Strange Flowers guide to Berlin: part 4

As the final part of our Berlin tour begins, we find ourselves outside Zoo Station. In search of aesthetic diversion we head to the adjacent Museum of Photography, which includes a permanent exhibition dedicated to the late Helmut Newton. The display optimistically assumes that one’s interest in the influential German photographer might go beyond his signature images of Amazons conducting entry-level S&M in five-star hotels and extend, for example, to his cancelled passports or a dummy clad in an outfit he once wore on a shoot (jeans and a shirt, wow!). But at least its presence signals a revival of interest in this area, robbed of some of its prestige and significance with the general eastward momentum post-Reunification. The most visible symbol of this upturn is a towering luxury hotel currently under construction, which will be accepting bookings from vertiginously-heeled überfrauen and their cowering companions from next year.

Long distance trains don’t stop at Zoo anymore, but this was once a major junction for the walled city of West Berlin. It was a point of arrival for teenage runaways and angry dropouts, in an area which offered a concentrated dose of everything that every provincial tearaway’s mother ever warned them about. This was the setting for Christiane F.: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, a gruelling first-hand account of teenage heroin addiction and prostitution published in 1978. The book was read worldwide and spawned a successful film while Christiane Felscherinow, the book’s author, became a media star, Germany’s most famous ex-junkie. Against all odds she is still alive, almost 50 and apparently clean, though there have been relapses along the way.

This, however, is an aside. The era we’re really interested in lies even further back, at the dawn of the 20th century.

BAHNHOF ZOO TO BABELSBERG

We move on to Kurfürstendamm, or Ku’damm, West Berlin’s prestige shopping boulevard. What we see before us is a low-slung post-war building with a roof extension which looks like a flying saucer in drag. But we are at this corner to remind ourselves that there was a viable Berlin bohemia which pre-dated the Weimar era. Because this is where the Café des Westens stood, an all-important meeting point for artists, writers and those who wished to bask in their vicarious glory.

It was here that Bertolt Brecht conceived Die Dreigroschenoper and Friedrich Hollaender wrote “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt” (the original of “Falling in Love Again”).  Erich Mühsam and Frank Wedekind were regulars, and it was a compulsory stop for visiting literati glitterati like André Gide, T.S. Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov. But the café’s true star was “Red Richard”. The nickname drew attention to the bearer’s ginger hair while tactfully ignoring his hunchback. Red Richard had the crucial position of newspaper waiter. In the era of Café des Westens’ apogee, Berlin produced and consumed an extraordinary amount of newspapers every day, and the man who had first dibs on fresh editions at the city’s uncontested hot spot was an important man indeed.

One of Café des Westens’ regulars was Else Lasker-Schüler (see part 3). Austrian actress Tilla Durieux witnessed the writer with her husband Herwarth Walden and son Paul, and was not impressed: “This couple, with their unbelievably spoilt son, could be seen from midday to late in the night in Café des Westens, surrounded by the crazy art crowd. The little family lived, I suspect, on nothing but coffee.” Else was shocked, shocked when management barred her entry one day, on the grounds that she didn’t consume enough. “Is a poet who consumes a lot even a poet?” she fumed. And so as the First World War approached, Café des Westens fell out of favour with the avant-garde. Red Richard, at least, skipped call-up and saw out the war here (as Joseph Roth quotes him: “You know – just between you and me – I’ve got – flat feet…”). Fast forward to the early 1920s, and bohemian Berlin has moved on to the Romanisches Café.

But before we join them there, I draw your attention to a bedraggled figure selling newspapers outside on the corner. No, it’s not Red Richard, it’s Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who we saw back in part 2. Time has not been kind. Her golden age, such as it was, is behind her. For much of the last ten years she’s been in New York, where she married a compatriot nobleman. She became known as the “Dada Baroness”, but even the Dadaists were freaked out by the found objects which comprised Elsa’s wardrobe. Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay remembers her in New York, “always gaudily accoutred in rainbow raiment, festooned with barbaric beads and spangles and bangles, and toting along her inevitable poodle in gilded harness.” Few look beyond the exotic plumage to give her poetry or her art the consideration it deserves.

And now she’s back, impoverished, in her impoverished homeland. McKay, quite by chance, encounters her on this corner, “a shabby wretched female selling newspapers, stripped of all the rococo richness of her clothes, her speech, her personality.” Along with her meagre earnings, Elsa is dependent on hand-outs from friends like Peggy Guggenheim, Djuna Barnes and artist Pavel Tchelitchew. Disastrously, she tries to blackmail Stefan George with compromising letters.

