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I never expected Dresden to be surreal. This was Germany – the trains would run on time, the architecture would be cold, people would be stern and predictable and there would, in short, be nothing much more than staid museums to engage the mind. I did not expect to come across a building straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, nor did I envisage seeing stately homes converted to kindergartens, nor a building play a kind of music in the rain, and I especially did not expect to hear a peak-capped old man playing Boney M’s Daddy Cool on an accordion in Amalie Dietrich Platz.
Perhaps I’m unimaginative? I should have known better, had I read Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, before leaving home. Or perhaps it’s just that foreign countries always seem a little surreal because they are so different. I remember when I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City when Vietnam was just becoming popular —never mind asking when that was exactly—and was overwhelmed by its sights and sounds. While sitting on the back of a moped and weaving through traffic down a boulevard transplanted en masse from Paris, I saw a woman on a bike in an áo dài, a communist soldier with his jaw thrust out, a shiny, black Mercedes, and a woman in hot pants with a sequined hat and jacket. Basically, it was revolution meets capitalism meets pho soup and all to the soundtrack of Riders on the Storm.
Arriving in Dresden was not like that. Well, the train station at the airport was a little surrealistic as it was deserted except for me, which made me feel a bit like Michael York in Logan’s Run. The train came. I got in, sat down, and waited for Jessica 6. Alas, an old couple got in instead. They had a dog, but no cats. Anyway, the train departed exactly on time; I mean, to the second! So that part about Germany is true. Then I caught a Number 6 tram to Schillerplatz, which also arrived exactly on time. Passing Trinitatisplatz I saw a bombed-out church; weirdly, bells tolled within.
So, here I am in Dresden, I thought, looking back at the roofless church. My uncle was here 77 years ago, but at a different altitude. I doubt he had felt bad about bombing Dresden back then, but probably did afterwards, when the images of devastation made their way around the world, and then later when people started calling the bombing a war crime.
Most people who come to Dresden probably visit because of what happened to the city in the Second World War, not because it used to be known as Florence on the Elbe. And most of those visitors seem to be Russians. I came to Dresden because the cost of living is half that of home. Food is cheap, but mostly it’s meat of various sorts. I mean, even the vegetarians here must have to eat meat. Not lamb, though; there seem to be no sheep in Germany, which is strange as the grass looks nibbly enough. But pork, mein Gott, it’s in everything.
So, apart from the deserted railway station, nothing too surreal on day one. The next day I went for a walk around Blasewitz. I ambled down one street and marveled at beautiful, stately homes. Who could live here, I wondered. Perhaps a Russian mafia boss? Brezhnev’s daughter’s love child? No, none of these, the stately home on Goetheallee was a kindergarten. And the next house? A kindergarten, also.
On another walk, I came across more kindergartens, then Gymnasia of various types (ones for the academic kinder and others for those looking at a trade), then a grand building that was to be a private Gymnasium. I asked my friend, who was born and bred in Dresden, why there were so many schools. He told me that Dresden has the highest birth rate in Germany but did not know why.
On the way back to my apartment, I was accosted by errant children finishing school – the older ones on bikes, the younger ones, loaded into wheelbarrows with four-wheel drive pushed by nannies. Later that night—actually, it was 2:01 am—I was woken by a banging on the wall of my apartment. “Gertrude, Johan,” I yelled, “get another room already!” Two hours later, I was convinced that whoever lived in my flat nine months hence would be woken not by lovemaking but by a trio of bawling babies.
The next day I went for a run along the river Elbe, which is, to my mind, one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. I get stares from people because, it turns out, I was wearing shorts over my Skins; you know, for modesty. I notice other runners run just in their stretchies. The following day, so am I. How free and unencumbered I felt. Nobody stared, not even the women, which made me sad. In fact— this is not surreal, just an observation—nobody stares at anybody in Dresden. And while I’m at it: no one wears hard hats on building sites, trucks don’t beep when they reverse, and traffic lights silently declare that the signal (to walk) is coming. Ah, the freedom!
