Strange Flowers guide to Berlin: part 3


We start again at the Berlin Wall. We start in the old West. We start, perversely, with death.

The Bethanien was a hospital in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district where dancer, actress and compulsive provocateuse Anita Berber was delivered, mortally ill, in 1928. “She was as thin as a skeleton,” recalled eyewitness Leo Lania. “Unable to stretch out, she sat with her legs drawn up to her chin […] She smiled and tried to paint a red mouth on her face. Her hands trembled and it cost her a terrible exertion. She had the mask of a mad old hag.” And yet Anita wasn’t even 30 when she breathed her last. She had lived the extremes of Weimar immoderation to an extent which sealed her premature demise.

The Bethanien, with its faux-Romanesque exterior and faux-Renaissance interior, eventually closed in 1970, by which time the Wall had sprung up literally in its back yard. Developers wanted to pull down the historic building and put apartments in its place, a move thankfully thwarted when squatters moved in. There was a lot of that going on in Kreuzberg around that time. Solid, handsome 19th century buildings were either torn down or purposely left to rot by unscrupulous property developers. That many of them survive to this day is due in no small part to squatters. The Bethanien now operates as an artists’ collective.

And so we follow the ghost of the Wall again, through quiet streets whose sleepy inhabitants awoke one summer morning in 1961 to find the neighbours across the road not just in another country (as they had been since 1949), but behind an all-but impenetrable barrier. Through the Brandenburg Gate and on into Tiergarten, old royal hunting grounds miraculously preserved over the centuries. We stop near the river to visit one of Anita’s more unlikely hook-ups.

Berber, who enjoyed numerous bisexual affairs, had a way of making others disregard the boundaries they had hitherto defined for themselves. One such was Magnus Hirschfeld. An early feminist, gay rights activist and pioneer in sex research, Hirschfeld helped foster a brief golden age of enlightenment for sexual minorities which would only find its sequel after the Second World War. He was a consultant on a handful of “social-hygienic” films in the Weimar era with names like Prostitution and The Right to Love which offered titillating servings of sexual difference under the cover of pseudo-science. Hirschfeld, at least, took his subject matter seriously. He even appeared in one of these films, Different From the Others, made in 1919, the first sympathetic cinematic treatment of homosexuality. Berber also appears in the film, and had an affair with the otherwise gay Hirschfeld, 30 years her senior.

Hirschfeld took the data that he collected by night at the Mulackritze (see part 2) and other bastions of erotic dissent and exposed them to the light of day and critical reason at his institute on the street named In den Zelten. Its unusual name (“in the tents”) refers to the temporary accommodation set up for Huguenot regugees during the reign of Frederick the Great. The row of 19th century buildings which later stood here was quite the colony; Christopher Isherwood roomed here for a while, as did Djuna Barnes. According to Barnes, Berlin was “full of buggers from America who bought boys cheap.” A jibe which may well have applied to friend and fellow American writer Robert McAlmon, who also stayed on In den Zelten.

Of course, the party had to end. Hirschfeld, not only on the side of the sexually disposessed but Jewish as well, became a target for persecution once the Nazis took over. His institute was ransacked by thugs and his meticulously detailed research ended up on the pyre. Today on In den Zelten, even absence is absent. There is little here to suggest that there were ever buildings on what is now a service road for the nearby arts venue Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Hirschfeld died in exile, on his 67th birthday, in 1935.

But his work continues. An institute established just a few weeks ago by the German government – which aims to combat discrimination against gays and lesbians and remember those murdered by the Nazis – was named after Hirschfeld. As was a riverside promenade near the Reichstag and if Hirschfeld – gay, feminist, non-Aryan – were to come back, he would find the top three government positions there held by a woman, a Vietnamese immigrant and a gay man.

Through Tiergarten and out the other side and we find Lützowplatz, whose two surviving pre-war buildings give us some idea of what In den Zelten may have looked like. It was in a now-vanished building on this square in 1932 that the stateless Adolf Hitler, after numerous attempts, finally received German citizenship. Trouble, as you may well be aware, ensued.

Six years later Arndt von Bohlen und Halbach, known as “the last Krupp”, was born here. In truth it was his father who would be the last to bear the tainted name of Krupp; Arndt was disinherited and set free to live out his fabulousness. He spent freely on parties, costumes and some pretty edgy plastic surgery, though he was also a generous benefactor. The end of a tainted line (whose amoral excesses inspired Visconti’s The Damned), manipulated by his mother Annelise, Arndt’s chances of a normal life were approximately zero. It was also on Lützowplatz, in one of those lonely pre-war buildings, in fact, that arch, anti-naturalist arthouse director Werner Schroeter held an exhibition of photographs in 2010. He died later the same year, his last months recorded for the documentary Mondo Lux.

