Making a Grand Entrance

Making a Grand Entrance

One of this summer’s top Berlin cultural events was the much-anticipated opening of British architect David Chipperfield’s stunning new James-Simon-Galerie on Museum Island. Over the past decade, the serene beauty of this unique and impressive ensemble of museums, built between 1830 and 1930 and originally conceived as ‘Athens on the Spree’, has been scarred by cranes and construction work. Now the key part of the project has been completed and on Friday 12th July Angela Merkel, whose Berlin home is just across the street from the Pergamon Museum, officially opened the James-Simon-Galerie. It is named after one of the city’s most important patrons, 19th Century Jewish philanthropist James Simon (1851-1932).

 

Angela Merkel at the opening of the James-Simon-Galerie

The 21st century addition to Museum Island has attracted great interest in the media, but opinion seems to be divided about its aesthetic qualities. Personally, I think that the clean lines and generous proportions of its modern design reflect and complement the classical grandeur of Museum Island. However, at a cost of about €150 million and with its endless rows of wall lockers provided for the use of museum visitors, it has been dubbed ‘Berlin’s most expensive cloakroom facility’. cloakroom facility’.

Stunning exterior design

View from the Spree side

For the next few weeks visitors can wander around the James-Simon-Galerie at no cost and get a feel for its concept. The new construction incorporates a soaring central entrance hall with ticket counters, information desks and a museum shop,as well as a space for reading. In addition to the gallery itself, there is a 300-seat auditorium for lectures and concerts. The stylish ‘Cu29’ restaurant, also open outside museum hours,has tall windows which afford good views of Museum Island and the surrounding area. ‘Cu29’ is certain to be a popular venue; it offers interesting breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, not to mention coffee, cakes and cocktails.

Inside Cu29

Four of the five museums on the island in the Spree are now connected by the James-Simon-Galerie so that visitors can move between the different buildings using the new subterranean Archaeological Promenade. Colonnades similar to those of the Neues Museum give a modern classical feel and the wide flight of steps at the entrance creates a suitable sense of awe and expectation. The first temporary exhibition in the gallery opens at the end of August. Currently on display is a model of Museum Island and a few exhibits and information panels explaining how the Berlin State Museums evolved from the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ in aristocratic.

Model of Museum Island and its environs

A ‘mock’ cabinet of curiosities

In the main room are four huge screens showing short films about the life and achievements of James Simon. The soundtracks are in German, but there are large subtitles in English explaining how this wealthy Jewish textile manufacturer became such an important art collector and benefactor. Together with Museum Director Wilhelm Bode and under the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, James Simon founded the Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft which financed the excavations in Egypt and led to the acquisition of the famous coloured bust of Nefertiti on display in the Neues Museum. He presented hundreds of artworks and artefacts to Berlin’s State Museums and assembled a substantial private collection in his mansion at 15a Tiergartenstrasse, most of which was later bequeathed to the State.

Screens showing James Simon’s biography

James Simon had a strong social conscience and funded children’s homes and summer camps, hospitals and public baths. He was a man who wanted to be judged by his deeds not his words. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee in Prenzlauer Berg and at his funeral Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a wreath from his exile in The Netherlands. Interestingly, James Simon’s descendants include his granddaughter Leni Yahil, an illustrious Israeli historian who specialised in the Holocaust and the Danish Jewry.

Henri James Simon in 1920

Henri James Simon in 1920

Berlin Blast

Berlin Blast

A long weekend in Berlin – what could be more fun? We called it the ‘Berlin Blast’, and eight of us hit the city running over four days at the end of April. Nothing like a crowd of enthusiasts with a keen interest in history and culture and a love of good food and drink. And everyone fell captive to Berlin’s unique magnetism. 

 

Berlin skyline over the Spree River.