Over the following days and weeks, I mean to go to the center of Dresden and see the Frauenkirche and the Zwinger and all the other buildings that the Dresdeners have rebuilt from the ruins of the Second World War but am constantly waylaid by other sites. The places that capture my attention are not signposted—very little is— and some would not be seen by the authorities as tourist attractions. These places are the scattered, and sometimes abandoned, ruins of war; or the ruins of an addled, art deco imagination; or often, comrades, that testament to the ruination of good design known as soviet realism. But I love ruins, and art deco, and, so long as I don’t have to live in it, the odd bit of soviet realist architecture; for effect, you understand.
Another week of the clockwork banging of my carnal neighbors, finds me seeking out the quiet and solitude of Dresden’s back streets. Up Dornblüthstrasse, past Kindergarten one, two, three… and I’m looking at the concrete tower of the Dresden Technology Museum. Having searched in vain for Vegemite at the nearby Aldi—the original purpose of my outing—I look at the broad, square windows of the museum. The building has the look of something which has sprung from the mind of an artist who lives in a cupboard and used to paint portraits of judges; in essence, the very same artist to be found in Kafka’s (allegedly fictional) The Trial.
Moving on past a large red sign that says FEUER!, which I take to be an assembly point for evacuation, but which may very well be a work of art, I walk past apartment blocks with green shutters closed to protect the secret lives of its inhabitants. I stop to watch a local soccer match. A man with a beer in his hand asks me where I’m from. I was going to say, “I’m from England” as it’s easier to say than “I’m from Australia,” but then, seeing that this man was a little drunk and might take exception to an Englishman, I decided upon: “Ich komme aus Australien.” Now I’m everyone’s friend. A beer appears in my left hand and a sausage in a dinner roll in my right. I’m cheering for the blue team. By the time I leave, I’ve had nearly as many beers as there are kindergartens in a Dresden city block, which is to say three to four.
Slightly woozy—German beer, after all—I see emerging from a tangle of trees, a magnificent gasworks building. I find my way to its base. It is enormous. Ten flights high and with a circumference that would enable a person to circumnavigate with a full mug of tea at the beginning and arrive back to where one started with only enough left over to water the weeds by the entrance. It’s a ruin, of course, but imposing. It looks as if it has risen from the subterranean world of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis. This impression is further enforced by a large gauge on one of the columns, which would have enabled an engineer to see the pressure within at a distance of about a mile. Can you imagine! In sum, an irrational juxtaposition of images.
Next to this impressive structure is a smaller, and restored, gasometer, which houses a panometer. This panometer is a 360-degree artwork that depicts baroque Dresden in the early 18th century. On entering the interior of the gasometer, one climbs a number of stairs. From here the panorama of a baroque Dresden opens up. The effect is astonishing, mesmerizing. Sound effects and lighting complete the experience.
A couple of months go by, in which time I have discovered one of the world’s oldest suspension railways. This testimony to German engineering skills rises up from near the River Elbe in Loschwitz, past grand houses with even grander stone walls—but not one school— to provide the only true view of Dresden. For the technically minded, it is a funicular railway, has a speed of a horse pulling a cart, can hold a German football team in its two cars, and is made of iron most likely left over from the building of the Blue Wonder suspension bridge at its base, which, incidentally, only stands today because some locals prevented the SS from blowing it up at the end of the Second World War.
Dresden has a sadly too often repeated experience of war – it was bombed to the ground on 13–15 February 1945. I went to the Military History Museum to find out more. This is no ordinary museum. Yes, there are the usual paraphernalia of war and violence, but what sets this museum apart is that it is focused on the victims of war. It demands that you think about how war is created. Your first indication that this museum is different is the great metal wedge that intersects the historic building, and which I first thought looked like a submarine breaching the surface. The wedge is the same shape as the area of Dresden that was bombed. Up to 25,000 people were killed in the bombing on those three nights. Inside, I descend from the top floor, taking the museum in thematically. I begin with bomb-scared pavement from Poland, move on to art and propaganda—which encourages young men to go to war—looked through exhibits of toy soldiers, saw cabinets full of prosthetic limbs and ended looking at a German soldier astride an invisible horse, wearing a First World War gasmask and carrying a lance. “So it goes.”
