The words ‘Berlin’ and ‘cabaret’ are synonymous. The songs from the 1920s and 1930s echo down the years, and capture the essential Berlin feeling. Like a magic carpet of sound they transport you effortlessly back to a time when the German capital was renowned for its creativity and risqué edginess. Packed with catchy melodies and witty lyrics, the popular hits from the Weimar era paint a musical picture of the Zeitgeist. Nobody plays them better than the iconic Berlin-based band, Max Raabe & Palast Orchester, and the historic Admiralspalast next to Friedrichstraße Station provides the perfect setting. Last month, the band was back there, with their sell-our show, ‘Eine Nacht in Berlin’ (A Night in Berlin) and I had made sure of tickets by booking six months ahead.
The hot ticket
The German word ‘Palast’ (palace) says it all; both the band and the building have style and glamour. It is sheer professionalism and a unique sound that makes Max Raabe & Palast Orchester so special. Their shows are slick and seamless and capture the sound of those pre-war years that the Americans call‘Roaring’ and the Germans call ‘Golden’ – and the heyday of the Admiralspalast. Max Raabe founded the Palast Orchester in 1986, with 11 fellow students at the Berlin Academy of Arts, where he graduated as a baritone singer. The band initially used original musical arrangements from the 1920s and 1930s that Raabe picked up at various Berlin flea markets. Then they worked on learning them before giving their first public performance in 1987. They had their first hit 5 years later, with an original song, ‘Kein Schwein ruft mich an’ (Nobody calls me up). You can follow this link to listen and read more about Max Raabe on the Goethe Institute website.
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester
The band’s repertoire is mainly a homage to composers from the pre-war era of German and American popular songs, but they also perform contemporary music in the same vintage musical style. Non-German speakers might miss the humour in some of the lyrics, but Max Raabe’s singing is so accomplished and expressive that it hardly matters. There are instrumental numbers too, and in true jazz style the band members – who are traditionally all male, with the exception of the violinist – have a chance to show off their individual talent.
Queuing to get into the show
On the evening I heard them at the Admiralspalast we were treated to six extra numbers in English at the end of the show, as it was being recorded for an American TV channel. They included perfect renderings of ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘Mack the Knife’. Next season the band is appearing in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In the past they have performed in the Cadogan Hall in London, the Carnegie Hall in New York and in Israel. But to really tune into the band’s Berlin connection, it has to be the Admiralspalast. Tickets are already on sale for March 2017 on the band’s website.
Street view of the Admiralspalast
The Admiralspalast is one of the few Weimar theatres left in Berlin and like many survivors, it has had to re-invent itself to adapt to changing times. Its history dates back to 1867 when a saltwater spring was discovered on this site. The ‘Admiralsgartenbad’ opened in 1873 and soon became one of the leading public baths in Imperial Berlin. This building was demolished in 1910 and replaced a year later with the luxurious four-storey Admiralspalast, containing a skating rink, bowling alleys, restaurants, a cinema – and, allegedly, a bordello. The whole complex had over 900 rooms.
The ladies’ baths in the Admiralsgartenbad
The ice-skating rink at the Admiralspalast
An English cartoon from the 1920s
In 1920, the concept of the Admiralspalast was changed and the central skating rink was turned into a variety theatre in art déco style, with two dress circles and 1,065 seats. Ten years later the auditorium was enlarged to seat 2,200 and given a new, expressionist design. After the National Socialists came to power in 1933, the Admiralspalast was used mainly for the performance of operettas. In 1939, on the orders of Goebbels, it was given the plain, classical interior that it has retained to this day. A ‘Führerloge’(Führer’s box) was added in 1940; Hitler often slipped into the theatre to watch his favourite operetta, ‘Die lustige Witwe’ (The Merry Widow).
The Admiralspalast auditorium
The Admiralspalast escaped the World War II bombing relatively unscathed. After the war, the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Communist Party of Germany in the Soviet Occupation Zone held a historic convention at the Admiralspalast where they merged to become the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, which was to rule the GDR for 40 years. The building then became home to the Berlin State Opera until 1955, when restoration of the opera house on Unter den Linden was completed. During the GDR years, revues and operettas continued to be performed at the Admiralspalast, but under the name of the Metropol-Theater. The GDR Union of Journalists also had its offices inside the Admiralspalast.