We stayed in Hotel Monbijou by Hackescher Markt. True to its name, this boutique hotel is a jewel. It is perfectly located in the middle of Berlin-Mitte and the high-ceilinged rooms are reasonably-priced with understated décor. The buffet breakfast is unbeatable and in good weather you can eat outside in the courtyard. There are three bars; in summer the Rooftop Terrace has great views of the Berliner Dom (cathedral), the Lounge Bar has a woodfire in winter and from Tuesday until Saturday the Bijou Bar serve wicked cocktails until the early hours.

Our Berlin Blast started at ‘Oxymoron’, a restaurant just around the corner from our hotel in the stunning Hackesche Höfe. This restored Art Nouveau courtyard complex is overrun with tourists at the weekend, but just perfect for Friday lunchtime. ‘Oxymoron’ came up to its usual high and the set lunch featuring seasonal asparagus was great value. After exploring the artisan shops in the Hackesche Höfe, we doubled back to the hip and quirky backyards of Haus Schwarzenberg, exploding with street art and containing the gripping Otto Weidt Museum and the Anne Frank Zentrum.

Courtyard outside Oxymoron

Haus Schwarzenberg

The area around Hackescher Markt is part of the Scheunenviertel (‘Barn Quarter’), once a poor part of Berlin just outside the old city walls where the hay for horses was stored. Its streets are now packed with historical and architectural interest. We walked along pretty Sophienstrasse with buildings dating back to the 18th century, and called into Sophienkirche, Berlin’s surviving oldest baroque church. From Sophienkirche, we turned left along Grosse Hamburger Strasse, passing buildings which still bear the scars of machine gun fire from Soviet troops fighting their way through the city in the last weeks of World War II.

Sophienkirche

Bullet-scarred building

The Scheunenviertel was also where a large proportion of Berlin’s Jewish population lived and it contains several moving holocaust memorials, as well as scores of brass ‘Stolpersteine’ embedded in the pavements, commemorating local Jews who were murdered in concentration camps. Grosse Hamburger Strasse was once the centre of Jewish community life, with its Jewish school, old peoples’ home and cemetery. In 1942 the Gestapo used the school and the home to round up Jews destined for deportation. The Nazis destroyed and vandalised the cemetery in 1943, making room for air raid shelters and using the gravestones for wall reinforcements. In 1945, almost 3000 Berlin war victims were buried here. 40 years later, sculptor Will Lammert created the Monument for the Jewish Victims of Fascism in front of the former cemetery.

Stolpersteine for a whole family

‘Peace Wall’ (2013) by the cemetery

Around the corner in Oranienburger Strasse is the Neue Synagoge (‘New Synagogue’), built in 1859–1866 as the main synagogue of the Berlin Jewish Community. Its stunning golden Moorish-style dome has been restored, but only part of the interior remains and it is now a museum. We strolled back to our hotel, passing street cafés facing the Monbijou park by the River Spree. These leisure gardens once formed part of the Rococco Monbijou Palace, destroyed by bombs and then razed in 1959 by the GDR authorities.

Neue Synagoge

Next on the programme was an early evening boat trip along the Spree – an ‘Historic City Tour’ cruising past the wonderful buildings on both sides of the riverbank. Many of have them risen from the ashes of war and others are new additions, especially the ensemble of modernist buildings in the new Government District by the Reichstag. We embarked at the Alte Börse (‘Old Stock Exchange’) only three minutes from our hotel and were lucky with the weather – a clear blue sky. With commentary in English, it was a perfect introduction to Berlin’s city centre.

Cruising through the Government District

Our first evening meal was at ‘Ganymed’, a restaurant on the lively Schiffbauerdamm and next to Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble theatre. Now a French-style brasserie, in GDR times it was one of only a handful of restaurants in East Berlin providing good food. We often ate there in the 1980s and imagined that the chandeliers were bugged and the waiters could be Stasi spies. This was not so far from truth; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it transpired that many of them were informing on their customers from West Berlin. If you walk to the restaurant from Friedrichstrasse Station, along the S-Bahn platform and through the iron-girder bridge across the Spree, you can still sense the Cold War atmosphere.