We continue to Potsdamer Platz, once a wasteland riven by the Wall whose sands spawned an ersatz urban centre about 10 years ago (cf. Dubai). Werner is here, in star form at least, in the Boulevard der Stars, the Hollywood Boulevard-esque tribute to German-language cinema. He is, it has to be said, in fine company. Marlene’s here, naturally. Directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Wim Wenders, along with a Skladanowsky brother (see part 2). Actors like Romy Schneider, Hildegard Knef, Klaus Kinski and, as we saw recently, the brilliant 101-year-old Oscar-winner Luise Rainer.

The Boulevard der Stars runs alongside the Sony Center, one of the signature landmarks of the new Berlin, constantly mobbed by tourists. To start with the positives, the complex has a fine Film Museum and an excellent arthouse cinema in its basement. Otherwise it’s a ring of irrelevance, a building which represents an architect’s contempt for the end user raised to the level of actual evil. Berlin’s annual film festival, one of the few reasons to spend time around here, has given me plenty of time over the years to contemplate exactly what I hate about this building. There’s the roof, a truncated cone at an angle (why?) which doesn’t even fulfil the basic requirement of a roof, with an aperture which admits rain and snow. Rain and snow which then falls on the plate metal floor which becomes perilously slippery. Arctic winds roar through unimpeded in the winter and the whole thing is doused in surly, grey light on even the sunniest day. And apart from the aforementioned museum and cinema, there is very little incentive to come here. Consumer electronics? A faux-Bavarian beer hall? An Australian restaurant? I’m Australian and I don’t go to Australian restaurants.

…and breathe.

I’m all worked up, so in the spirit of balance, I present to you a far more successful structure. Luckily it’s just around the corner. It’s Berlin’s main library, the Staatsbibliothek, where I do most of my research. I am routinely amazed by what emerges from its vaults – the most obscure biographies, the rarest first editions. It’s also deeply cinegenic (is that a word?), with a non-speaking role in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Wenders is back, at least in the form of a poster, celebrating 350 years of Berlin’s library system.

The Staatsbibliothek was designed by Hans Scharoun (also responsible for the Berlin Philharmonie across the road) and opened in 1978, six years after the architect’s death. It represents a last flowering of post-war optimism, of pre-Postmodernism, of brittle confidence spurred by Germany’s “economic miracle”, already undermined by the domestic terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof Group. This is a building which dares to stretch and reach and soar without neglecting its core functions.

From there we pass a building which was once a stone’s throw from the Wall and which still houses Hansa Tonstudio, where David Bowie recorded his peerless late-1970s “Berlin trilogy” with Brian Eno (Low, Heroes and Lodger), inspiring numerous other artists who wanted a slice of that menacing Cold War glamour. The building was also home to the Malik-Verlag, a left-leaning publishing house whose history incorporated names like George Grosz, John Heartfield and Else Lasker-Schüler (we’ll be seeing Else soon). One of its most successful publications was Der falsche Prinz by Harry Domela, who awaits us in part 4.

We take a lunchtime detour to the Stadtklause, whose wood-clad interior gives it a warm, earthy, old Berlin feel, contrasted by quotes from Marcel Proust and Walter Benjamin adorning the ceiling. A permanent exhibition in the basement remembers the Anhalter Bahnhof, the huge station which once stood a block away from the Stadtklause. There’s only a fragment of the grand façade left. The sight of it inevitably brings to mind its appearance in Wings of Desire (yes, again), but it also shows up in Third Generation, Fassbinder’s icy parody of the Baader-Meinhof Group, made in 1979.

Street musician, artist and actor Bruno Schleinstein, more often known as Bruno S., was a frequent guest and performer at the Stadtklause before his death last year. He is best known as the star of two Werner Herzog films, Stroszek and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Speaking of which, there’s a new Kaspar Hauser in town, dubbed the “forest boy” by the local press. He walked out of the forest and into Berlin in early September with apparently no idea who he is, speaking English and little German.

Suitably revived, we head back to a busy stretch of Potsdamer Strasse, now attracting contemporary art galleries branching out from Mitte where the rents have soared as urban cachet dropped. No such problem here, a part of town best known for its streetwalkers (Christiane F.’s patch was nearby).