The Admiralspalast as home to the Berlin State Opera
After reunification, the Admiralspalast put on shows until 1997, when it was closed and threatened with demolition. The site stood empty for several years, but was finally rescued and renovated. On August 11th, 2006, when the restoration work was still incomplete, it officially reopened with Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, directed by Klaus Maria Brandauer. This was followed by ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ and, in the summer of 2009, it became the first venue in Germany to stage Mel Brook’s cult comedy ‘The Producers’. Follow this link for an interesting review of this Nazi-lampooning show. These days, it’s mainly concerts and comedy shows that are held in the main auditorium of the Admiralspalast. Sometimes the seats are folded away – then everyone parties and dances the night away. The Admiralspalast’s website gives all the details of their entertainment programme in English.
The Gendarmenmarkt is the most beautiful square in Berlin and its glorious central building, the Konzerthaus, is an architectural gem and the musical soul of East Berlin. It finally rose again from the ashes of wartime destruction in 1984 and has come to embody the courage of the human spirit as well as artistic inspiration. During the ‘Cinema for Peace’ awards at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei wrapped 14,000 bright orange life jackets around the columns of the city’s Konzerthaus to highlight the risks refugees are taking every day to reach Europe by sea.
The Konzerthaus columns wrapped in life-jackets
The Konzerthaus has a fascinating history. Its origins lie in the theatre and in opera and go back to 1776 when Frederick the Great had the ‘Französisches Komödientheater’ built on this site, which had strong associations with the French Huguenot community. Ten years later it was renamed the Royal National Theatre and in 1789 Mozart came to Berlin to hear a performance of his opera, ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’. In 1802 a new ‘Nationaltheater’ was opened, designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, whose best known work is the Brandenburg Gate. The great German playwright, Friedrich Schiller, attended many performances of his plays at the Nationaltheater and his monument stands in front of the flight of steps leading up to the Konzerthaus. Schiller is surrounded by four allegorical figures; Lyric Poetry, Tragedy, History and Philosophy.
The Schiller monument
In 1817 the Nationaltheater was destroyed in a fire and King Friedrich Wilhelm III commissioned the famous Prussian architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, to create a new theatre in the Greek classical style. The ‘Schauspielhaus’ (‘Playhouse’) opened in 1821 with the acclaimed premiere of Karl von Weber’s ‘Der Freischütz’, full of emotional overtones of national identity. 1826 saw the Berlin premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, 1838 the Berlin premiere of Goethe’s ‘Faust I’ and in 1844 Wagner conducted the Berlin premiere of his opera, ‘The Flying Dutchman’ there. During the 1848 Revolution the main auditorium of the Schauspielhaus housed the Prussian National Assembly for several weeks in September, with the Gendarmenmarkt a major arena of political events.
For almost another 100 years the Schauspielhaus continued to enjoy performances of all that was best in German theatre, opera and music. The actor Gustaf Gründgens, considered by many to have sold his soul to the Nazis, was Artistic Director of the Schauspielhaus from 1934 until 1945; the 1981 oscar-winning film, ‘Mephisto’, tells the story of Gründgen’s career. The Schauspielhaus was destroyed in a bombing raid in April 1945. Reconstruction finally started in 1979 and Schinkel’s original exterior design was recreated in careful detail. The main entrance used for most concerts is on the ground floor under the large staircase, just as in Schinkel’s time, where the horse-drawn carriages used to arrive. The interior, on the other hand, is a completely new construction – although its design cleverly gives the impression of the original. The former Schauspielhaus reopened on 1st October 1984 with a gala concert performed by the GDR Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester.
The Schauspielhaus on Gendarmenmarkt in 1910
The ruins of the Schauspielhaus in 1970s East Berlin
East Berlin opened its celebrations of Berlin’s 750th anniversary on 1st January 1987 in the Schauspielhaus and just two years later, Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony there on Christmas Day 1989. Inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall, he changed the text of the final chorus into ‘Ode to Freedom’. On 2nd October 1990, the GDR government chose the Schauspielhaus for their celebration of German reunification, with Kurt Masur conducting the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. To reflect its new purpose as a concert hall, the Schauspielhaus was officially renamed the Konzerthaus in 1992 and in 2006 the resident Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester became the ‘Konzerthausorchester Berlin’.
The GDR reunification ceremony, October 1990
The Konzerthaus has hosted most of the world’s most famous orchestras and every summer the Classic Open Air Festival is held on the Gendarmenmarkt, with the Konzerthaus as its stunning back-drop. I have been to many excellent concerts in this building since 1984, but none more moving than the annual New Year’s performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which seems to have its spiritual home in this concert hall. It has also been interesting to see the changing profile of the audiences at the Konzerthaus over the years. In the late 1980s the concerts were mainly attended by a politically-correct and somewhat reserved section of GDR society. But things are much livelier these days. Gala concerts are packed with vocal fans and a recent piano recital was full of young people whose enthusiasm was rewarded with three encores.
