Actor Ben Becker on his experience reading Ernst Haffner’s Blutsbrüder, the underworld of 1930s Berlin and his love of proletarian existentialism
One of the most intriguing and acclaimed works presented at this year’s Literature Festival is Blutsbrüder, a novel published in 1932 only to be immediately censored by the Nazis. Written by Berlin journalist and social worker Ernst Haffner, it follows the wanderings of a group of vagrant boys in the interlope underworld of Weimar Berlin. Haffner’s novel is as unsettling as it is moving – and written in limpid, surprisingly modern realistic prose.
With this re-publication, Metrolit seems eager to reiterate the Alone in Berlin coup (the new edition of Hans Fallada’s novel became a bestseller with translations in 30 languages). This time, they’ve got an ace up their sleeve: an audiobook read by Ben Becker, whose many famous roles include Franz Biberkopf in the stage adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Becker read from Blutsbrüder live at Babylon Kino on August 27; for the Literature Festival, Marion Brasch and Peter Graf present the book at the Berliner Festspiele on Friday, September 6.
When did you read the book? What was your first reaction?
I received the book three months ago and I was blown away by the realism of the story. In spite of all the literary subtlety, there is a certain hardness at the base of it all. It is impossible to avoid. And this hardness did touch and scare me.
Did any parts especially stand out?
The part where one of the characters travels on an express train by hanging underneath it. That is unimaginable. But in general, crossing that line to absolute poverty, when it’s just about survival – which I’ve luckily never experienced. When you do whatever it takes just to reach the next day, be it prostituting yourself, letting men touch your penis, or whatever….
The novel puts you right there. It feels so alive…
The author must have felt a certain connection to those people who live as pickpockets, steal cars, get in rows. He must have felt something for them and I think this warm, soft side is something he also brings to the plate. It reminded me – when I was 12 I loved films about working-class teenagers. I’m from a middle-class background and I glorified this ‘yobbishness’, but this existential ‘something’, this mix of hard and soft, I loved that. I think that softness is present in everyone. I was locked away a few times in my life and once I was in a cell where someone had written on the wall: “My dear pussy, I think of you and love you.” Pussy not in the sense of vagina but as a pet name. I found that amazing. My first big love was a gypsy girl from Hamburg who had grown up in a children’s home. She was beautiful, tattooed everywhere and hit me if I didn’t do what she wanted. That’s when I found my love for proletarian existentialism.
What made you want to read the book to begin with?
I’m interested in the theme and the city. I live exactly where everything happens [in the book]. I studied [Alfred] Döblin for a long time, still do, probably will forever. And therefore, the book was immediately understandable for me. And I immediately understand why I was asked to do the reading. And I think that I’m the right one to do it.
You’re best known for playing Franz Biberkopf in Berlin Alexanderplatz…
I actually still do public readings of Berlin Alexanderplatz. Not because I want to even make more money out of it, but I still think it is an amazing book.
What fascinates you so much about Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s?
That was a time of change. I believe there was a certain disorientation during the Weimar Republic. A lot was possible, people changed their way of life and art was produced that was completely new. On the other hand, the period ended in a dictatorship. But before that, a lot happened here and I’m fascinated by that disorientation, the possibilities, trying new things. And I think Berlin as we know it today – and I’m being very careful here – does resemble the times back then. The lack of orientation, the not-knowing-what-will-happen. There are no communists anymore where they are the bad ones and we are the good ones; there are mullahs and freaks and no one has the overview anymore. We live in this Moloch Berlin again.
That’s what so great about this book: you can take it and wander through the city as you would with a map and think: this is where the boys stole a car, that is where they went to the Wärmehalle [homeless shelter]. For example, the Ackerhalle mentioned in the book, that’s where I go grocery shopping twice a week. You see places differently afterwards.
Are the characters in the book as contemporary as the setting?
Well, if you’d like to write a reportage we should take the S-Bahn and I’ll show you Jonny [one of the book’s characters].
And the seedy Alexanderplatz underworld is still there?
That’s right. A week ago I was at Alex because I love the place. I love the trams… but when I go there, I have to leave after a while, because I’m kind of famous. But they have everything. The pickpockets, something to fuck, dealers, everything. Even a guy with a snake that he puts around your neck and takes a picture for €2.