The centre of Berlin was packed with football fans last weekend. They had flown in from all over Europe for the Championship League Final in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night. Temperatures were expected to rise to 30° during the day and spirits were high. The main squares and streets were packed with hot bodies in brightly-striped nylon t-shirts and definitely best avoided. So on Saturday morning I found the perfect antidote to football fever; a fascinating journey into Berlin’s past – with revelations about hot bodies of a different kind…..
Cabaret – 2015
It was after my evening at the Sally Bowles café that I discovered a link to the berlin-cabaret website. It features ‘Isherwood’s Neighbourhood’, a ‘circular walk through the Schöneberg of the late 1920s as seen by Christopher Isherwood’. These walks take place every Saturday morning at 11am and cost €12. We met up with Brendan Nash, our tour guide, outside Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station. I knew immediately that this was going to be a great tour. There was a hot breeze blowing the leaves on the pavement around our feet as Brendan launched into his powerful description of Berlin in the chaotic years after the First World War. With a change of government every few months and violence on the streets and behind the scenes, this was a dangerous city to live in – and a hot-bed of creativity and licentiousness.
Brendan introducing his Isherwood Tour
Christopher Isherwood was drawn to Berlin because of its reputation for sexual freedom. He was studying medicine in London when he decided to join his friend W H Auden in Berlin for six weeks – and stayed for almost four years, ‘fully indulging his taste for pretty youths’. If you have seen the 2011 BBC television film ‘Christopher and His Kind’, starring Matt Smith, you will have a fairly graphic picture of Isherwood’s life in Berlin from 1929-1933. But it is Isherwood’s books and diaries from this period that give a truly authentic picture of the Berlin of this period. Our guide Brendan had selected quotes from Isherwood’s works to illustrate his tour and he rendered them perfectly and, more impressively, by heart.
Outside the house where Isherwood lived
We only needed to stroll through a few streets to discover so much. One of the first stops was in front of the house where Isherwood lived, at Nollendorfstraße 17. I have often been there and having seen the film ‘Cabaret’ so many times, I thought I had a clear image life on the second floor. But Brendan used extracts from Isherwood’s diaries to paint the real picture and produced a plan of the interior to show exactly who lived in which rooms. The facts were even more gripping than the Hollywood fantasy.
Outside the former ‘El Dorado Club’
We heard all the lurid details about the clubs and bars that Isherwood used to frequent. Some of the buildings are still there. The El Dorado club, where Isherwood spent much of his time, is now an Organic supermarket, with photos just inside the entrance to show what it looked in the ‘Golden Twenties’. Ironically, when the Nazis closed it, they immediately took the building over for their own use. The club was originally owned by a Jewish couple who ran several clubs in Berlin and who lost everything and fled to Australia.
The El Dorado – before and after the Nazis took over
Next door to the El Dorado was a lesbian club where the legendary dancer and actress, Anita Berber, hung out. Berber’s performances broke boundaries with their androgyny and total nudity and she was notorious for her drug addiction and bisexuality. As Brendan commented, ‘She was taking up no room. She was living right on the edge”.
Anita Berber – as immortalised by Otto Dix
As the tour continued we gathered more and more vivid impressions of life in Weimar Berlin. There was abject poverty, overcrowding and bitterly cold winters. Brendan pointed out the architectural highlights and showed us old photographs of people and places which helped us to recreate the past in our minds. I had never even heard of the Scala – a Music Hall which seated 3,000 on the corner of Fuggerstrasse and Martin-Luther Strasse – where Hitler enjoyed watching the ‘Hiller-Girls’. This building took a direct hit in the 1943 Allied bombings and today there is no trace of it left. Then we learnt that the huge ‘Goya’ building opposite Nollendorf Station used to be the Metropole cinema, where the teenage Marlene Dietrich came to worship her idol in the 1920s and later became such a huge box office attraction herself.
Outside the ‘Gala’ – formerly the ‘Metropole’
When the Nazis took over in 1933 they started to making plans to turn the German capital into a huge new city of ‘Germania’. They got rid of anything or anyone ‘decadent’ or ‘non-Aryan’ and closed down most of the nightclubs. When he left in 1933, Isherwood burnt his Berlin diaries for fear of them falling into Nazi hands and later recreated them from memory. His last visit to Berlin was in 1952 when he found a city that still lay in ruins. Isherwood eventually settled in California and died there in 1986 at the age of 82. Today, Schöneberg remains Berlin’s most vibrant ‘Rainbow’ neighbourhood. The spirit of Isherwood lives on.