Later that day, I’m overcome with a craving for a hamburger, but cannot find one and settle for some currywurst sausage, which is better anyway. Dresden’s funny when it comes to fast food. You have a type of doner kebab, which is the king of kebabs and enough to feed two, and you have currywurst. There are no shopping towns either. You have to traipse around looking for things like you did in the olden days. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s bombs returning to the aircraft that dropped them (see his brilliant book, Slaughterhouse 5), it’s as if Dresden’s shopping malls and fast-food stores have been sucked back into the copious bellies of the capitalists that dropped them, for surely they existed here once.
It’s June and I’m finally in the center. Well, not quite the center, because there really doesn’t seem to be a center in Dresden, but it is the center of nightlife. So, I’m in Neustadt, standing opposite what looks to be an abandoned building, but which has graffiti warning tourists not to take photographs. I take a photograph. “This is Dresden’s last squatter house,” my friend tells me with pride. I find this hard to believe, because there are many buildings in Dresden that could serve as decent squats, but then position is everything.
It started to rain in Neustadt on that day, which made my friend very excited. It hadn’t rained very much since I’d arrived, but now it was bucketing down. “We can go and listen to the musical building,” my friend said. Down Kunsthofpassage (you need to be careful how you pronounce this – the ‘s’ comes before the ‘t’) there is a building that has an elaborate system of pipes and guttering. The idea is that when it’s raining a type of music is made by the water. Frankly, I thought all that was mere patter and the only experience I felt while listening was an incredible need to take a leak. I liked the concept, however, and I bet that after a night out in Neustadt and a few beers under one’s belt the “Courtyard of elements”, as it’s called, would bring about a metamorphosis in one’s senses; a type of rap, perhaps.
After two months, I move to Cotta – the bad side of the tracks. My first thought is that perhaps this is where Putin lived when he was a KGB agent in Dresden back in the late 1980s. I’m living at Amalie Dietrich Platz, which is surrounded by soviet realist architecture in the form of row upon row of concrete flats. I bump into an alarmingly skinny man who mumbles something in Russian. Later that night this Russian and some comrades are drinking vodka from the bottle. They’re noisy, but I don’t complain. Not that long after Germany was reunited, all the Soviet soldiers went home, but some of the ones living in Amalie Dietrich Platz must not have got the order and languish here to this day reminiscing about Mother Russia. Up the road there is a Russian supermarket staffed by Russian women well on their way to becoming babushki.
The next day, I’m finally in the old center of Dresden, which has been painstakingly rebuilt from the ruins of war. At the Zwinger, which used to be a palace and an orangery but is now a museum, I tag on to the end of a Russian tour group, Russian being easier to understand than German. I then come across a military parade, where hundreds of soldiers shout in unison “Deutschland” on the order of their leader. I left the Russian tour group there as some of its members were becoming suspicious of my non-Slavic looks. Across the way, I went into the Frauenkirche. This is a Lutheran church, which was finally rebuilt in 2005. It looks great outside at night, but inside it… well… it lacks spirit and made me think that I had found myself inside an elaborate, synthetic wedding cake. In a word, tasteless.
On the weekend, there is some kind of festival, which distributes itself around the flats at Amalie Dietrich Platz. I ask one of the stallholders what’s going on but get no intelligible answer. I watch a troop of German butterfly dancers, wander past a woman stirring a pot of some mephitic substance which I take to be a cure for melancholia, watch as children toast bread wound round metal sticks over an open fire, and then order a cherry wine and a bratwurst in a roll, before sitting down to listen to a traditional German band. There was a trombone player who also beat a drum, a guitarist slash electric zither player, and an accordionist. They played traditional German music, which morphed into Boney M’s Daddy Cool halfway through. Later they did the same with the Star Trek theme song. Star Trek sounds good on an electric zither and is a fitting instrument for this modern Dresden, which becomes more surreal with the watching and the wondering.
Michael is a writer at large in Europe, pulling in here and there and liable to catch a boat, train, or plane based solely on being taken by the name of an exotic, or quixotic, destination. He has had fiction published in "Black Denim Lit" and "Westerly." He has just finished writing a novel about an artist suffering from psychogenic amnesia - not autobiographical.