A performance in the grand ‘Großer Saal’
Both the ‘Großer Saal’ (main auditorium) and the ‘Kleiner Saal’ (chamber music hall) of the Konzerthaus are visual feasts, as are the two elegant foyers, the ‘Carl Maria von Weber Saal’ and the ‘Beethoven Saal’, where you can enjoy a drink in the concert interval. In 2003 the modern ‘Werner-Otto-Saal’ was added to the facilities and also the ‘Black Box’ which lends itself to performances of more avant-garde music. To find out more about the Konzerthaus, its programme of concerts and their guided tours, go to their excellent English website. You can also treat yourself to a recent performance by the Konzerthausorchester. Just follow this link to a Guardian article about the concert given on 1st March by top Berlin orchestras to welcome refugees to their city. Or go to the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall where you can also watch the concert.
Ivan Fischer conducting the Konzerthausorchester Berlin at the ‘Welcome to Refugees’ concert
This is the first post of 2016 so I wish all readers, ‘einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr’. In English this translates as, ‘Slide well into the New Year’. In icy weather, this could be taken quite literally and this week temperatures in Berlin are due to fall even further.
The Tiergarten on Sunday 17th January 2016
For Germans, the shocking assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and the ensuing demonstrations have meant that 2016 hasn’t started smoothly at all, but with a terrible jolt. A serious social and political crisis looms over them and with an estimated 80,000 refugees arriving in Berlin in 2015 the German capital has its work cut out. If you follow this link, the Deutsche Welle website has excellent coverage of how Berlin is coping with the situation.
Refugee accommodation in the Olympiapark sports hall
The map below can be accessed at the Arriving in Berlinwebsite in English, Arabic and Farsi and shows the most important locations for refugees in Berlin.
Berliners are also deeply affected by the death of David Bowie whom they count as one of their own. Bowie lived in Berlin for just over two years (1976-79). It changed the direction of his life, had a huge influence on his music and became part of his soul forever. On Twitter this week the German Foreign Office thanked him for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall and the German Ambassador in London tweeted back that Bowie would always be part of his life and that he was ‘a great friend of Berlin’. There is a petition on change.org demanding that Hauptstraße in Schöneberg, the street where Bowie lived, is renamed David-Bowie-Straße. Berlin politicians seem open to the idea, although apparently this can’t officially happen until five years after someone’s death. In the meantime one Berliner has taken matters into his own hands and stuck Bowie’s name across the streets signs.
David Bowie’s front door has become a shrine with flowers and candles and constant flow of people coming to pay their respects. Only a couple of days earlier, on Friday 8th January many of them had attended a party to mark Bowie’s 69th birthday and the release of his new album. It was held in the Meistersaal (concert hall) of the Hansa recording studios where he worked.
David Bowie with sound engineer Eduard Mayer in the Meistersaal in 1987
Just a week later, on Friday 15th January, there was a ‘Trauerfeier’ (a memorial ceremony) in the same venue. These events were organised by Berlin Musictours who also run walking tours that trace Bowie’s life in Berlin. You can do your own quick online tour by following thislink to the Berliner Zeitung and watching their video. It’s in German but pretty easy to follow.
Photo taken from the Berliner Zeitung article
I will be in Berlin later this week to see how things are ‘sliding’ into the New Year. In the meantime, if you are planning a trip in 2016, don’t forget to check out the events listing on the Berlin tourist website. They also have some good deals which combine accommodation with Berlin travel tickets. And their blog is full of insider tips, with plenty of information on winter sports in Berlin.
For Christmas markets with authentic atmosphere and fewer tourists, it’s best to escape the city centre and head for the Berlin ‘countryside’. Public transport links are so good that most are easily accessible by train or bus. Last weekend I visited two of my favourites which have a more traditional feel.
Stalls at the Grunewald and the Dahlem markets
There are still two more weekends of Advent to catch the market at Domäne Dahlem, an open-air agricultural and food museum with a focus on ecology. The former manor house there dates back over 800 years and the estate provides the perfect backdrop for a traditional Christmas market. Take the U-Bahn (U3) Dahlem Dorf and the Domäne is practically opposite the station.