Inside the Ganymed Brasserie 

Saturday morning is always good for a Berlin market. For the Berlin Blast I chose the Kollwitzplatz market in Prenzlauer Berg, a pretty suburb of East Berlin constructed in the 1870s and only four tram stops from Alexanderplatz Station. Here you can linger by market stalls with irresistible hand-made goods, fabulous flowers and organic foods, alongside the ethno yummy mummies and media daddies who now populate this area. There was a swing band playing in the park in front of the bronze sculpture of the socialist artist Käthe Kollwitz. I wondered what she was thinking, surrounded by this bourgeois coterie.

Hand-made headgear 

S

 Swing music at the market

From Kollwitzplatz, we walked along Sredzkistrasse, past the ‘Kulterbrauerei’, a converted Schultheiss beer brewery and then over to Oderberger Strasse with its interesting façades and the Hotel Oderberger Berlin, a recent renovation featuring a fabulous historic indoor swimming pool and a well-reviewed restaurant.

 Historic public swimming pool in Hotel Oderberger

At the end of Oderberger Strasse we turned left into Bernauer Strasse where the Berlin Wall once ran down the length of the street and divided West from East. The whole area of the so-called ‘death zone’ now forms the Berlin Wall Memorial and is an absolute must for all visitors to the city. Each time I return, I discover new facts about life in divided Berlin. Don’t miss the Nordbahnhof station at the southern end of Bernauer Strasse. When Berlin was divided, this was one of the so-called Geisterbahnhöfe (‘Ghost Stations’) where trains linking boroughs of West Berlin ran under East Berlin through empty, darkened stations without stopping. The ‘ghosts’ were the shadowy figures of East German policeman patrolling the platforms.

Section of the Wall Memorial

Lunch on Saturday was at the iconic Clarchens Ballhaus on Auguststrasse. We took the S-Bahn from Nordbahnhof to Oranienburger Strasse, marvelled again at the golden dome of the Neue Synagoge and cut through yet more historic courtyards in the Heckmanhöfe, which link Oranienburger Strasse with Auguststrasse. This street is now famed for its contemporary art galleries. Of special interest is the five-storey red brick building at 11-13 Auguststrasse, the former Berlin Jewish Girls’ School which was eventually restored in 2012 and has become a modern art and gastronomy location.

Former Jewish Girls’ High School

The wonderful ‘Clärchens Ballhaus’ further along Auguststrasse is set back from the street behind its fairy-lit gardens and hasn’t changed much since the 1920s. My blog ‘Step back in time to the Music’ describes its nostalgic aura and the faded splendour of the Spiegelsaal (Mirrored Hall) on the first floor was chosen as the venue for a reception for Prince William and Kate when they visited Berlin in July 2017. On the Berlin Blast, we enjoyed a traditional Berlin lunch in the more prosaic surroundings of the dance hall on the ground floor.

 Berlin ‘Boulette’ (beef and pork burger)

Saturday night’s entertainment had been booked months ahead and we had debated between ‘Vivid’, the glitzy Las Vegas style show at the Friedrichstadtpalais or Rossini’s jolly ‘Il Barbieri di Siviglia’ at the Staatsoper (State Opera House). Opera won the day – mainly because none of us had been inside the Staatsoper since 2009 when it closed for seven years to be refurbished. And what a treat it was; apart from enjoying an excellent production, we had great seats at a reasonable price and the interior gleamed in white marble and red velvet. During the interval we stood outside on the terrace surveying the length of Unter den Linden. After the opera, it was just a five-minute walk across historic Bebelplatz to ‘Sagrantino’ a lively wine bar and restaurant in Behrensstrasse to complete our Italian evening.

Inside  Sagrantino

One of the high points of the Berlin Blast, quite literally, was Sunday breakfast in the Dachgarten restaurant on the roof terrace of the Reichstag. You have book well in advance, with passport details of all guests, but it is worth the trouble and paperwork. When we arrived through security, our gourmet morning feast had been laid out on a table with views across East Berlin. Afterwards we donned headphones and climbed Sir Norman Foster’s glass dome.