Here we find a restaurant named for writer Joseph Roth, who lived in a hotel next door (the restaurant was once a bakery where Roth was a regular). Roth made his way from a shtetl on the distant periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to what was then one of the most exciting and progressive cities on Earth. He spent the first half of the 1920s in Berlin, experiencing hyperinflation, hypermodernity and hyperstimulation, and returned frequently up until 1933. And through it all Roth wrote for numerous newspapers, leaving an invaluable eyewitness account in his laconic style, with an extraordinarily acute eye for telling detail. The collection of translated articles published in 2003 as What I Saw is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Berlin during the Weimar Republic. One of its great achievements is to make the present-day reader see Berlin as the dazzling, frenetic, cutting-edge metropolis it appeared to Roth and his contemporaries. Witness this description of a railway junction:

It’s the heart of a world whose life is belt drive and clockwork, piston rhythm and siren scream. It is the heart of the world, which spins on its axis a thousand times faster than the alternation of day and night would have us believe; whose continuous and never-ending rotation looks like madness and is the product of mathematical calculation; whose dizzying velocity makes backward-looking sentimentalists fear the ruthless extermination of inner forces and healing balance but actually engenders life-creating warmth and the benediction of movement.

As well as hundreds of articles, Roth also wrote some of the finest German-language novels of the between-the-wars era, reflections on past glories overshadowed by presentiment of future disaster, a style which Barry Humphries, a great fan of Roth, describes as “pre-cataclysmic”. Roth lived his life in hotel rooms across Europe, an odyssey marked by the tragedy of his wife’s schizophrenia and his own chronic alcoholism. He foresaw not only the demise of civilized Europe but his own end: one of Roth’s last works was The Legend of the Holy Drinker from 1939, in which a vagrant drinks himself to death in Paris. A few months after it was written Roth did just that.

Next door to the Joseph-Roth-Diele we find Ave Maria, a shop which specialises in Marian devotionalia. Together, Joseph and Mary, the holy drinker and the holy virgin, peer curiously over Potsdamer Strasse to the Wintergarten, named for, and inspired by, the great Weimar nightspot we visited in part 2. It’s an occasional venue for the regular club night Bohème Sauvage, where  punters dressed à la Roaring Twenties dance to period-appropriate music spun by DJ Dr Hirschfeld, among others.

The retro-revellers at Bohème Sauvage are responding to a particular idea of Weimar Berlin, a fragile, frantic golden age of sexual license and social mobility, lewd and doomed. One man, more than any other single individual, was responsible for putting that idea in the cultural imagination, particularly in the Anglophone world. We make our way to the area centred on Nollendorfplatz, past and present centre of the city’s gay life to meet English writer Christopher Isherwood. He moved into an apartment on Nollendorfstrasse in December 1930 (despite what the plaque on the building says). It was here that he met singer and actress Jean Ross who, to her life-long chagrin, shared several traits with Isherwood’s most famous literary creation: Sally Bowles. The undying allure of the Weimar Berlin evoked by Isherwood’s books Goodbye to Berlin and Mr Norris Changes Trains, and of course their afterlife in the musical and film Cabaret, ensure that the reality of the city in that era can never be divorced from its fictional echoes.

We move one street north to Motzstrasse, where poet and artist Else Lasker-Schüler lived from 1924 to 1933. A born grenzgänger, Else was a woman unfamiliar with boundaries, particularly those that separated art and life. But it was one way traffic: she lived her art in the streets rather than let the tumult of the streets into her art, transforming herself and her friends into biblical, historical or mythological figures. She had been living in Berlin since 1894, where she became an ambulant performance piece, parading the streets dressed as the Prince of Thebes.

But she was not entirely immune to the surge of history. Else endured serious injuries in a riot which accompanied the 1930 premiere of the American film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, just around the corner at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz. Its view of the First World War and war in general was at considerable variance with that of the Nazis, who organised demonstrations led by Goebbels. They let off stink bombs and assaulted anyone who “looked Jewish” – including Lasker-Schüler.

She was the victim of further assaults before and after the Nazi takeover in January 1933. Else emigrated, spending time in Switzerland before moving to Palestine where she died in 1945.

The Theater am Nollendorfplatz continued to operate as a venue during the war. Among the artists who performed here was Swedish singer Zarah Leander, whose anthems of unsubstantiated optimism gave succour to the Nazis as they faced certain defeat. Zarah sang for Hitler himself at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz but resisted pressure to assume German citizenship and returned to Sweden in 1943. Her post-war career was forever blighted by her association with the Nazi regime. Meanwhile the theatre became a rock venue in the 1970s and 80s, hosting artists like Bowie, Iggy Pop, Nina Hagen and Depeche Mode. Its Art Deco interior still hosts the occasional club night.

We’ll meet Else again in part 4, in her natural environment: the great cafés of early 20th century Berlin.



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