Pretty Dahlem Dorf station in the snow
The market stalls offer all manner of handmade products from wooden and straw Christmas decorations to beeswax candles, stationery, clothing and food. Permanent arts and craft workshops specialise in gilding, weaving, pottery and furniture restoration and some have their wares on sale. You can dine on goose or waffles under cover of the large shed and warm up with Glühwein or mead as you stroll around the market to the accompaniment of the brass band quartet playing seasonal music. The entrance fee of €3 also includes the Manor House and the Culinarium exhibition in the newly renovated stables.
A stall selling handmade Berlin souvenirs
An even more fairy-tale destination is the annual Adventmarkt in the courtyard of the Jagdschloss Grunewald – the fabulous 16th Century Royal ‘Hunting Palace’ in the Grunewald forest, Berlin’s oldest surviving palace. This market only takes place over the second weekend of Advent and it’s worth planning a trip to Berlin to visit it; the lake-side forest setting is magical – better than any film set could dream up. The 115 or X10 bus routes take you within a 15 minute walk of the Jagdschloss, on forest paths. Alight at Pückler Straße (115) or Königin-Luise-Straße (X10) and take a torch if you are walking back after dark.
The Jagdschloss courtyard after dark
Apart from dozens of market stalls selling hand-made gifts and toys and a variety of tempting food and drink, the Grunewald market is full of music and drama. A small brass band plays by the courtyard entrance and characters from fairy-tales mingle with the crowd. There’s also a central stage set up in front of the Renaissance Jagdschloss and families gather round to listen to carol-singing or a performance of Hansel and Gretel.
Wicked Frau Holle introducing the play
If the market gets crowded, there’s plenty of room down by the Grunewaldsee behind the palace. With a glass of ‘Feuerzangenbowle’ (German Fire Punch) in one hand and a Bratwurst in the other, you won’t feel the cold and the views are stunning, especially with sunset over the lake.
A lakeside stall selling traditionally-dyed ‘Blaudruck’ (‘blueprint’) cloth products
As an extra treat, the Berlin ‘Weihnachstmarkt für Hunde’ (Christmas Market for dogs!) is only a five minute walk from the Jagdschloss at the Forsthaus Paulsborn. The Grunewald is a popular destination for dog owners as there are not only miles of walks but in summer dogs are allowed to swim in the Grunewaldsee (see post ‘If you go down in the woods today…’ from 16 August 2014). The annual Christmas Market for dogs started in 2012 and has proved a great success. It’s worth the entrance fee of €1.80 just to catch the canine festive spirit.
Choosing a doggy Christmas gift
Then finish Grunewald Advent experience at the stately Forsthaus Paulsborn before walking back through the forest to the bright city lights. For full details of all Berlin Christmas markets, the Visit Berlinwebsite has a comprehensive list.
The scene outside and inside Forsthaus Paulsborn after dusk
The Advent atmosphere is in full swing in Berlin. Bright white lights sparkle in the trees and shop windows glitter with gold and silver. Over 60 Christmas markets are on offer. From the grand and gaudy, to the fairy-tale or funky, the urban or eco, there is something for everyone. The scent of roasted nuts and Glühwein fills the air and all that remains to complete the scene is a light dusting of snow. But it’s not cold enough yet…
Christmas lights on the Ku’damm
This is where the Deutsche Oper comes to the rescue with their lavish and beautiful production of La Bohème, originally created by Götz Friedrich in 1988. This romantic opera is a Christmas treat to rival The Nutcracker. Snow falls on the rooftops of Paris and the young Bohemians are freezing and starving in their garret, drinking wine and warming their hands to a fire stoked with burning poetry.
Rodolpho falls in love with Mimi,as snow lightly falls in the background
The Christmas Eve café scene is a riot of people, children with toys, a marching band of soldiers, flame-throwers and fireworks. The entire opera seems to come straight from a Lautrec painting brought to life. The audience only need to focus on the era and the music without any directorial distractions, just as Puccini intended.
The entire cast take a bow at the end of Scene Two
It goes without saying that the soloists, the chorus and the orchestra are all sublime. The Deutsche Oper never falls short of the mark and last night in a full house the applause was thunderous. There are seven more performances of La Bohème this December, so catch it if you can – or next time it comes round. The Deutsche Oper is such a fabulous, welcoming place to be. Wonderful, easy to read surtitles are provided in both English and German for every production and the technical effects are always superb. For tickets and further information in English follow this link.
