From the Planetarium | Ryan Ruby | Granta

From the Planetarium

Ryan Ruby



Nothing distinguishes ancient from modern experience so much as their respective attitudes toward the cosmos, writes Walter Benjamin in ‘To the Planetarium’, the concluding prose piece of his 1928 collection One-Way Street. Whereas, according to Benjamin, the ancients maintained close contact with the stars in a communal, ecstatic trance, since the days of Copernicus, Kepler and Tycho Brahe, we have instead approached it optically and individually. This did not obviate the need for cosmic experience, however. Moderns were to find it in warfare on a planetary scale, and in revolutions that promised new political constellations. Given these coordinates, the planetarium, which never actually appears in Benjamin’s short essay, is an ambiguous figure. Is it an extension of the optical technologies of early modern astronomy and thus a further alienation of humanity from the cosmos? Or is it a technological balm for the problems created by technology, artificially returning to the dweller of the metropolis the possibility of cosmic ecstasy?

These tensions – between the cosmos and the machine, between space and time – were present in the building and the marketing of the first planetarium. Invented by Walther Bauersfeld, the chief engineer of the Carl Zeiss Optical Company in Jena, and Oskar von Miller, the director of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the ‘Wonder of Jena’ opened in 1926. It was perhaps the quintessential technology of the Weimar Republic. Replicated in other cities, a new and improved version in dumbbell-shaped form was erected in Berlin on the grounds of the Zoologischer Garten in November 1926. Benjamin, who first experienced the garden with his nursemaids, his ‘early guides’ to the city, visited the Berlin planetarium in 1927 or 1928. Next door was the Ufa-Palast, then the largest movie theater in Germany in what was the most exciting period in its cinematic history; within six months on either end of the opening of the planetarium, viewers could have attended the premieres of F.W. Murnau’s Faust and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The two most popular programs at the Berlin planetarium in its first year of operation were The Skies of Home and The Year in a Matter of Minutes. In the former, the rim of the dome was illuminated with a silhouette of the Berlin skyline to orient the viewer as the projector slowly spun in order to permit them, in the words of the script that would have been read by a lecturer, to see the planets and constellations in the night sky ‘as it really appears, without any of the sight-obstructing influences around us’. Noting the irony that the sky ‘as it really appears’ could only be viewed in the form of a technological simulation, the historian Katherine Boyce-Jacino attributes the immense success of the program to viewers’ nostalgic desire for the ‘grounding effect’ of seeing the sky as it might have looked one or two generations previously, in the countryside from which many of the viewers’ families had migrated, or in the city before the advent of factory smoke and electric lighting and neon signage.

The Year in a Matter of Minutes, by contrast, appealed to those who embraced the jagged rhythms of industrial modernity. Here the script was upfront about the relationship between simulation and reality: the viewer was about to be shown something that could not be seen with the eye alone. ‘We would like,’ the lecturer would have intoned, ‘in these artificial skies, to let time advance wildly.’ The motor of the projector would be sped up to show how the planets and constellations would look over the course of a single year: first in seven minutes, then in four minutes, then in a minute and a half. The lecturer would bring the projection to a stop, exclaiming, ‘We are making an intervention into the natural order! We are stopping the rotation of the earth, for just a moment.’ Nothing, except perhaps the world viewed from the window of a railway car, would have prepared viewers for such a disorienting visual experience of acceleration and deceleration. ‘We are bound to neither time nor space,’ one viewer said. ‘It looks as if in a jazz age even the heavens were moving in jazz time.’

The Berlin planetarium was destroyed, along with the zoo and the Ufa-Palast, in an Allied bombing raid in 1943, three years after Benjamin’s death, by suicide, during a frantic attempt to flee occupied France. For the 750th anniversary of the city of Berlin, the government of East Germany (GDR) commissioned the building of the Zeiss-Großplanetarium, with a state-of-the-art Cosmorama star projector, on the site, rather fittingly, of the decommissioned gasworks that had polluted the sky over Prenzlauer Allee since the first years of the Kaiserreich. The entire leadership of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei, including General Secretary Erich Honecker – who was responsible for the GDR’s most notorious piece of architecture, the Berlin Wall – attended the opening on 9 October 1987. What was initially conceived of as a public educational center and tourist attraction was now regarded as an important accoutrement of state power. It signaled that East Germany and its government were technologically advanced, future-oriented. But the future had something different in mind. One of the largest and most modern of its kind, the Zeiss-Großplanetarium, whose rooftop is visible from my balcony, was to be the last major construction project undertaken in the GDR. Three years later, the country would no longer exist.