 Postcard souvenir of Dachgarten Reichstag

From outside the Reichstag we boarded a 100 bus to wend our way through the Berlin’s central park, the Tiergarten. This is a great way to cover some interesting sights en route to the West End of Berlin and recall how Berlin’s lovely central park, originally the hunting grounds of the Royal Palace, was devastated during the war and in the late 1940s was then used as a vast vegetable allotment to feed the starving Berliners. The 100 bus terminates at Zoologischer Garten station and across the street on Breitscheidplatz is a further stark reminder of the city’s destruction; the ruined tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which has been left as a war memorial. On the steps of the new church, with its hundreds of stunning dark blue stained-glass windows, is now another memorial – to the 12 victims of the terror attack at the Christmas Market on this square on 19th December 2016.

Memorial to the victims of terror attack

We visited the exhibition inside the ruined tower as well as looking round the modern church. Berliners love to give nicknames to their most iconic buildings; the old tower is known as ‘the hollow tooth’ and the new church and tower have been dubbed ‘the powder compact and the lipstick’. The Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial Church was originally built in the last decade of the 19th century by Kaiser Wilhelm II in memory of his grandfather the first German Emperor and is located at one end of the elegant Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s main shopping boulevard.

Inside the new church

Our next destination was Checkpoint Charlie and bus M29 from outside KaDeWe, Berlin’s iconic department store, took us there in about 10 minutes. The former border crossing point is always teeming with tourists and another Berlin ‘must see’. There are plenty of interesting information displays in the area and several good museums and exhibitions. After coffee at ‘Einstein’, we walked along Zimmerstrasse – which I still recall in the shadow of the Berlin Wall – to the ‘Topography of Terror’, on the grounds of the former Gestapo HQ. This exhibition can be a devastating experience, discovering how the Nazi terror machine operated all over Europe – and with the help of thousands of educated bureaucrats.

Poster for exhibition on the Reich Ministry of Labour

Still on foot, we made our way to the Brandenburg Gate, taking in so many sites of historic interest: beautiful old restored buildings such as the Martin Gropius Building and the Berlin House of Representatives, as well as the modern versions of Leipziger Platz and Potsdamer Platz risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and Cold War abandonment. We skirted the edge of the Tiergarten to look at the Memorial to Homosexuals murdered by the Nazis and then walked through the unsettling steles of the Holocaust Memorial. The Germans certainly want no one to forget the horrors of their past. Standing on Pariser Platz, on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate, we contemplated the Nazi parades marching with torchlights through its arches. The famous German impressionist artist, Max Liebermann, who watched from his window in January1933, recorded that, “it made him want to vomit more food that he could possibly eat”.

 Nazi Rally at the Brandenburg Gate, 1933

After the mandatory group photograph in the front of the Brandenburg Gate, we continued into central East Berlin along Unter den Linden. Once the works on the new underground line and the construction of the Humboldt Forum on the site of the former Stadtschloss (City Palace) are completed, this famous avenue will regain its form splendour. One thing that the GDR government successfully achieved after the desolation caused by World War II was to keep the symmetry of Unter den Linden intact, even if the quality of reconstruction left much to be desired.

The Humboldt Forum nearing completion

We took a detour down Friedrichtsrasse to enjoy Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin’s loveliest square, then stopped for a break at ‘Erdinger’, a new restaurant serving German food and beer. On the walk back to our hotel, we called into the ‘Neue Wache’, which since 1993 has been the ‘Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Victims of War and Dictatorship’. In the centre of the bare, simple, top-lit room is an enlarged replica of the statue Mother with her Dead Son by Käthe Kollwitz. From 1960, the GDR used the restored building as a ‘Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism’, with an eternal flame burning in the middle of the room. In 1969, the remains of an unknown soldier and a nameless concentration camp victim were interred, surrounded by soil from Second World War battlefields and concentration camps, and still remain under the new memorial plaque today. Until 1990, there was a changing of the guard ceremony at the memorial, with GDR soldiers marching in goose step.

