After our tour of London earlier this year we’re going to explore the magnificent misfits of my adoptive home, seeking out traces of the kooks, the renegades, the fabulous somebodies of years past. This is way overdue: I’ve been living in Berlin for five years and blogging about biographical marginalia for two and I’ve only just got round to bringing subject matter and location together.
To be honest, I hesitated. Partly because I didn’t want to align myself with what sometimes feels like a universal insistence that Berlin’s best is in its past. “Oh, you should have been here in the ’90s when we had raves in abandoned factories.” “You should have been here in the late ’70s when David Bowie was thin, beautiful and out of his gourd, making his best music.” “You should have been at some seedy cabaret in the 1920s”. The golden age is always behind us, and in that golden age you will always find someone whose golden age is more distant still, and so on.
Damn it, this is my golden age. I love the Berlin of now, and so if I present to you these dear, departed screwballs it is not because I ache to inhabit their worlds, it’s because I feel they deserve acknowledgement for their often hidden bequest to the present.
The clear majority of the characters we’ll meet came to prominence, or something prominence-adjacent, in the Weimar era. Germany’s cultural history generally favours the tortured genius over the wayward maverick, but the period between the First World War and the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 represented a rare temporal oasis of experimentation, extravagance and eccentricity. The Berlin of this period exerts an undying fascination, the electric, electrified, electrifying city whose nights were almost as bright as its days, and usually a lot more fun. But not for everyone. The varieties of experience we encounter remind us that the Weimar Republic, which in Peter Gay’s oft-quoted summation “was born in defeat, lived in turmoil, and died in disaster”, also represented a period of great hardship for many.
To make the selection manageable I first divided Berlin into East and West. This, you may note, is not an original concept. But even putting a Wall through my bed of Strange Flowers didn’t suffice, so now it’s a four-parter, with two parts for each side of the old divide. We will encounter the former front line of the Cold War at numerous points, difficult though it is (thankfully) to summon that absurd, barbaric colossus. The majority of our stops are in the old West, possibly surprising for anyone who only knows the Berlin of today where the polarities have been reversed, the East far more fertile ground for artists, writers and anyone pursuing what might in another age have been judged a bohemian existence.
For this trip, which will take us from one side of Berlin to the other, we will be two-wheeled flâneurs. Berlin, for all its fascination, has its longueurs and the bicycle is the best way to speed them up while still experiencing the city in something like real time. And so we start on a bright, late summer Saturday. It’s an election weekend, and as we set off we soon find the Green candidate for the area handing out literature and blocking the bike path (which I think is…ironic?). The major surprise this weekend will be the rise of the Pirates, a miscellany of hackers, slackers and jokers whose success evidently results more from protest voters than their narrow electoral program (focussing largely on data protection). It’s as interesting as politics gets here, with the party system ensuring that most of the powerbroking happens not at the ballot box but in the inevitable ensuing coalition talks which often drag on for weeks.
This is not a tour of my favourite places in Berlin, or its hipster magnets, and it seems to wilfully avoid the city’s better-known sights. Our Strange Flowers point the way; we merely follow.
MAHLSDORF TO MUSEUMSINSEL
We start in the far east, almost at the border where the city-state of Berlin meets the surrounding state of Brandenburg. Only the occasional medieval parish church reminds us that these strange sleeping suburbs were once towns strung along the main eastbound road to Poland, just an hour away, a route now clogged with car yards, hardware stores and other urban blah found at the periphery of most large cities.
This liminal location is highly appropriate for our first subject, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. The German word grenzgänger is applied in a literal sense to cross-border commuters, more figuratively to someone who moves between worlds. Charlotte moved between eras, between regimes, between genders. Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, Charlotte wore dresses for much of her life and lived as a woman.
We’re at the Gründerzeit Museum which Charlotte founded in 1960. The Gründerzeit, Charlotte’s own golden age, had an elastic timetable. It moves around the second half of the 19th century depending who you consult but the key date is the establishment of the German Empire in 1871. It was a time of prosperity but also of neurotic conformity and bullish chauvinism which would have found no place for Charlotte’s exoticism. But you can see how, marooned among the aesthetic torpor of East Berlin, she may have longed for it. Gründerzeit interiors were distinguished by the kind of heavy carved furniture with historicist motifs which fill this large house, along with Charlotte’s beloved early gramophones. The tour guide plays a scratchy old Zarah Leander record on one of them. Like Zarah, Charlotte retired to Sweden after coming to her own awkward accommodation with oppression.
We finish our visit in the cellar where we find an early 20th century bar, the significance of which will become apparent later in our journey. Speaking of which, there’s a lot to see so we should head off. It’s a long way back into the centre of town so we can ponder the great enigma that was Charlotte on the way.
Over nine years after her death she remains an equivocal figure. Like many East Germans, Charlotte was an “IM”, an inoffizieller Mitarbeiter (unofficial collaborator) for the Stasi, part of the regime’s dense mesh of control which formed the most complete surveillance network the world has ever seen. There were almost 200,000 of these unpaid spooks spying on their fellow citizens; as we head west and the buildings increase in density, we can be fairly certain that each of them would have housed at least one.
Of course, you may already know about Charlotte’s shadowy past. Douglas Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning one-(wo)man show, I Am My Own Wife, premiered in 2003 and continues to play around the world. It was inspired by Wright’s encounters with Charlotte and her autobiography Ich bin meine eigene Frau, itself preceded by a documentary of the same name by Rosa von Praunheim (whose own knowingly ironic, feminine, faux-aristocratic name salutes a working class district of Frankfurt just as Charlotte’s references her own proletariat origins).
