Article published on March 12, 2018.
When Volker Kutscher’s novel Babylon Berlin came out in English in 2016 it met with instant success and it was one of my favourite books of the year. It has subsequently been made into a TV series by Sky and now we have the graphic novelisation by Arne Jysch. I was curious to see what Jysch would make of the long, complex crime story set in Weimar Germany. My 5* review was included in last month’s graphic novels round-up. Jysch managed to capture the essence of the story and characters and the artwork is fantastic. As a novel reader I enjoyed the interpretation and admired the complexity of the story. As a dedicated novel reader it left me wondering about what the different art form brings to the story. I was therefore glad to get the chance to ask Arne Jysch a couple of questions about his work.
Paul Burke: It must have been interesting working on such an exciting novel. What does the graphic format offer the reader? How is it different from the experience of reading the Kutscher novel?
Arne Jysch: Volker’s writing is already very visual, he creates a lot of images in the reader’s mind. But if you look at photographs of Berlin in the 1920s, if you see movies of the time, study paintings and other visuals like the architecture, there is so much to show, which a written novel can’t provide. I was very interested in giving the reader almost the experience of a time travel back to the roaring Weimar Berlin. Not only through Volker Kutscher’s precisely researched social and political backgrounds but with the whole atmosphere, conveyed with the help of the drawings, which are inspired by illustrations of the era, by haircuts, the fashion, a certain body language, light and shadow. A lot of shadow. I used many visual details to get across the feeling of the 1920s, or at least what I think the feeling was.
Kutscher has to describe it very carefully but I can just show it in one image. What I liked about creating the graphic version is the juxtaposition and contrast between text and image to deliver a third meaning. For example, I can show the main character smiling but the inner voice in the text says how uncomfortable he feels in that situation. Or I can show actions while the text is about something very different.
PB: How was it converting the material from a long complex novel into the graphic format? Working out what the artwork can contribute by visualising the text.
AJ: First I thought of what Hitchcock once said about adapting a novel: Read it, put it away and then create the new version from the core of the idea. I wouldn’t go so far, but the main task was to shorten a 400 page novel to a 200 page comic book without losing the essence of the story. So, first, I had to choose which characters I could get rid of, decide how to put important information of different scenes into one. What is important information anyway? To find out I had to identify the heart of Kutscher‘s story. I built my short version around the main character Gereon Rath, who is thrown into a strange city and situation, a man who desperately tries to step out of the shadow of his powerful father. So one of my first decisions was to change the narration from the novel’s multi-perspective to the first-person narrator, which also contributes to the classic crime genre noir feel I wanted to achieve. Another reason for that was I had to convey a lot of plot information because I wanted to keep the mysterious investigation storyline with all it’s twists. I found it a natural way of doing so when we hear the main protagonists thoughts.
During the preparation of the adaptation I often talked to Volker Kutscher and he said: take your favourite scenes from the novel and build your version around it. And that’s basically what I did. I just separated all the elements down to a skeleton of the story and then put my favourite “meat” back in together on a smaller scale like a jigsaw. Beyond that, I did some visually interesting changes like – for example – the newspaper pages, face masks in the nightclub and the use oft he tabletop phones in the dancehall venue. What I also changed was to make Gereon Rath suffer a bit more on a physical level. Sometimes it’s helpful to visualise what he had gone thru by showing the heroes injuries. “Helpful” because you can show people react to it, or can show how time goes by with the state of healing.
PB: When we read we create images in our heads. Is what you do a massive extension of that process? Of course with the craft and skill of an artist.
AJ: “Massive extension” is the right way of describing it. I, myself, often thought, well it’s all in the novel, I just have to draw it. But then when you have to get down to the detail, starting the research and trying to find ways of creating the world visually, it’s much more difficult. The good thing of drawing the graphic novel, comparing to making a movie for instance, is that you don’t have to be too specific every time. Once I found the basic shapes of what I want to show, just a few lines are enough to create the fictional world in the head of the viewer. I tried to keep that kind of minimalism and let the imagination of the viewer do the rest of the work.
PB: You chose black and white images, which works very well, was this an homage to the era, the noir age?
AJ: Volker Kutscher sees his 1920s in colour. So do I.
I let myself be inspired by contemporary artworks and photographs of the 1920s. I used their iconic looks and style to make it even easier for the present reader to immerse in that past time because most of the imagery we see of that era is in a certain kind of black and white. The grainy, washed, watercolor shading is borrowed by artist Jeanne Mammen who was famous in Berlin back then for her magazine cover illustrations.
PB: Is it better to write and do the artwork, that is, to control the whole artistic process?
AJ: I have to admit, I don’t like the writing very much. Usually for me, It’s just a necessary part of the creation of a book. But this time, because I really loved the original novel, I enjoyed the writing and yes, I don’t like to give away much of the artistic work. I had a strong vision of Volker Kutscher’s world and the 1920s in Berlin. I thought: well, I don’t have to worry about the visuals – I can do that. So first, I strongly focused on the writing process. I reread novels like Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood and Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, listened to 1920s songs and their lyrics to achieve the best writing I could do. The good thing was: I wasn’t really on my own, I let Volker Kutscher check my drafts of the script, so I’ve been always sure that it stayed true to the mastermind.