The Neue Wache on Unter den Linden

Our evening venue took us into Kreuzberg, a borough of former West Berlin once famed for its May Day riots and its high percentage of immigrants and students. We arrived by U-Bahn at Moritzplatz and despite some gentrification, you can still sense Kreuzberg’s edginess. One of the windows of the Hotel Oranien restaurant, where we had booked dinner, had been smashed and the staff there later explained that the cracked glass hadn’t been repaired because “it fitted in with the local ambience”. Nonetheless, the Oranien is certainly a good recommendation for a gourmet meal in a shabby-chic neighbourhood. There was even a jazz duo to add to the experience.

The Oranien Restaurant – seen through its smashed window

 Monday dawned, our final day, and the weather forecast was good enough for us to venture out to Wannsee by S-Bahn. Two of the Blasters were flying out after lunch, so they spent the morning at the Berlinische Galerie, one of the few galleries and museums open on Mondays and have sent back a positive report of the current exhibitions, as well as the Otto Dix café there. They struck luck with the taxi driver as he misunderstood where they wanted to go and took them to the outdoor ‘Berlin Eastside Gallery’. As they drove past its series murals painted directly on a 1316 m long remnant of the Berlin Wall, my friends realised what had happened and managed to redirect the driver to the Berlinische Galerie on the other side of the Spree!

Inside the Berlinische Galerie

Another gallery open on Mondays is the Villa Liebermann on lake Wannsee, the summer mansion of artist Max Liebermann. It only took us about 45 minutes to get there – by S-Bahn, then bus 114 from outside Wannsee Station. The story of Max Liebermann and his family is one of the many important threads in the tapestry of Berlin’s past. After learning about the interesting history of this lakeside mansion and touring the permanent collection of paintings, we wandered around the beautiful gardens and had coffee on the terrace.

Inside Villa Liebermann, discovering its history

Even more significant is the mansion a little further along the lake, the ‘Villa am Wannsee’. It was in this building that a Nazi conference took place in January 1942 and decided on the ‘final solution to the Jewish Question’. The ‘Villa am Wannsee’ now contains a detailed exhibition about the Nazi plan for the genocide of Jews during World War II and its consequences.

The room where the Wannsee Conference was held

After four days of intensive Berlin experiences, it was important to end the Berlin Blast on a light-hearted note and catch the upbeat feel of today’s capital. Bootshaus Bolle, a friendly beach café only a short walk from the two grand villas we had just visited, fitted the bill. We had delved into the city’s tortured past and understood Berlin’s message: never forget the value of freedom and inclusiveness. This is what Kennedy meant when he famously announced to the world, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. As we sat round a wooden table looking out over the lake, enjoying a simple fish lunch washed down with the local beer, we had become Berliners too.

Saturday NoonSong

Saturday NoonSong

Berlin loves Saturday lunchtime – there’s a sense that the weekend starts here. It wasn’t so long ago that the German school week didn’t finish until Saturday lunchtime and the shops closed for the weekend soon after midday. Some traditions haven’t changed though, and many Berliners still head for their local market to do the weekend shopping, then find a good café for lunch. They might even call into the church on the market square for musical and spiritual refreshment.

Karl-August-Platz Market in Charlottenburg with Trinitatis Church

A notable example is the Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz (Church on Hohenzollern Square) where a choral concert and church service called ‘NoonSong’ takes place every Saturday at noon. ‘NoonSong’ is a play on the name of the Anglican service of Evensong, and its aim is to offer peaceful respite from busy city life.

NoonSong Brochure

Outside the church is a hive of activity around the stalls of the local street market but inside you can escape into ‘thirty minutes of heaven’ provided by the beautiful a cappella singing from centuries of sacred music by the professional vocal ensemble ‘sirventes berlin’. There are organ voluntaries as well and the congregation joins in with the two hymns. Every seat was taken when I went there recently, so it’s worth arriving early.

Kirche am Hohenzollernplatz

The stark 1930s Brick Expressionist church building contributes to the rarefied atmosphere and on a sunny day, the light streams in through the high, stained glass windows turning the whole experience into something quite ethereal.