October half-term is fast approaching, a time when many school trips and families head for Berlin. The weather is usually perfect for sightseeing – still warm enough for boat trips, and the parks and woodland are ablaze with autumn colour. In ‘Berlin Unwrapped’ and on previous blogs I give plenty of suggestions for outdoor spaces where the young (and young at heart) can roam and run wild, providing it’s still warm enough.
Take a trip to Peacock Island (See ‘Outer Edges’ in Berlin Unwrapped)
But if you are in the city centre and have young teenagers or children in tow, it’s not enough just to admire buildings and scenery and feast on history and culture, there needs to be an injection of fun too. Hanging out in cool cafes, nightclubs and bars is not an option either, so here are a few ideas for family daytime and evening entertainment, aimed at the younger generation. Please double-check opening times and prices online.
Family fun on the Tempelhofer Feld (see Blog)
The Berlin zoos have always been a big hit. The main one, the ‘Zoologischer Garten Berlin’ is centrally located next to the Tiergarten and served by the main station of the same name. It was opened in 1844 and is the most-visited zoo in Europe. During the war the zoo was destroyed and only 91 animals survived – some fairly dangerous ones were wandering around the city and others were killed for food.
The stunning Elephant Gate entrance to the Berlin zoo
There is a second Berlin zoo, the ‘Tierpark’ in Friedrichsfelde, East Berlin. This was originally founded in 1955 as a counterpart to the main zoo which became inaccessible to residents of East Berlin after the Wall was built. At 400 acres it is the largest zoo in Europe and has a safari-type environment. Both the main zoos are open daily.
Pelicans at the Tierpark
At the other end of the scale, closer to the city centre, is the children’s ‘hands-on’ farm zoo ‘Jugendfarm Moritzhof’ in the northern part of the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. It’s open from 12.00 until 1800 Mondays to Saturdays.
A farm zoo – where the Berlin Wall once divided the city
If the weather isn’t zoo friendly, there are plenty of museums to occupy the younger generation. Several Berlin museums are specifically for children. ‘’MACHmit Museum’, in Prenzlauer Berg, comes highly recommended for younger children. The name means ‘join in’ so lots of hands-on activities here and a journey through the Grimm fairy tales. The ‘Labyrinth Museum’ in Wedding is another inter-active favourite for 3-11 year olds.
The MACHmit and Labyrinth Museums
Some Berlin museums have appeal to both children and adults. The recently-revamped Science Center Spectrum at the ‘Deutsches Technikmuseum’ in Kreuzberg (Museum of Technology) features a whole host of hands-on experiments for all ages that shed light on physics, technology and perception. This museum offers great discounts for families and groups.
Experimental fun at the Science Center
The ‘Story of Berlin’ on Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin, is also an interactive museum with a multi-media show about Berlin’s history. It is open every day of the week and includes a unique guided tour of a nuclear bunker which starts on the hour, every hour. All the texts in the exhibition are in English as well as German and there is a good quiz to keep competitive young minds busy.
Inside the ‘Atombunker’
Young art fans should visit the Children’s Gallery at the Bode Museum on Museum Island. A 6th century ‘building site’ invites children to explore the work processes, materials and historic tools involved in mosaic production. On Sunday afternoons at 3pm there are educational sessions supervised by museum staff and a family programme. The Bode Museum has an excellent cafeteria too.
Making mosaics at the Bode Museum
On the subject of food, the Currywurst Museum near Checkpoint Charlie is a celebration of the legendary Berlin snack. Almost everything in the museum is interactive. You can touch, taste and make a virtual Currywurst. There is a spice chamber with sniffing stations, a sausage sofa to relax on and audio stations in ketchup-bottle shapes with iconic songs about the Currywurst. This museum offers a 20% discount on Mondays when many other museums are closed.
Lots to do at the Currywurst Museum
If you are prepared to venture just outside Berlin and the sun is shining, the Filmpark Babelsberg on the site of the Babelsberg film studios is a must, with plenty of movie-themed rides and attractions. The stunt shows are especially popular. It is open from April until November and to get there on public transport take the S-Bahn line 7 to Babelsberg and then bus 601 or 690 to ‘Filmpark’, or it’s a 15 minute walk from S-Bahn Griebnitzsee, also on line 7. Both these stations are outside Berlin so you need to have an ABC ticket.
A packed audience for the thrills of the stunt show
Finally, there is an evening show in Berlin which is an international and perennial hit – the Blue Man Group at the Bluemax Theatre, Potsdamer Platz. Its mixture of rock concert atmosphere, comedy and technical effects defies description and never fails to enthral the younger generation. Book ahead to avoid disappointment…