Berlin Childhood around 1900


Source: Walter Benjamin (trans. Howard Eiland), Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Cambridge, Mass./London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 42-44

Text: One of the great attractions of the travel scenes found in the Imperial Panorama was that it did not matter where you began the cycle. Because the viewing screen, with places to sit before it, was circular, each picture would pass through all the stations; from these you looked, each time, through a double window into the faintly tinted depths of the image. There was always a seat available. And especially toward the end of my childhood, when fashion was already turning its back on the Imperial Panorama, one got used to taking the tour in a half-empty room.

There was no music in the Imperial Panorama – in contrast to films, where music makes traveling so soporific. But there was a small, genuinely disturbing effect that seemed to me superior. This was the ringing of a little bell that sounded a few seconds before each picture moved off with a jolt, in order to make way first for an empty space and then for the next image. And every time it rang, the mountains with their humble foothills, the cities with their mirror-bright windows, the railroad stations with their clouds of dirty yellow smoke, the vineyards down to the smallest leaf, were suffused with the ache of departure. I formed the conviction that it was impossible to exhaust the splendors of the scene at just one sitting. Hence my intention (which I never realized) of coming by again the following day. Before I could make up my mind, however, the entire apparatus, from which I was separated by a wooden railing, would begin to tremble; the picture would sway within its little frame and then immediately trundle off to the left, as I looked on.

The art forms that survived here all died out with the coming of the twentieth century. At its inception, they found their last audience in children. Distant worlds were not always strange to these arts. And it so happened that the longing such worlds aroused spoke more to the home than to anything unknown. Thus it was that, one afternoon, while seated before a transparency of the little town of Aix, I tried to persuade myself that, once upon a time, I must have played on the patch of pavement that is guarded by the old plane trees of the Cours Mirabeau.

When it rained, there was no pausing out front to survey the list of fifty pictures. I went inside and found in fjords and under coconut palms the same light that illuminated my desk in the evening when I did my schoolwork. It may have been a defect in the lighting system that suddenly caused the landscape to lose its color. But there it lay, quite silent under its ashen sky. It was as though I could have heard even wind and church bells if only I had been more attentive.

Comments: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German philosopher, essayist and cultural commentator. His idiosyncratic memoir of observational pieces was not published in collected form in his lifetime, and not until 1989 in a form that most closely matches the author’s intentions. The Kaiserpanorama, invented by August Fuhrmann in 1880, was a cylindrical construction with usually twenty-five seats around its perimeter, at which observers would look through twin lenses to view rotating stereoscopic images. Fifty images were on offer at any one time. The Berlin Kaiserpanorama was located off Friedrichstrasse. The above image (from Wikimedia Commons) shows the Berlin Kaiserpanorama, c.1880.