After feeding the soul at NoonSong, it was time for Saturday lunch and there is no shortage of restaurants and cafés near Hohenzollernplatz. I can highly recommend Tian Fu on Uhlandstrasse, only a two-minute walk from the church and Hohenzollernplatz Underground Station. This very well-reviewed restaurant serves spicy Sichuan-style food and is a favourite with the Berlin Chinese community.

On my last visit, we started with Tian Fu’s excellent Dim Sum, then chose various dishes of lamb, duck and calamari which were all delicious. Despite being very busy, the service was efficient and friendly. I loved the décor too – a Chinese twist to Berlin urban retro charm. A great place to start our multi-cultural Berlin weekend. 

Bauhaus 100

Bauhaus 100

The famous Bauhaus art school opened in Weimar in 1919 and during its short lifespan it moved to Dessau and then to Berlin. The demands of the Bauhaus founders to reform art as well as the living environment and their concept of a collaboration between all fields of art and crafts has extended far beyond the historical existence of the Bauhaus from 1919 until 1933.

Bauhaus founders

The architecture, art and design created by the Bauhaus movement has had a lasting effect on architecture and living space around the world and to mark its centenary in 2019 there are events and exhibitions taking place all over Germany. Last weekend I took in three very different Bauhaus experiences in Berlin and revisited the pressing questions posed one hundred years ago by members of the Bauhaus School which remain so relevant today: How do we want to live? What do we want our homes to look like? White flat-roofed buildings and steel furniture still represent the epitome of everything we associate with the term ‘Bauhaus’, but it was so much more than modernist architecture and minimal design, it was also a school for ideas and a field for experiments. A few months ago, I was given the commission of translating the text of a stunning coffee-table book entitled “Bauhaus – Eine fotografische Weltreise” by Jean Molitor and Kaija Voss (Bauhaus – A photographic journey around the world) into English.

It was fascinating work; not only did I learn a great deal about the history of the Bauhaus, but I also enjoyed studying the wealth of remarkable photographs of Bauhaus buildings all over the world, in places as far-flung as Afghanistan, India, Africa and Cuba as well as in Europe and America. Berlin photographer Jean Molitor’s photographic journey is currently the subject of a temporary exhibition at the Willy Brandy Haus in Stresemannstrasse – an especially suitable building because of its Bauhaus-style design.

Willy-Brandt-Haus
“Europe is the answer”

There are over one hundred large-format photographs on display arranged in themes including housing, municipal buildings, industrial architecture, cinemas, church buildings, educational establishments and luxury villas. You can also read essential information about Bauhaus history and design and watch video material of Jean Molitor’s travels. Some of his adventures proved to be quite dangerous; he even was arrested in Morocco and had his camera confiscated in Russia. There are so many fascinating and unique examples of Bauhaus architecture and it was difficult to decide on which ones to include in this blog. If you want to see more and can’t get to the exhibition (it only runs until 14th March) there are images online or you could buy the book mentioned above.

Housing in Vienna
Notre Dame Cathedral
Bukavu, Congo

My next Bauhaus destination was the Bröhan Museum in Charlottenburg where I joined a guided tour through their current exhibition entitled “From Arts and Crafts to the Bauhaus”. The Bröhan has assembled a wonderful collection of 300 items of furniture, graphic design, metal art and ceramics from over 50 years of design history.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the pre-history of the Bauhaus and contextualises it within the Europe-wide emergence of Modernism. It shows how the English Arts and Crafts movement, the Glasgow School, Vienna Jugendstil, the Deutscher Werkbund and the Dutch group De Stijl led to the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau. These photographs give a taste of the interesting exhibits, on display until 5th May. Entry to the Bröhan is 8 euros, but free on every first Wednesday of the month.

