“I think you should never forget that human beings did those things and they did them for reasons,” Jason Lutes tells me, in this second of our three part interview discussing his on-going series, Berlin. There’s a struggle at play, behind the scenes, between the tendency to dismiss a nation for the atrocities they will begin to commit toward the end of the decade, and the desire to humanize one’s subject. Clearly it’s something Lutes spent a good amount of time grappling with in the lead up the series.
We explore the struggle in depth below, discussing the reasons why such a humanization is a important factor in assuring that such events never occur again.
The writer and artist at the center of [Berlin] are sides of yourself, to some degree?
No matter what you do, all of it’s going to be a reflection of yourself, to some degree. I tried really, really hard to get outside of my own head and inhabit other characters, but ultimately, you’re always going to be finding some part of yourself that fits.
And these sides are in conflict, inside yourself?
Yeah, sure. Nobody has all the answers, so there’s got to be conflict, disagreements about how you think things will work out and how they actually work out. Part of the experience was trying to have open mind about the time and place and perspective, trying to figure out why National Socialism caught on. You’ve got to put yourself in the mindset of someone who really believes that. As weird as people might think that is, it’s not that hard. They played on people’s fears and hopes, and they did it very effectively. It’s a common political strategy.
Is there an empathy that exists in you that wasn’t there when you started writing the book?
Well, there’s an empathy for the German people. A lot them at the time were in a difficult situation. I definitely made a point to include not swastikas in the book. People will swear that they are there, because they project them. They see a swastika where there is none. But I consciously left that out, because I wanted people to see the characters in the book as people, not as stereotypes. When you see a swastika, you have an immediate assumption, thanks to movies and books and bad comics about World War II.
And the good ones.
And the good ones.
You’ve obviously got to mention Maus.
There’s a very clear dichotomy there—good and evil. Cats and mice.
Yeah, yeah. Right, right. Though he does muddy the waters a bit. He starts off with that incredibly stark visual metaphor, and then he sort of works himself into a conceptual corner, where you have African-Americans showing up, so they’re dogs. Where do those lines get drawn? And then you got his dad, who’s kind of a jerk. The nice thing is, it’s not really a good and evil thing. The way he uses that visual metaphor, it raises more questions than it seems to answer. It’s like, “oh, cats and mice, I get it.” and then he starts to blur those lines, and then a whole different kind of resonance comes out.
Most of the portrayals you see about Nazi Germany take place after the initial rise of National Socialism. You see the camps, you see the war. Do you think people are afraid of coming off as sympathetic to people who committed genocide?
I think these days, not so much, but certainly with the generation that fought and lived through that war. But it’s like any question that—like the war on terror. I can make all sorts of statements about invading Iraq. Why again? Because they’re middle-easern. All of those rules still apply. People make conscious choices to make use of those things.
Schindler’s List is a great example, actually. It’s a film by a Jewish man attempting to come to grips with his personal history and the experience of his family and being a Jew. One of the great things about that film is, the Ralph Finnes character is a human being, partly due to his amazing performace, but the really striking thing about that book is that the concentration camp comedant is humanized. He’s still a really scary guy, but he’s human.
And the thing about doing that that’s really vital—the real problem with broad strokes is that, as soon as you separate yourself and say, “here is a monster, end of story,” you make it possible for that thing to happen again. You have to admit that he’s a human being, that I’m a human being, that we are capable. As soon as we deny that that’s a human thing that he did, that makes room for it to happen again.
But do you think that makes any of the classic books on the subject less effective, that they didn’t necessarily take such a universally humanizing approach?
Oh no, no. Definitely not.
But it is important to humanize some aspect of it.
Yeah. I think you should never forget that human beings did those things and they did them for reasons. And obviously those reasons weren’t good—
Which is easy for us to say.
Right. But “because they were evil” is not a good answer. I’m sorry, it’s just not. You have to look hard at it to understand. You have to be able to empathize with that kind of behavior—or maybe not empathize, but at least be able to understand enough so that you can comprehend the reason behind it, and whatever tiny bit of insight that you get into why something like that can happen, helps to be aware of how it can happen today.
How far into that timeline will you go?
It’s only going to go to 1933. I’m not going to touch the war. It stops when Hitler becomes chancellor. All of that’s been done, and I don’t want to do it over and over again. One of the reasons I was happy with this choice—and it was kind of impulsive—was that there is plenty of academic and historical writing about the time, and a lot of people specialize it, but there aren’t really a lot of popular narratives about it. So I was actually very happy with that choice. And in my research, I’ve never actually read anything after 1933, because I don’t want that to affect my writing. Not in terms of the source material, but in terms of what it’s about.
How would that affect the writing?
The danger becomes the tendency to foreshadow, like, ‘I’m so clever, that’s why these things happened.’ And I’ve already done that in parts that are probably a little too foreshadowy.
Do you feel like there’s something disingenuous about foreshadowing?
It’s manipulative. That’s when the author’s control is really apparent. Obviously I’ve written every single panel on the page, but when I have a nightmare that the Jewish kid has about a bird chasing him, which clearly reveals what’s going to happen in the future, that betrays too much foreknowledge on my part. Most people never notice this, but I think it can potentially take you out of the realm of the person’s experience and into the realm of a narrative seen from a distance.
[Concluded in Part Three]