Fontane’s Berlin

Fontane’s Berlin

The emergence of Prussia as the dominant power in the new nation of Germany had a profound effect on 20th Century Europe. This first blog of 2018 is dedicated to Theodor Fontane (1819-1898), one of my all-time favourite authors and widely recognised as Germany’s most important 19th Century realist novelist. It was in his writing that the golden age of Prussian civilisation found its greatest chronicler – and formidable critic. Fontane also loved Berlin and Berliners – with all their faults. The title image for this blog, a well-known Fontane quote, translates as: ‘Before God, all people are actually Berliners’. .

Fontane’s parents were both from French Huguenot immigrant families and he was born in the small Prussian town of Neuruppin, about 30 miles north of Berlin where his father ran a pharmacy. In 1834, Fontane moved to the capital and, having trained as a pharmacist himself, he then spent most of his working life in Berlin as a journalist, travel writer, poet and novelist. He also worked in London for three years and was a notable Anglophile. Theodor Fontane pioneered the German social novel and wrote 17 novels after the age of 60, all set in Berlin and Brandenburg. The most well-known is ‘Effi Briest’ (1894), which was translated into English in 1964 and made into a film in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and in 2009 by Hermine Huntgeburth.

Fontane’s work depicts the lives of people across all classes in a society increasingly dominated by the militarism and materialism of Bismarck’s Second Reich. His novels are often compared to those of Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens or Jane Austen for their poetic realism, social criticism and subtle irony. His characters are closely-observed and often revealed through their conversations, drawing the reader into a world where individuals – often women – struggle against social codes. Fontane’s travel writing is equally skilful and well ahead of its time for combining narrative adventure with literary style and historical insight. His five-volume ‘Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg’ (‘Travels in the Province of Brandenburg’), describe the landscape and the people in the countryside around Berlin. Their rich, human detail prove that it isn’t only exotic locations that can capture the imagination. And that is precisely what it so appealing about Fontane; his ability to ‘transfigure’ everyday life into something magical and universal.

Fontane’s bicentenary in the year 2019 is fast approaching. In Berlin and Brandenburg, especially his birthplace of Neuruppin, a variety of cultural projects are being planned. It will be interesting to see how many of them will be accessible to English speakers. Fontane’s work is not as well-known in the English-speaking world as on the continent and it would be wonderful if his bicentenary provides an opportunity to showcase his work to a wider public. In the meantime, I offer you a stroll through streets in the old centre of Berlin where you can still find traces of Fontane. Many of the places where he lived and worked, or which are mentioned in his literary works, no longer exist, so this walk concentrates on sites which at least bear the same name or have been restored.

Plan of the ‘Fontane walk’

From Hackescher Markt bear left into Oranienburger Straβe. After 100 metres turn right into Groβe Hamburger Straβe and walk past the old Jewish cemetery and Jewish memorial. A little further on, set back between two buildings, is the Sophienkirche, a baroque church dating back to 1712. Building number 30/30a, where Fontane moved to in 1834 to live with his Uncle August and Aunt Pinchen, was demolished in 1904/05 but was replaced by the building which still stands on the same site. Fontane described the original tenement block as “half-crumbling, ugly and ordinary, like its inhabitants”. Yet one of his neighbours included the family of his future wife, Emilie Rouanet-Kummer!

Sophienkirche

Before they were married in 1850, Emilie moved with Theodor into 33, Oranienburger Straβe, “a rather pretty house, opposite the large post yard”. From Groβe Hamburger Straβe turn left into Krausnickstraβe, then turn right into Oranienburger Straβe past the Golden Dome of the Neue Synagoge (built in 1866) and opposite the grand Imperial post office building is where Emilie used to live.

Postfuhramt

Now head towards the River Spree down Tucholsky Straβe. On your left is the imposing Bodemuseum at the end of Museum Island. Turn right along the river bank until you reach the Weidendammer Bridge with a fine view of the Berliner Ensemble theatre, whose founder Bertolt Brecht was born eight months before Fontane’s death. The Weidendammer Bridge had a special meaning for Fontane, who “had the happiest thought of his life”, when he proposed to Emilie on this bridge in 1845.

