He swings his knapsack over one shoulder, and takes her hand to guide her away, up the street. As they go, I notice the knapsack is positively bristling with fireworks, the sticks of sky rockets splayed out of the pack like a bunch of pyrotechnic flower stalks. She also carries a shopping bag full of smaller explosive novelties. As I wonder who they might be unleashing their arsenal against, they get lost in the crowd, hand in hand.
Now, the explosions are regular and endless, one explosion indistinguishable from the other, a rolling, deafening cacophony. We involuntarily walk in a crouch, heads ducking below our shoulders as explosions occur nearby. As this hour progresses, every experience is usurped by the next in intensity. We are laughing, hilariously, maniacally laughing – the laughter of the shell-shocked, of the fearful. And also just laughing at the mad reality of it all.
Midnight. All hell breaks loose.
Literally, on the stroke of the clock, it’s as if the entire Berlin arsenal of fireworks has been gathered here and is being set off concurrently. The building facades flash different colours as fireworks are let off close by, the windows mirror the sky rockets corkscrewing into the air. People hold them in their hands as they light then fire them. A pitched battle across the street as both sides fire at each other, an explosive- laced triumphal arch. Smoke drifts up Warschauer Strasse, and over the Oberbaum Bridge. There are hundreds standing and watching, others running through the smoky haze – visible only from their torsos down as they become more distant, because of the low hanging, gunpowder scented cloud that blurs and obscures everything above waist height.
It’s as if there is a riot going on – how easy it is to imagine the projectiles being petrol bombs instead of fireworks. But there is absolutely no police presence at all, no riot squad running down the slower members of a protest group. Our jay-walk detective from earlier is nowhere to be seen. There is no motivation behind this gathering other than mayhem, pure and simple. But well intentioned, happy, joyous mayhem. There is no one here meaning harm to another. I’ve seen no one get hurt, no one gets angry, there is no erratic or dangerous maniac running amok. Certainly, everyone is engaged in something inherently dangerous, but it almost seems to be self-regulating – the danger serves to define an unusual level of care and safety.
A car comes careening over the bridge, tearing down the road, the driver grimly crouched over the steering wheel, horn sounding incessantly. The revellers all step back, nonplussed, puzzled as to why this person is so panicked – he is frankly a lot more dangerous than the fireworks themselves, and he appears to have misread the intent of the crowd he is passing though. They let him pass, although someone does desultorily fire a skyrocket at his rear, as if to give him something to rationalise his panic for.
We stand to the side of the road, spectators. Not tempted to partake in the actual lighting and flinging of the firecrackers. The colours, the smell, the sound are enough, it’s enough to remain a spectator. I wonder, does the whole city look like this, this blue/orange/white flash intensity, the cannon fire, the rapidity of one skyrocket exploding after another?
The deep boom of the civic fireworks display over at the Brandenburg Tor forms a bass backdrop to this brown-paper bag spectacle. I’m happy that we decided against the more famous event, trapped in with the hundreds of thousands whom it would have taken hours to extract ourselves from. Where we are is base, basic, real and hilarious great fun. Here things are anarchic, unrestrained.
Here, everything can happen.