Inlaid Jugendstil cabinet
Living with Bauhaus design

Of course, the home of the Bauhaus in Berlin is the Bauhaus Archiv by the Landwehr Canal near the Tiergarten. This iconic building, originally designed by Walter Gropius in 1964, is currently closed for renovation and extension. However, in the meantime you can visit the temporary Bauhaus Archiv on Knesebeckstrasse which features a model of the new building.

Plans for the new Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin

The temporary exhibition also includes an interesting tour through the history of the Bauhaus with photographs of its main players and the roles they played during its existence.

Student leaving the Berlin Bauhaus building in 1933, when it was closed by the Nazis

There is a shop selling a variety of Bauhaus design objects and I can recommend the Manufactum store next door, with its excellent bistro-style café for breakfast or lunch. For further information on Bauhaus centenary, just visit www.bauhaus100.com

Bauhaus souvenirs on sale

Variety Show Time

Variety Show Time

Everyone wants to capture the spirit of ‘Cabaret’ in Berlin. The so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’ only lasted for a few short years in the German capital, but their legacy lives on almost a century later. Clubbers flock to Berlin to seek out exhilaration and frenzy at some of the most edgy venues in Europe and there are plenty of lively late-night bars dotted around the city centre, although not as louche and raw as in the aftermath of the First World War.

Since reunification in 1990, there has been an upsurge in the number of revue and variety shows in Berlin, a form of entertainment that first blossomed towards the end of the 19th Century and which reached heady heights in the 1920s and early 1930s. Many of these shows have broad international appeal and don’t require any knowledge of German. The Wintergarten Varieté Theater on Potsdamer Strasse mixes acrobats, magicians, comedy, live music and dance and the result is a high-energy cocktail of top variety entertainment. There is also definitely more than a whiff of the glitz and glamour of the past.

The current Wintergarten extravaganza is called “Staunen” (“Amazement”) and it is a truly awesome show. We went along last Saturday night and loved it. From the moment we entered the theatre, we let the vaudeville atmosphere take over and suspended disbelief. Greeted in the foyer by a colourful drag artist, we were invited to have our photograph taken, then shown to our seat at one of the scores of tables that fill the plush red velvet and dark wood auditorium.

In the tradition of variety theatre, you can eat and drink while you watch the show and there was a bell on the table to summon waiting staff before and during the performance. Some people had ordered a package which included dinner before the show and were already in party mood. When the house lights faded, a glittering canopy of stars appeared above us and a live band struck up. The compère appeared from the side of the stage wearing top hat and tails, recalling Joel Gray’s iconic role in ‘Cabaret’. He was accompanied by a modern-day Marlene Dietrich and together they guided us through proceedings with consummate ease and great songs which slid seamlessly from German, to French and to English.

The individual variety acts included superlative acrobats, equilibrists, a strong man, a tightrope cyclist, an incredible duo of magicians and the usual clowns. There were literally breath-taking moments and the intimate nature of the theatre had everyone sitting on the edge their seats, enthralled. The glamour of the show was even echoed in the cloakroom facilities which were as incredible as the stage-sets.

The Wintergarten is a theatre with long tradition. Framed photographs of artists who have appeared there over the years are on every wall and down the sides of aisles are display cases with costumes and props.

Its history goes back to 1887, when a variety theatre was opened in a conservatory (in German: Wintergarten) at the Hotel Central in Friedrichstraße. On one evening in 1895, rather than acrobats and exotic dancers on stage, the theatre hosted a world première: the Skladanowsky brothers presented the sensational new art of cinematography and showed the first-ever commercial screening of a film. In the 1920s the Wintergarten was synonymous with the Roaring Twenties, presenting a series of stunning revue and variety shows.

During the Second World War, it was severely damaged and in 1944 the theatre had to close. But the name and spirit of the Wintergarten lived on, and in 1992 a new Wintergarten theatre opened in Potsdamer Straße on a site that had previously been home to the ‘Club Quartier Latin’, a venue associated with Berlin punk band concerts in the 1970s and 80s. The Wintergarten website has all the details of its forthcoming programme, which include vaudeville dinners and burlesque shows. ‘Staunen’ runs until 24th February.