He is considered the diarist of Berlin, a comics artist with an eye for those details which tend to escape the attention of the rest us, as we go about our urban lives. An avid observer of people and places, Tim Dinter watches and interprets episodes unfolding inside this city’s landscape, only to then offer them back to his readers, who might just get glimpses of themselves somewhere inside his strips. A few days before “Herr Lehmann”, his new graphic novel debuts at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Tim Dinter speaks about the eloquence of drawings.
Why did you choose to adapt “Herr Lehmann”, Sven Regener’s famous Berlin novel? Or maybe the book chose you?
The latter happened. I was asked by the publishing house that had the rights to the book if I would be interested in the project. There had already been a movie adaptation, some years back, and they had actually been thinking about doing a comics for quite a long time. They turned to me because of all the stuff I have been doing through the years about Berlin. The comics series that I do for the Tagesspiegel basically involves people sitting in cafes and talking. And “Herr Lehmann” mainly involves people talking in bars. Actually, this is quite difficult material for a comic, because it is in such a degree dialogue based.
Had you read the book already?
No, but I had seen the movie. After deciding to take on this project, I made a point of reading the book. And I found out that they had done quite a good job getting the story across, which is not usually the case with adaptations of novels. However, having watched the film prior to reading the book, I was finding it pretty hard to get rid of the images that kept coming back to me.
Did you do the whole script for the book?
Yes, I did. OK, it was a lot more dialogue than I had been used to writing until then, but I thought I’d give it a try. And I enjoyed it – it just turned out that everything took a bit longer than usual.
Did you improvise at all, or is this a faithful adaptation of the book?
No, I stuck to the original. Although it’s a fictional story, it is very realistic, which is a thing I liked and wanted to keep that way. In a sense, the way I worked on “Herr Lehmann” has been very similar to the way I have gone about the comic reportage. I handled everything in the story as if it had been there for real; well all the places mentioned in the story are indeed real and back in 1989 they looked the way they are described in the book. So I did a lot of research on the recent history of Kreuzberg.
What do you like most about the book?
What most appealed to me was the story, or rather the setting itself: Berlin at a moment in the city’s history when it really resembled an island. Young people would come here and do whatever they fancied, away from their parents, where one did not have to go to the army…West Berlin was like a playground for artists and dropouts.
What do you think about the protagonist, Herr Lehmann himself?
He is OK, he is a funny, easygoing guy, and probably everybody can relate to him. But while working on the book I got to know him better and I find that he can be less interesting, compared to the other characters.
No, he is not boring, that’s not it. But look, here is a guy who doesn’t want anything more than he already has in life. He is just happy with things just as they are; this does not make him very intriguing. But on the other hand, what does make him interesting is that although he is so relaxed and easygoing, he has very strong opinions about everything. And this gets him into fights, because he is quickly offended, he won’t back down and he will defend his opinions very stubbornly. So it turns out that he is not as laid back as he imagines himself to be. I guess this is one thing I like about him.
Had you been to West Berlin before 1990?
Yes, I had been here twice – both times in Kreuzberg. A good friend had just moved here and I was visiting her. In fact the second time, I was here about a week before the Wall came down. I was around 20 at the time.
What was your impression of the city? Was it then that you decided to move here?
At the time I was seriously thinking of moving away from the small town where I had been living –a small town near Munich- and I was thinking that maybe Berlin is the place for me to be. And I liked it a lot, but it felt kind of dangerous too. While working on “Herr Lehmann” I have caught myself going back to those first experiences I had of Kreuzberg in 1989, and I have been thinking a lot about the impression the city made on me at the time. Looking back I’d say it was shocking and inspiring, both at the same time.
The Kreuzberg I got to know was the kind of scene I wanted to be in, that’s how I felt. But it was a little too much for me – we would go into bars and people would sit around smoking pot, very relaxed, and I found that great. But then, in the room next door, other people would do heroin. And I thought, oh man, this is way too much, this is crazy, do you really want to be in this place? That was definitely too rough.
You mean that coming from a small town, you experienced a small cultural shock?
No, not really, because I had lived in big cities before, for many years. I grew up in Brussels, and then I lived in London, where with 16 and 17 I was going out a lot.
So West Berlin was wilder than London?
Oh yes, it was much wilder. People in London were also going out in bars, drinking and doing drugs but it somehow was not all in your face, it was not so ran down either. It was more…timid. On the other hand, maybe if I had stayed longer I would have gotten used to it. Sometimes one sees things differently after some time.
Did you go to East Berlin at all?