Weidammer Brücke in 1881

Turn left into Friedrichstraβe, past the station to the ‘Dorotheenstädtische Apotheke’ on the corner of Mittlestraβe. This pharmacy used to be called the ‘Polnische Apotheke’ where Fontane worked in 1845/6. The current building was erected in 1898-1902. When you reach Unter den Linden, turn left again and you will pass the ‘Staatsbibliothek’ (State Library) which in Fontane’s time used to house the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Fontane briefly worked there as Secretary in 1876, but as a free thinker, he found the job too stifling. A little further on, past the Humboldt University, is the Neue Wache,  once a guardhouse and now the main war memorial in Berlin. Thirty-two years previously, in 1844, Fontane had performed guard duty here when he volunteered for one year as a Grenadier Guard.

Staatsbibliothek, Unter den Linden

Neue Wache around 1900

Diagonally opposite the Neue Wache is the newly-restored Staatsoper (State Opera House), dating back to 1741/43. Cross Bebelplatz to the right of the Staatsoper and head for Behrenstraβe, behind St Hedwigskathedrale (1747). Fontane’s great friend Mathilde von Rohr lived at 70, Behrenstraβe. Continue towards Marktgrafenstraβe and turn left into the Gendarmenmarkt with its twin churches flanking the Konzerthaus. This concert hall was originally built in 1821 as the Schauspielhaus (theatre) where Fontane was a passionate theatregoer; for 20 years, from 1870 onwards, he worked as theatre critic for the Vossische Zeitung (newspaper).

Schinkel’s Schauspielhaus in 1820

On the southern edge of Gendarmenplatz is Stadmitte underground station. Take the U2 for two stops to Potsdamer Platz and when you emerge, you will be very near the spot where Theodor Fontane lived from 1872 until 1898 and wrote most of his novels. The Fontane home was on 134, Potsdamer Straβe, about 85 metres south-west of Weinhaus Huth, the only building on this section of Potsdamer Straβe that survived the bombing and the construction of Berlin Wall. The family lived ‘three floors up’ in four rooms with a kitchen and larder. Fontane thought Potsdamer Platz was full of life and that “activity is the best thing that a city has to offer”.

Haus Huth on Potsdamer Platz

I can recommend three other fairly central ‘Fontane sites’ in Berlin. A visit to the pretty Französischer Friedhof II (French cemetery) in Liesenstraβe is a must. The great man is buried here, together with his wife Emilie. Take the U6 from Friedrichstraβe station to Schwartzkopffstraβe. Walk northwards up Chausseestraβe as far as the junction with Liesenstraβe where the cemetery is on the right-hand side. The path to Fontane’s grave is clearly signposted.

In the Tiergarten, there is a fine statue of Fontane. From Zoo station take the Number 100 bus five stops to Nordische Botschaften/Adenauer Stiftung. Walk along Stülerstraβe to Thomas-Dehler-Straβe and on the right in the park stands the ‘Fontane-Denkmal’. This statue is a copy made in the 1980s – the original stands in the entrance hall of the Märkisches Museum. A curious fact to note: the buttons on his jacket are on the wrong side.

Fontane also left his mark on Kreuzberg. In 1848, he worked as an assistant in the apothecary of the Bethanien hospital on Mariannenplatz. The historic ‘Fontane Apotheke’ is on the ground floor of this fascinating building, now an arts centre, and is open to visitors on Tuesday afternoons.

The historic Fontane Apotheke in Bethanien

Finally, there are so many traces of Fontane outside Berlin in the surrounding countryside of Brandenburg, one of the German Federal States that was locked inside the German Democratic Republic for 40 years, from 1949 to 1989. The towns and villages have now been sensitively restored and are being rediscovered by 21st Century visitors. It is well worth making a day trip to Fontane’s beautiful home town of Neuruppin, often referred to as ‘Fontanestadt’, with its well-ordered Prussian streets and stunning lake.

Aerial view of Neuruppin

And a few days in the Spreewald, about an hour south of Berlin, is a revelation. This historic area of wetlands and pine forests is criss-crossed by over 200 small canals called ‘Flieβe’. Many of the inhabitants are descendants of the first settlers of the Spreewald region, the Slavic tribes of the Sorbs or ‘Wends’. In some villages, they have preserved many of their customs, as well as their language and traditional clothing. In 1991, the Spreewald, so wonderfully documented in Fontane’s travel writing, was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.