Others might have been desperate to come to Berlin in this era but Elsa can’t wait to leave. On her 50th birthday, she marches into the French Consulate with a birthday cake on her head – with lit candles. This bizarre displays results, unsurprisingly, in her application for French residency being turned down. But after a breakdown which sees her institutionalised outside Berlin she is finally approved, moving to Paris in 1926. It is a short-lived relief: she dies there the following year.

A short stroll and we’re at an intersection which, in the early 20th century, was one of the great crossroads of Europe. Then as now it was dominated by the Gedächtniskirche, though its severed spire is now pointedly (or unpointedly, really) left unrestored after the War, a warning from history which has become a symbol both of Berlin and its self-induced suffering.

But at least it did better than the Romanisches Café, built by the same architect as the church, which is entirely gone. Its site is occupied by a shopping centre; the branch of café chain Mövenpick which is now there (which makes Starbucks look edgy) is poor compensation for the loss. The roof of the shopping centre, with its rotating Mercedes star, is yet another site featured in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.

The Romanisches was the meeting point of progressive Weimar-era culture. To separate the serious practitioners of arts and letters from the mere scene-crashers, the café was divided into two rooms, or the “non-swimmers’” and “swimmers’” sections. Else, naturally, floated freely in the latter section, along with Erich Maria Remarque, Billy Wilder, Stefan Zweig, George Grosz, Rudolf Steiner and many, many others.

We head off down Ku’damm and after veering south we are now in the solidly middle-class district of Wilmersdorf, where we find the home of Anita Berber.

Now, knowing what we know about Anita Berber and imagining how she may have lived, the most daring woman of the most liberated city in its most licentious era, what do we come up with? A basement in purple crushed velvet? A turret lined in black flock with heavy drapes drawn against the break of day? A police cell? Whatever we come up with, it is unlikely that we would conjure something like the orderly, tree-lined streets where we now find ourselves. And we probably wouldn’t imagine the comfortable, multi-generational family home she enjoyed here.

This was Anita’s first home in Berlin, which she shared with her mother, grandmother and two aunts. She arrived during the First World War, and it was while living here that she began her training as a dancer, at age 16. This would be her last Berlin residence as well, after a catastrophic tour of Europe which scandalised Mitteleuropa and brought Berber to the brink of extinction, a destination she would finally reach in Bethanien.

Berber had few equals as a succès de scandale in 1920s Germany, but one man came close. To find him, we slip out of this quiet bourgeois neighbourhood and head north to the proletarian district of Moabit. For Berliners, Moabit is synonymous above all with the prison located here. We’re in a neighbourhood filled with mietskaserne, “rental barracks”, the disdainful name once given to working-class tenement blocks. It’s here that we find Harry Domela. He is operating a small cinema in this quiet back street, a “people’s cinema” as he calls it. As strange as the location is, the programme is stranger still. It consists of one film played over and over: Der falsche Prinz (“The False Prince”). Strangest of all: it stars – and concerns – Domela himself.

Harry Domela was born in 1905 near Riga, in what was then the Russian Empire, to German parents, “Baltic Germans” forming a distinct minority in the region. He served as a child soldier with the German army after the First World War but was denied a passport, and spent the first half of the 1920s in Germany doing menial jobs as an undocumented labourer.

Domela’s keen mind and hunger for a better life expressed itself in a string of assumed identities, usually titled. German aristocrats had lost their privileges and protected status in 1919, so it’s hard to say if this was any more illegal than claiming to be Santa Claus. But his deceptions took an unexpected turn when strangers, particularly ex-nobility, came to the unlikely conclusion that these titles were not alibis for a humble nobody, but rather for a more exalted personage altogether. Around 1926, stories started circulating that this stateless labourer with the rich imagination was in fact Prince Wilhelm, grandson of the last Kaiser, travelling incognito.

The two were approximately the same age and physically not dissimilar; Domela’s complicity in the ruse relied largely on suggestion and ambiguity. In any case, the success of his adventure owed little to Domela’s efforts, but rather the old order’s yearning for the imperial golden age which led them to fill in the blanks.