No, not in East Berlin and not in any other city in the GDR. To be honest, at the time I was not that interested in going.
Not even out of curiosity?
It is strange, I know. I sometimes ask myself how come I was not curious, but apparently it somehow felt weirdly normal living next to this country.
You have done a few reportage comics. How do you go about working on them? Do you go out, do research, take notes and then draw non-fiction stories? Or do you invent stories based on your research?
I choose a different way of working on each story. But even when I am working on a fictional story I do a lot of preliminary research. I go to the places that will feature in my comic, I take pictures of how everything looks like, sometimes I do recordings – that’s how I worked in the case of “Cargo, Comicsreportagen Israel – Deutschland”, where I wanted to listen to what the locals had to say about their city. And in the case of “Herr Lehmann”, for instance, I did a lot of research on the influences of pop culture and how people dressed at the time.
Are comics better, if less accurate, than photography as an alternative means of documenting reality?
Comics are a good way of documenting reality; for me, at least. People always think that a drawing manipulates reality in ways that photography does not. To this I answer no, this is not true. People think that a photograph is objective, but actually a photo can very easily lead people to adopt a specific point of view and to often make false assesments about an event. At the same time, people tend to be very critical of a drawing and see it as a very personal statement. Why they believe that for a drawing and not for a piece of writing, I don’t quite understand.
You mean that a piece of reporting can be as personal a statement as a drawing?
Well, isn’t it? A piece of reporting in a newspaper is a personal note, it is something written by a specific person who witnesses an event – it cannot be objective.
What kind of comics did you read as a child?
I didn’t grow up with any super hero comics, I was never fond of them. What has always appealed to me has been scenery, the way the scenery is drawn. I was interested in realism and I enjoyed learning things about the certain place where a story was taking place.
Is there a big public for comics in Germany nowadays?
It’s growing, but it is not big.
Which countries have the biggest audiences for comics?
France, which by the way is bigger than the US. The US is a big market because they can publish internationally; they sell a lot more in other places as well. Then the Asian market is connected to totally different genres. But if we are talking about Europe, I’d say France is heaven for comics writers and readers. And then you have Italy and Spain, where people read quite a lot of comics, but they are not so big in producing them. And Germany is just starting out, I’d say.
Many years ago, you did a series for the FAZ, together with Kai Pfeiffer. It was called “Der Flaneur”. I guess the association to the 1920s flaneurs is intentional. So I was wondering if you went about reading their writings as you embarked on your series for the newspaper.
At the time I read some of their writing, mainly things by Franz Hessel and Billy Wilder – he was working as dancer, going into clubs and dancing with women, getting tips. His writings about that period in Berlin are wonderful, by the way. But what we did was totally different. I just thought that I wanted to know what had been written in that tradition, but we talked about it with the author and we wanted to go to another direction.
What was the point from which you were observing the city?
We took to the streets. Our apporach was to simply walk around with open eyes and an open mind and find things. At the time that we were doing “Der Flaneur”, a lot of apartment buildings were being renovated, so all the old stuff was taken out of the apartments and placed on the sidewalk for passersby to look through and take with them. You still see that today from time to time: old things in cardboard boxes in front of apartment buildings and people picking whatever they like.
Were you assembling a chronicle of the city?
No, not really. We were trying to get out of the areas in which we had been moving, to get out of our familiar places in order to get a broader perspective of Berlin. But when we started to really look, as usually happens, it turned out that most of the time the most interesting things had always been happening right in front of our eyes…
Were did you live at the time?
In Mitte. I never went out of Mitte.
When did you come to Berlin?
In 1994, in order to go to the Art School in Weissensee. Actually I didn’t know where to head to, so I applied to the school and when I got accepted I thought that, OK, let’s try this. It was only after six months that I realised it had been a good decision after all.
Haven’t you always wanted to make comics?
I had never seen it a possible profession. I was always doing comics on the side, but I never consciously decided to become a comics artist.
Since when had you been doing comics on the side?
I started with 14, because I always saw these great comics at the place where I was spending my summer holiday with my cousins, who were very much into comics – well, they still are. They were reading comics a lot, but they were also always inventing stuff, coming up with stories, even doing their own little films. And I really liked it. So I went back home and did my own comics.
Did you also invent stories?
Yes, but I was not that good at inventing, I was only inventing stories in order to do the drawings. And then, later, I would use any opportunity to go to comics festivals. But I never thought that I could make money by making comics. So when I went to Art School I thought that graphic design would be a good and safe choice, in terms of future employment. But it turned out that there were so many people into that, and they were much more serious about it than I was. So that was a bit of a problem.
