I first came to Berlin when Potsdamerplatz was still a vast wasteland, with shards of leftover wall jutting out from cracked pavement into the night air. My 20th night in the city, I found myself crammed with six near-strangers into an old Trabahnt, careening across the empty icy moonscape, trying to figure out where was the secret door to an underground club. A struggling German actress named Claudia, who I instantly adored, had become obsessed with the American expression “screw my brains out!”, and she was yelling this expression out the window into the winter night every time the car skidded. I’d never been happier. Unfortunately she wasn’t yelling it at me.


Later that night, as the seven of us shivered outside a locked bunker door, debating whether we’d found the club or just an abandoned checkpoint outhouse, I decided that if I sold the brilliant screenplay I’d written, I could really win Claudia and take Berlin, this city in which I was madly in love. But I had no job and no real friends, and the only German classes I could find started after New Year’s, seven homeless weeks away. I realized that if I flew to Los Angeles, sold the work of genius that was burning a hole in my pocket, and returned, all the doors in Berlin could be open. And Claudia might love me too. No one else seemed to care about my big plan–they only wanted to find a party, somewhere where a cluster of warm bodies could help them shake off the cold of their East Berlin squats.


So I tore myself from my gloomy paradise, went to California, and somehow, a decade passed. My genius was not recognized as quickly as I’d hoped, so I wrote another script, and another, always just on the verge of earning the right to return to Berlin, and find the girl whose telephone number was now unreadable, on a decaying napkin in my wallet. Whenever I’d pass through the city again, it seemed that Berlin, the city I always wanted to disappear into, the city with the lonely beautiful girls with bad fashion-sense on the East Berlin S-Bahn, the city where no one seemed to be dreaming of making it, was safer and safer, and harder and harder to dream about. There was now a gleaming mall on top of that underground club we never found. While Claudia and her punk artist friends may have dreamed themselves into oblivion, architects and government planners had scrubbed the city clean. The old punks said the city was past its prime, the wild days were over. But I knew they’d just lost the faith. I hadn’t. Claudia was out there somewhere.


Today I’m returning to Berlin by train from the East–through the sun-drenched Baltic states and Poland–so that I can remember how my dream-city might have felt long before Starbucks came to Potsdamerplatz. I’ve heard Berlin is glorious in summer, but I’ll still always prefer it at its bleakest, when the winter gloom descends and kills off the ticking of time. It’s still the cheapest capital city in Europe, it’s still a place where artists can live cheap, but now there’s heat in the apartments and bills to pay. I’ve changed too. I’m coming back how I always thought I wanted to, with a real live movie I made in my pocket after all these years, and a night to play it at the glorious Babylon cinema. I can hold my head up high to Claudia, wherever she is, and say, “I’m taking Berlin!” But I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more fun to just screw that crazy girl’s brains out, and let Berlin take me.