One S-Bahn station away from the planetarium is a building that presupposes a different idea about the relationship between collective humanity and the cosmos. Built on a plot of land between Stargarder Straße and the railroad tracks to serve the rapidly expanding population of the city’s northeastern districts in 1891–3, Kaiser Wilhelm II named the Gethsemanekirche after the garden in Jerusalem where Jesus prays before his betrayal and arrest. With its pointed, copper-topped steeple, its buttresses and pinnacles, architect August Orth’s large red-bricked structure synthesizes Gothic and neo-Romanesque elements – an unusual design for a Protestant house of worship, but fashionable during the confident period after the unification of Germany, engineered by Bismarck.

The church was to have its brush with history just under a century later, when it joined with others, including the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, where Bach had premiered the Johannes-Passion, and the Zionskirche in Mitte, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had once been an assistant pastor, to form a constellation of meeting places and protest sites for the group of dissident musicians and writers, environmental and anti-nuclear activists, church leaders and ordinary citizens who made up the opposition movement that peacefully ended Honecker’s government and then the GDR during the years following the construction of the Großplanetarium. Along its south aisle, the church maintains an exhibition called Wachet und Betet – ‘Watch and Pray’, Jesus’s admonition to his disciplines in the garden – devoted to its role in Die Wende, the ‘turn’ or ‘turning point’. Lancet window-shaped panels show photographs of, for example, the demonstration on the anniversary of the deaths of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the all-night vigil, and the founding of the New Forum, the first opposition movement in the GDR outside the Protestant church itself.

The crossing of thousands of East Germans, my parents-in-law among them, through the Bornholmer Straße checkpoint between Prenzlauer Berg and Wedding on 9 November 1989 – the event we call the fall of the Berlin Wall – was triggered by a misstatement at a press conference. Günter Schabowski, appointed press secretary following Honecker’s ousting, accidentally read out a draft of new regulations, which permitted East Germans to travel to the West. When asked when these were to go into effect, Schabowski, who had missed the meeting in which the regulations had been discussed, mistakenly announced to the international press corps covering the unrest in the GDR: ‘Immediately.’

The event was a fluke, a classic instance of Benjamin’s observation that ‘all the decisive blows are struck left-handed’. It was not the first physical breach of the Iron Curtain (the border between Hungary and Austria had opened in May) nor was it the first of the many, largely peaceful revolutions that toppled Communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe (Poland and Hungary preceded it). Yet its symbolic significance, then as now, can hardly be doubted, nor can it be separated from the particular place where it occurred. The fall of the Wall has been taken not merely as a metonym for the victory of the United States and its allies in the Cold War, but as the hinge moment between two epochs: modernity, the 200-year-long period stretching back to the storming of the Bastille, and our own, for which we have yet to land on a consensus term. For some it is an endpoint, for others a tear in the very fabric of time. If we find ourselves returning to this particular moment over and over again, perhaps it is because, as with every repetition compulsion, it contains something we have forgotten or repressed.




Few traces remain of a tear in the fabric of time that occurred a few minutes’ walk from the Gethsemanekirche during the ‘Summer of Anarchy’ that took place in the neighborhoods of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg in 1990. The Summer of Anarchy was a perfect example of the sort of spontaneous social self-organization that can occur in hyperlocal spaces in the absence of states and property regimes. In the wake of the fall of the Wall, people flocked to the tenements of these and other neighborhoods of East Berlin from other parts of the city, all over the two Germanys, and as far away as London, in order to secure and occupy the hundreds of apartment buildings that had been abandoned by residents who had fled to the West or moved to the countryside. This could be done with a quick consultation of the local property registry, a piece of string across the door frame establishing interest, and a crowbar. From this foundation an entire culture sprang up. There were experiments in communal living, some of which included the collective raising and schooling of children.