In the sense that you realised you were not passionate about it?
Exactly. And then together with some other students we formed a group and did comics.
The monogatari group? How did all of you come together?
It was on the occasion of an exhibition. We did this book, which was a school project – it was going be about everyday life in Berlin. We did very different stuff. Because we called it a comic-reportage, it actually got a lot of attention and we got really good publicity. And through this I did the next thing –which was the series in the FAZ and so on. One thing led to another, and I found myself doing more comics and working mainly as an illustrator. It was not planned, it just came naturally.
You earlier showed me a comic you did as a child, where you have drawn yourself – and you have made yourself looking almost exactly like Tintin. Since you grew up in Brussels, I guess this might explain your fascination with Hergé’s protagonist?
It’s much simpler than that. The German title of Hergé’s comic is not The Adventures of Tintin, but Tim und Struppi. You see now? I was first drawn to this character because we had the same name.
And what was it about Hergé’s comic series that kept you coming to Tin Tin?
The drawing, the very laid back realistic style. I did not like those gigantic noses and feet, or the heavy shading and the very fancy stuff one would see in other children’s comics. In Hergé I like the down to earth style.
Your series for the Tagesspiegel, “Lästermaul und Wohlstandskind“, is very well known, people see you as a diarist of Berlin. Is the hero, a guy in his mid-thirties, your alter ego?
Kind of an alter ego; but that was in the beginning anyway. Things have changed in the meantime. My life has evolved in different ways than his. I started this series in 1999. It was printed in a really small newspaper, called Scheinschlag, that was published once a month in Mitte, on Ackerstrasse where today one finds the Club der polnischen Versager. The “Lästermaul und Wohlstandskind“was just a small strip at the time.
Then ten years ago I moved the cast and the story in the Tagesspiegel. And I actually used myself and my then girlfriend, as a disguise: I was actually telling stories about two other people, but I did not want them to realise that. Or I would be talking about things I hate about myself and making fun of them. In any case, it is easy to use yourself as a device. So this guy still looks like me, but that’s all. But it’s funny how people are always reacting to this couple, as if they really exist.
Is this series your most personal work?
Close to. I think the city landscapes are the most personal. But what I really learnt a lot by doing this series through the years.
In what way?
It has been a long process of emancipation, because I used to be very scared of writing. Even while I had so many ideas, it was really hard to sit down and write the whole thing. Well, it still can be. Sometimes it takes a long time and a lot of versions before I get the right one.
What makes Berlin such a good setting for comics?
I wouldn’t say it is a good setting only for comics. I like it as a scenery, Berlin is a very good setting and I would use it also if I were doing films or photography. To begin with, what appeals to me a great deal are all these not so perfect places, where the history of changes is still visible, where one may actually discern the changes that have taken place here. You have this kind of places in Berlin.
Are you sometimes tired of us foreigners singing the praises of Berlin or of all the hype?
No, I am not tired of it, it’s OK. About all the hype, though? Well, actually the city has changed a lot and my life has changed as well. And sometimes it is absurd and maybe I don’t need all this. But it started a long time ago, when tourists starting coming to Berlin en masse; and I was wondering why do they ever come here? What is it they find so exciting? Because I was thinking that the interesting times were already gone, that the interesting things are not here anymore. It took me some time to realize that there are new exciting sides to Berlin.
What makes the city so dear to you?
The people; I think it is really interesting to sit at a bench and look at all the people. This is still quite funny. The possibility of finding interesting peope to talk about interesting stuff is much higher in Berlin than in other places in Germany.
Is there another novel that you have been entertaining the thought of adapting?
No, but for a while now I have been working on a graphic novel, together with the novelist Thomas Pletzinger. The working title is „The life and Death of the Idealist Max Breendonk“, and it tells the story of a man who loses his ideals. The protagonist is a consultant and crisis manager who goes on a long and unexpectedly dangerous winter journey and is forced to reconsider his life and his failures. The story is set in the milieu of developmental aid workers and the development aid industry – a fascinating, colourful, cosmopolitan and strangely questionable world. The book is set in New York, Hamburg, Belgium, Cambodia, Israel, South America and Africa, in airport hotels and refugee camps. It’s topical, dealing with subjects like globalization, corruption and moral, but at the same time it tells an intimate family story. It’s a big project, and I’ll probably be spending the next few years with it.
If you could ask people who come to Berlin to read one book or see one film that would give them a feeling for Berlin, which would it be?
Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire“; I think it is a beautiful Berlin film.