The road has now transformed into Karl-Marx-Allee (née Stalinallee), once the most prestigious boulevard in East Berlin, its apartments reserved for those who comprised, or were favoured by, the party elite. That is, those whose positions were consolidated by the work of the IMs. The Lives of Others was filmed nearby (and for a non-fiction account of East German power structures I recommend Anna Funder’s excellent book Stasiland, with its deeply personal testimonies from both oppressors and oppressed).
But for all the manifest evil of the system which produced it, the Stalinist pomp of Karl-Marx-Allee remains an amazing sight; you will find nothing like this in Europe west of this point. And just before we hit Alexanderplatz there is another reminder of Charlotte: Kino International, where the film Coming Out premiered. This was the first (and last) East German film to deal maturely with gay life, and Charlotte has a brief role in it, working in a gay bar (yes, there were gay bars in East Berlin, under surveillance but operating in more freedom than you might expect). Coming Out premiered on November 9, 1989. That date may ring a bell – just as the film was crossing the boundaries of state-sanctioned mores, the first disbelieving East Germans were crossing the freshly-opened border to the West.
Speaking of which, the Wall, or thereabouts, is our next destination, so we turn round before we get to the vast, unlovely Alexanderplatz.
We’re making a brief stop near the East Side Gallery, a long stretch of extant Wall covered with kitschy faux-activist art and thronged with tourists, at a street named for dancer and actress Valeska Gert. She’s one of the few Berlin-born Berliners we’ll meet on our travels. O2-world, a sporting-entertainment behemoth looms; the Cirque du Soleil is currently in residence. While it’s impressive that the city honours Valeska at all, there is nothing in these bleak surroundings which brings her back, even for a moment. Will we find that elusive essence in her birthplace?
“When I came back to Germany after the Second World War and looked for the house, there was nothing left, not even ruins, just a pile of stones,” says Valeska Gert in her autobiography. And amazingly, in 2011, that gap has still not been filled, just as you could claim that the space once occupied by Gert herself has not been filled.
In front of the vacant lot we finally encounter the double line of cobbles which denotes the eccentric path of the Wall, which appeared almost 70 years after Gert’s birth here in 1892. Gert was nothing if not a grenzgänger, transgressing the boundaries of disciplines, practices and movements. We referred to her as a “dancer and actress” on our last stop, but only because we didn’t have much time. That description doesn’t begin to describe Gert’s work which was a forerunner of performance art, of conceptual art, of happenings. If she had a golden age, it was always in the future.
Gert, a Jew, left in 1933, and as we tour these bombed out lacunae, her exile reminds us that Germany had disqualified itself as a modern, creative force long before the start of war, long before the bombs fell. Only recently, over three decades after her death, has Valeska really been appreciated in her hometown.
We head off. Travelling the route of the Wall, I was reminded of Cynthia Beatt’s 2009 documentary The Invisible Frame. In it, actress Tilda Swinton cycles along the largely vanished frontier, reflecting on changes since she first made the circuit in 1988, when the Wall was very real, for a film entitled Cycling the Frame. Now, I’m as big a fan of La Swinton’s monoplex offerings as the next man, but The Invisible Frame gives thespian narcissism a bad name. “Twenty-one years,” she muses in whispery voice-over as she pedals along, “how have I changed?” Yes, because it’s all about you isn’t it sweetheart?
With Tilda’s sotto voce self-importance in our ears we leave the ghost of the Wall behind and head for the extraordinary ensemble of institutions known as Museum Island. The Bode-Museum stands proudly at the prow of the island, reopened in 2006 after a major restoration. Its splendidly pompous main hall is one of the great spaces of Berlin (it’s got an equestrian statue on the inside), though the museum’s collection of medieval sculptures soon induces Madonna+Child overload. In the early 20th century this was known as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (named for a Kaiser who ruled for all of 99 days). When English poet and Bright Young Thing Brian Howard came to Berlin in 1927 (judging it “the most unvisited city in the world”) he was much taken by the museum, though astonished that it was so neglected that even the taxi drivers couldn’t find it.
Now, knowing Brian Howard as we do, we might imagine that the nocturnal pleasures of Weimar Berlin may have held more attraction than museums. But his journal entries of this time are uncharacteristically prissy, haughtily huffing about his vicarious encounters with the homosexuality, prostitution and drug usage then common in the city. “I hiccoughed with astonishment to see only men dancing together,” he comments after a visit to a gay club. “They nearly all had had their eyebrows practically removed” (a grooming practice which lamentably endures in Berlin). On leaving he says, “I felt suddenly extremely masculine.” Let’s think about that. They made Brian Howard feel butch (that’s Brian in pearls during a school production, by the way).
He sniffs (as it were) about his first encounter with a “drug fiend”, seeing a man resembling “a retired Prussian general” doing cocaine openly in a busy café. It was an aversion he clearly overcame as this 1935 account by Christopher Isherwood demonstrates: “…in the lounge of a hotel in Amsterdam, Brian produced from his pocket a twist of paper containing some white powder. ‘This,’ he declared very loudly, for the benefit of the other guests, ‘is cocaine.’ […] He took the powder with ostentatious sniffs…”
But for now, let’s take Brian at his word and leave him among the glass cases and copperplate labels of the old museum.
The second-hand book stalls opposite the Bode-Museum provide rich pickings. There’s Charlotte, clearly feeling like she wasn’t dominating this tour enough already. We find her staring serenely from the cover of her autobiography in her customary black dress. We also find books by and/or about Gustaf Gründgens, Claire Waldoff, Lotti Huber, Harry Domela and Else Lasker-Schüler, all of whom we’ll meet on our journey.
We pack them away and head for part 2, which begins in Berlin’s dead heart.