The Superheroes of Berlin: On the Other Side of the Wall

Article published on July 7, 2014
Article published on July 7, 2014

Berlin is one of the busiest cities in Eu­rope. Punks, cos­mopoli­tans, tourists, and even beg­gars, all kinds of young peo­ple spend their days on the streets of this city; they are, how­ever, shunned by so­ci­ety. But a su­per­hero has ar­rived, will he be able to chal­lenge the es­tab­lished so­cial norms and de­feat those who stand in his way?

Thirty min­utes after ar­riv­ing at Nükolln train sta­tion in Berlin, I ran into him. He was a young man in his twen­ties beg­ging for a few coins, both in Ger­man and Eng­lish. He stood there for the next two hours, while I paced in and out of the sta­tion. That's when I knew, my jour­ney to find the so­cial out­casts of this iconic city seemed promis­ing. 

Ac­tu­ally, the real story be­gins after learn­ing about a comic book called Su­per­Pen­ner (which trans­lated means, Su­per-Vagabond), cre­ated by Ste­fan Lenz. Ac­cord­ing to un­of­fi­cial sources, be­tween 4,000 and 12,000 peo­ple live on the streets of Berlin: rock­ers, hip­sters, and the home­less, to whom beg­ging on the streets is a form of protest against a so­ci­ety with which they no longer agree. Young­sters, punks, run­aways...​ap­par­ently these are the real prob­lems. Those, who didn't have any other op­tion left in life. Those, whom every­one looks at with dis­dain from the other side of the sidewalk.

After un­pack­ing my bags at the hotel, I met An­dreas Düllick, Ed­i­tor-in-chief of the in­de­pen­dent news­pa­per Strassen­feger, a small or­gan­i­sa­tion, and a safe haven for the home­less. At the east­ern end of the city, near the in­dus­trial part of town, there was a small edit­ing of­fice, a pub for the poor, a small refuge, and even a small shop sell­ing used prod­ucts: fur­ni­ture, ex­tin­guish­ers, beds, every day items. The comic book Su­per­Pen­ner was dis­trib­uted for free with the pur­chase of this weekly news­pa­per, which is sold by the home­less. They re­tain over half of the rev­enue, 90 cents of every 1.50 . What a deal!

An­dreas, a nice bloke with grey hair, wear­ing a black shirt and a pair of jeans, is a harsh critic of cap­i­tal­ism and the un­cer­tainty that hangs over Berlin. He ex­plained his pro­ject in more de­tail: “It's fun being part of this, peo­ple think we are a huge or­gan­i­sa­tion and that we must have a lot of fund­ing to be able to do this, but they couldn't be more wrong. We are ac­tu­ally very small and we do this be­cause we want to; how­ever, we don't have the fi­nan­cial sup­port of the gov­ern­ment, even though it's their job.” This is an or­gan­i­sa­tion that has a con­sid­er­able pay­roll, no pub­lic aid and still has enough re­sources left to help those less for­tu­nate. “That's a big chal­lenge,” An­dreas con­fessed, after tak­ing a deep breath.

A nice stroll full of nice peo­ple

I ar­rived at Alexan­der­platz still think­ing about what Düllick had said to me. Later, I went for a walk at a nearby park, and under a big com­mu­ni­ca­tions an­tenna, a passerby begged me for money. It was a shame; he was al­most my age. He tells me that he begs be­cause he doesn't have any­thing bet­ter to do. He seems tired, but still looks pretty proud to me. I keep walk­ing, I must un­der­stand this city, meet its peo­ple, lis­ten to its ac­cents, dis­cover its in­ner­most se­crets. At the train sta­tion, I met some­one else after board­ing the train for Alexan­der­platz on line two. He was a bearded young man with long hair, under 30 years old, and wear­ing a long, warm mil­i­tary coat, which I found odd given that it was sum­mer and close to 30 º c. He barely spoke Eng­lish. I must shame­fully admit that I fol­lowed him from car­riage to car­riage for the next five stops, or per­haps seven, who knows. His name was Friedrich, and he begged me for a coin. He stared at me with a blank ex­pres­sion on his face as I asked him why he was beg­ging for money. “I don't know, this is just the way it is I guess,” he fi­nally told me. He got off the train and slowly van­ished into the crowd. 