The bottom floors of these squats were often converted into art spaces – including galleries and puppet theaters – and entertainment spaces such as movie theaters, dance clubs and bars. The overall aesthetic of the time was post-apocalyptic utopia. After the currency union, which pegged the East German Mark to the Deutsche Mark, went into effect in July, many older residents saw the opportunity to use their new (and as it happens, short-lived) buying power to refurnish their houses with supposedly higher-quality Western goods, and threw their unwanted Biedermeier tables, sofas, chairs and other household items on the street. This created a salvage economy in East Berlin, which is still visible today in the numerous flea markets in that part of the city and in the eclectic interior design of the bars founded in that period, which have survived into the present. Information about available houses, upcoming shows and events, and demonstrations against reunification were broadcast from a pirate radio channel, Radio P, set up on the rooftop of a building on Schönhauser Allee occupied by a squatter group called the Wydoks collective.

All autonomous zones are necessarily temporary and all summers come to an end. The culture and institutions created in Prenzlauer Berg in the eleven months after the fall of the Wall suffered, over the course of the next few years, a by now familiar and international pattern of slow devolution, from radical political movement to urban arts scene to gentrified neighborhood, aided, in all cases, by the police, who slowly and sometimes violently evicted the squatters, and real-estate development firms, who bought up the housing stock and raised prices. Any visitor to the neighborhoods between Prenzlauer and Schönhauser Allee today, with their sumptuously restored late-nineteenth-century apartment buildings, their upscale international dining options, their twice-weekly ecologically friendly farmers’ markets, and their stroller-led squadrons of young families, including my own, would be hard-pressed to guess that they were walking over the invisible ruins of one of the more audacious and colorful utopian experiments ever conducted in urban space.

If one had to point to a culminating moment of the Summer of Anarchy, one could do worse than the last one, the founding of the Autonomous Republic of Utopia, the 24-hour micronation that was declared on Kollwitzplatz a few minutes before midnight on 2 October 1990. Part anti-reunification protest, part outdoor party, part communal ecstatic trance, the Autonomous Republic of Utopia, or ARU, was the brainchild of Julia Dimitroff, then a resident in the Wydoks squat, today a luthier in Pankow.

A black-and-white photograph taken that evening by the electrician turned journalist Rolf Zöllner – held in the archive of the Museum Pankow across from the water tower a few blocks away – shows Dimitroff standing behind a child on top of a wooden climbing frame, flanked by two men with microphones, one hand-held, one free standing. It must have been a cold evening: the man to Dimitroff ’s left is wearing a leather jacket and a scarf; she is wearing gloves. The man is about to read a collectively prepared statement: Declaration of Independence, Autonomous Republic of Utopia. All people are born free and equal. Since the beginning of humanity much energy has been spent trying to make people forget this. Standing with her back to the statue of the artist and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, which gives the square its name, Dimitroff is looking onto a crowd that numbered in the hundreds, if not the thousands; she recalls that many of them were holding the lit candles that just a year before had been used to signal solidarity with the opposition to the GDR. Many were also holding the ersatz ‘identity cards’ distributed by the micronation. We declare ourselves independent from anything that would separate us from ourselves. We are independent from states and citizenship, independent from parliamentary politics and parties.

The focal point of Zöllner’s photograph, which is shot from the base of the climbing frame, is the flag of the ARU, made out of a bed sheet with a circle cut out of the center, hanging from the makeshift crossbeam under which Dimitroff is standing. Silhouetted against the night sky, the flag looks like Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Circle. Independence, freedom and resistance begin in the soul of every child, every woman, every man. With elegant simplicity, the flag corresponds to the ARU, which for a day had cut out this small territory of Berlin from the reunified nation that would be born when the clock struck twelve. But it was equally a cut-out from the historical order that reunification would inaugurate, a moment in which time was brought to an ecstatic standstill, before being ground down into the dialectic of bad infinity and eternal recurrence of the same that has characterized the last thirty-three years. In every heart is a revolutionary cell. The flag now exists only in a photograph, but as Benjamin knew, images of the past are meant to be seized, and empty spaces are meant to be leapt through. Every second, he says in the concluding line of ‘On the Concept of History’, which was written in the months before his death, is a small portal through which the Messiah might enter. It depends on everyone to remember this in order to survive.


Photography by Rolf Zöllner, The founding of the Autonomous Republic of Utopia 2–3 October 1990. Julia Dimitroff, centre

Ryan Ruby

Ryan Ruby is the author of The Zero and the One: A Novel. For his essays and reviews, which have appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times and New Left Review, he received the 2023 Robert B. Silvers Prize for Literary Criticism. He lives in Berlin.

Photograph © Carleen Coulter

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