After enjoying a few weeks’ luxury on his credulous supporters’ coin, Domela was finally found out in early 1927 and sentenced to seven months’ jail. He used his time well, writing up his story which was published by the Malik publishing house (which we saw in part 3) as Der falsche Prinz.

It was a sensation. Not only was it a bestseller, Domela’s native eloquence and storytelling abilities also attracted praise from the kind of literary heavyweights we saw back in the Romanisches Café. Domela starred in the film version of his book (actually there were two film versions; Domela unsuccessfully sued the makers of the other) and, in 1929, opened this cinema to show it.

Unfortunately Domela’s prosperity was nearly as short-lived as his putative royalty. The cinema consumed all his money and he left Germany to launch himself on a journey through further multiple identities which took him to the end of the world. It’s too much to go into now so let’s leave with some keywords of his later adventure – André Gide, Spanish Civil War, disappearance in South America – and a promise to return to his story.

From down-at-heel Moabit in the north we describe a west-bound quarter-circle which takes us through semi-industrial streets and, by way of contrast, the landscaped gardens of Schloss Charlottenburg, to arrive on a busy north-south arterial road.

Annemarie by Marianne

Perhaps it was precisely this location, which offered the constant option of escape, that appealed to Swiss writer and traveler Annemarie Schwarzenbach. She arrived in Berlin in September 1931 and spent much of the next 18 months there. She would undertake a number of trips from this base, but the journeys that marked her out as one of the great adventurers of the 20th century, to Persia, Russia, Sub-Saharan Africa, were yet to come. Schwarzenbach brought with her two addictions – alcohol and sleeping pills – and by the time she left she had added morphine to the portfolio. Liberated from conservative Zurich and her over-protective family she was driven to explore the city’s louche underbelly, often in the company of her friends Klaus and Erika Mann. Everywhere she went, Schwarzenbach was noted for her evident fragility but even more so for her boyish beauty. “Annemarie was the most beautiful creature I ever met,” proclaimed friend and photographer Marianne Breslauer. “I later met Greta Garbo, whose features seemed perhaps even more flawless, but with Annemarie you really couldn’t tell if she was a man or a woman; she seemed to me like the Archangel Gabriel standing before Heaven.”

Annemarie explored Berlin by night as night fell on the Weimar Republic, troubled by addiction and ill health and romantic entanglements, but her stay coincided with one of her most prolific periods, producing numerous articles, Lyric Novella, which was recently translated into English, a lost novel and her only play, Cromwell.

We next draw an imaginary line from Schwarzenbach’s home to Spandau, once an independent town, now absorbed into Berlin. At the halfway point of that line we find Ruhleben, an U-Bahn terminus with a major westbound road running through it. There are two modes here: deafening or deathly still, depending on whether you are loitering on that road, or anywhere else. The name “Ruhleben” (something like “peaceful life”) is either mockingly facetious or utterly appropriate when applied to our destination: the local graveyard.

Even for a cemetery in an outlying district, this is unnervingly quiet. There is no-one about and only the occasional roar wafting from the Olympic Stadium as Berlin’s ill-starred football team, Hertha BSC, draw 2:2 with F.C. Augsburg. I’ve spent quite a bit of time, perhaps too much time, in Berlin graveyards. One thing I’ve learnt: it’s never too soon to sort out the lettering on your grave. Maybe we will have more pressing priorities in the afterlife, maybe it doesn’t matter what the memorial looks like, it’s the message that counts. Oh, who am I kidding! I have seen so many crimes against typography on Berlin graves, and can only urge you to engage a graphic designer for your eternal abode as soon as possible.

And if you want to know how to get it right, come to Valeska Gert’s resting place. Her gravestone is a punchy black slab with her signature in shocking pink, as if written in lipstick on a mirror, and the one-word description, “dancer”. You see? That’s how you do it.

In her 1968 autobiography Ich bin eine Hexe (“I am a witch”), Gert foresaw her lonely death on the island of Sylt. “Only the kitty will be with me. When I’m dead, I can’t feed him anymore. He’s hungry. In desperation he nibbles at me. I stink. Kitty’s a gourmet, he doesn’t like me anymore. He meows loudly out of hunger until the neighbours notice and break down the door.” And you know what? She was right on the money – that is more or less exactly what happened in 1978.

The football fans are going home, the sun is going down…but we’re not going to do this, are we? I mean, end like this, in a graveyard, like we did in London. Let’s keep going, chasing the setting sun, aiming for the opposite side of the city from where we started. Moving beyond death, we’re seeking out a garden, the kind of garden that supposedly awaits the righteous post-demise.