The next day, I went to see Ste­fan Lenz, the writer of Su­per­Pen­ner. We met at a de­cent pub near the area. Al­though he had a cou­ple of tat­toos, he seemed like a nice enough bloke. “Maybe he knows where I can find the best pub around,” I said to my­self. Maybe later. “In Berlin, there's new walls now,” he said. The idea of writ­ing a comic book came to him on a cold win­ter day, after he no­ticed the pas­sen­gers on a train ig­nor­ing the pleas of a beg­gar. That's when the light bulb went on, to write a comic book based on a “pen­ner”, quite a de­mean­ing word in Ger­man. Care­fully, he spoke to the beg­gars and home­less about the idea and they loved it. He im­me­di­ately went to work on it. He wanted to cap­ture the op­po­sing sides of so­ci­ety: those who have noth­ing and those who give noth­ing. He wanted to stir con­tro­versy and to en­gage peo­ple in it. It seemed to have paid off: the comic book has sold over 20,000 is­sues of its only ex­ist­ing num­ber. Well, at least for now. 

An ad of the comic book 'Su­per­pen­ner'. 

You can find every sin­gle cliché about Berlin in this comic book: life in the city and life on its streets. Al­though beg­gars are mostly os­tracised, they re­veal a hid­den side of the city. “New York has Su­per­man, and Berlin has Su­per­Pen­ner,” said Ste­fan, chuck­ling. Who would have thought? An As­so­ci­a­tion of Anony­mous Su­per­heroes (AAS). 

Now, as most of us are aware, in every comic book there's al­ways a neme­sis, the su­per­hero's most fierce enemy, and Sup­er­Pen­ner is no ex­cep­tion. But whether it's bus dri­vers and their ne­far­i­ous schemes, char­la­tans pre­tend­ing to be the bea­con of so­ci­ety while dri­ving around pol­lut­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, drunken tourists pes­ter­ing the city dwellers, or Hertha Berlin team's mas­cot frus­trated be­cause of its team's lack of tal­ent, Su­per­Pen­ner will be there...​watch­ing. It's like a paint­ing of the city, but with beer and bearded su­per­heroes. It was cloudy on Fri­day, a mar­ket day here in Berlin. I left Her­man­platz be­hind as I set off to Kot­tbusser Tor to meet Friedrich. Sud­denly, as I en­tered the mar­ket on Schinke street, the rain be­gan to pour down on me. I im­me­di­ately looked for shel­ter, as I won­dered why was the rain so cold on a sum­mer's day. De­spite the heavy rains, every­one was wear­ing shirts and shorts. Ger­mans! I man­aged to find a pub, so I nat­u­rally asked for a drink while I waited for my new friend. But I didn't have to wait long, I saw Friedrich out­side wav­ing at me as he made his way into the es­tab­lish­ment. He looks like a man of few words...​and friends. Watch­ing him out there in the rain, I thought: “Bug­ger!", tough luck. After five days I even­tu­ally got used to see­ing young men beg­ging on the streets. How­ever, there was some­thing that caught my eye dur­ing my stay here in Berlin: in Post­dammer­platz, a young girl with a yel­low Mo­hawk sat down amongst the de­bris of what was once its in­fa­mous Wall, and put up a sign that read: “Long live beer and weed!” Carry on, Berlin!

THIS AR­TI­CLE IS PART OF A SPE­CIAL EDI­TION DED­I­CATED TO Berlin as part of the PRO­JECT "EU-TOPIA TIME TO VOTE" INI­TI­ATED BY Cafébabel, IN PART­NER­SHIP WITH THE FOUN­DA­TION Hip­pocrene, THE EU­RO­PEAN COM­MIS­SION, THE DE­PART­MENT OF FOR­EIGN AF­FAIRS AND THE EVENS FOUN­DA­TION.