We head south, past the Olympic Stadium, and death snaps at our heels. We pass Charlottenburg’s Jewish Cemetery where Lotti Huber lies (can’t stop…), on to the huge Grunewald forest which defines the city’s western edge, past another cemetery, last resting place of singer Nico (must keep going…), along the Wannsee glinting in the late afternoon sun where, across the water, we see the site of the Wannsee Conference which posited the Final Solution.

But death falls back and we reach our final destination: Babelsberg. This area is associated above all with the film studios located here for almost a hundred years, turning out early cinema landmarks like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Blue Angel and Metropolis through to Valkyrie, Inglourious Basterds and The Ghost Writer. This well-preserved historical district has buildings which could well have witnessed the arrival of our final strange flower: Hermann von Pückler-Muskau.

Park Babelsberg was originally laid out by Peter Joseph Lenné, also largely responsible for the present form of Tiergarten. But it was Pückler-Muskau who defined the current format in the mid-19th century, an expression of his passion for a particularly English style of gardening which presented a deceptively carefree landscape, actually rigorously planned. Winding paths (“silent guides”, as Pückler-Muskau called them) continually drew the eye to new enchantments, just as our eccentric path through Berlin has offered us an ever-changing cast of rare blooms.

To a greater degree than anyone we have encountered so far, Pückler-Muskau was a grenzgänger, someone who transgressed boundaries at will. He moved between the Orient and the Occident, fired by democratic ideals and funded by inherited privilege, the Prussian who felt more French than German. I’m not sure, then, if it is ironic or apposite that post-World War Two borders have carved through his two most famous creations. At Muskauer Park, the re-drawn German-Polish border along the Oder-Neisse Line ran right through his ancestral property, while here at Babelsberg the death strip of the Berlin Wall indelicately carved through the landscape which he had tenderly crafted.

Where the death strip once gouged through the park, the woods grow again and we say goodbye to Berlin, for now, as the sun sets on Park Babelsberg. Berlin still hasn’t decided on a government, there’s still a big hole where the Schloss should be, the “forest boy” still hasn’t been claimed. On the other side of Berlin, Charlotte’s gramophones creak into action.

And here we also farewell Pückler-Muskau, who has served so far as Strange Flowers’ turbaned mascot. Today is his 226th birthday – high time to let him retire, I think. As it happens, today is also Strange Flowers’ birthday: two years ago today we encountered the “arch, alien glamour” of another German eccentric, the illustrator Alastair, which began this adventure. And so flushed with anniversary enthusiasm, over the next days and weeks I’m going to try out a new banner, some new features and have a go at a redesign. Please do forgive me for the work in progress to come.

And meanwhile: thanks for your interest and support.

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29 comments

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  8. martin

    Thanks for the fascinating blog, James.
    Your “Strange Flowers guide to Berlin” will be put to good use when I hit the streets of Berlin next week.
    By the way, those of your readers, who may be contemplating a visit to the Gründerzeit in Mahlsdorf, might wish to know that the Museum is currently open only on Sundays and Wednesdays, according to its website. There is, apparently, the facility to cater to groups outside opening times by prior arrangement. Needless to say, such things as opening times can, and often do, change over time.

    James, I must confess that I had never heard of many of those “Strange Flowers” about whom you write. So, thanks for all your endeavours which enable you to depict these characters in all their angst and all their wonder. Talk about broadening the mind. Geez!!!

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  22. EmJay

    This is a wonderful blog and will take me hours to even superficially explore its riches, now that I have been fortunate enough to discover it. Thank you.
    Just a small correction: you say ” it was a compulsory stop for visiting literati glitterati like André Gide, T.S. Eliot and Vladimir Nabokov.” The latter was neither (in the 20s-30s) a glitterato (?) or luminary, nor was he just visiting but inhabiting Berlin as a rather poor escapee from Soviet Russia who gave English and tennis lessons to make ends meet. Dieter Zimmer has a piece on his website giving details of the places he stayed at: http://www.dezimmer.net/HTML/whereabouts.htm

    • Thank you for your comment and yes, you’re quite right, Nabokov was indeed unknown in his Berlin years, which in any case didn’t coincide with the apogee of the Café des Westens described. Funnily enough I’ve been reading about his time in the city recently, including the bizarre murder of his father.

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