Barge trip through the Spreewald

One of many famous Fontane quotes is: “Das ist ein weites Feld” (from ‘Effi Briest’). It translates into English as, “that is a broad subject”, and suggests that something is far too complicated to discuss in brief. Gunter Grass used it to excellent effect for the title of his 1995 novel set in Berlin between the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. This blog has only scratched the surface of Theodor Fontane and his Berlin/Brandenburg connections. If you are interested in learning more, I have listed a couple of websites below. And to finish, here is another favourite Fontane quotes, translated into English:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Fontane

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/03/07/heroine-addict

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/jan/15/theodor-fontane

Book ahead for Boros

Book ahead for Boros

In a city where so many buildings were devastated in war or destroyed in its aftermath, it is incredible to find in its very heart an edifice that has not only survived intact, but which has become the perfect fusion of history and modern art. This massive, ugly, 18-metre tall concrete construction is the ‘Boros Bunker’, once a huge air-raid shelter, now transformed into a unique art gallery. It stands like an indomitable fortress on the corner of Reinhardtsrasse and Albrechtstrasse, very close to Friedrichstrasse Station and was originally built in 1942 to protect thousands of railway workers and travellers to Berlin from the allied bombing. The city authorities have never attempted to demolish it, for fear of damaging the nearby Deutsches Theater.

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The Boros Bunker

When the war ended, the Soviets used the bunker briefly as a prison and then in GDR times it became a cold store for imported fruit and vegetables, earning it the nickname, ‘Banana Bunker’. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the labyrinth of rooms hosted techno dance parties and fetish raves. There are still visible traces of these former uses of the bunker; the bullet-studded façade has small rampart-like windows, faded neon graffiti decorate some of the interior walls and the two-way stone staircase, pipes and vents have been preserved. At the entrance, the original heavy steel door is held open with an ancient leather strap.

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Detail of the scarred exterior

Advertising guru and contemporary art collector Christian Boros bought the monstrous bunker in 2003 and over a period of five years, a team of architects converted it into a 3,000-square metre exhibition space and added a stunning open-plan penthouse flat, complete with roof gardens and a pool, which has become the Boros family’s Berlin home.

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Christian and Karen Boros and their penthouse home

Inside the bunker, floors and walls were cored out to create more height and airy galleries, enabling visitors to view the works of art from various vantage points. But the original oppressive and labyrinthine design by the Nazi architect, Karl Bonatz, has been retained. There is still a palpable sense of total exclusion from the outside world and of a refuge not only sought by the beleaguered citizens of Hitler’s Berlin, but also by hard-core partygoers in the reunified German capital.

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The original ‘double’ stone staircase

Since opening the Sammlung Boros (‘Boros Collection’) in 2008, Christian Boros and his wife Karen have hosted two long-term exhibitions, comprising of selections from the family’s collection of 700 artworks. Boros #2 opened in 2012, featuring a total 130 exhibits. This second collection shows works from the early 1990s alongside more recent acquisitions. The installation of the artworks is as unusual as their surroundings and artists are invited to install their works themselves, in order ‘to create connections between the work, the artist and the space’. Artworks include sculptures, paintings, multimedia exhibits, drawings, photographs and sound pieces, each installed in varying rooms around the bunker. The Boros collection contains works by contemporary artists such as Damian Hirst, Olafur Eliasson, Elizabeth Peyton, Wolfgang Tillmans, Anselm Reyle, Manfred Pernice, Tobias Rehberger, John Bock, Wilhelm Sasnal, Michel Majerus and Ai Wei Wei. No photography is permitted, but the pictures below (taken from the internet) are examples of thought-provoking installations featured in the current exhibition.

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There are no information labels or brochures available in the Boros Bunker; the only printed material is a first-class catalogue of works on sale, which is a veritable collectors’ item. To visit this gallery, you have to book a guided tour in either German or English and learn about the history of the building and its contents from a knowledgeable guide. I have experienced both the first and the second Boros collections and was very impressed on each occasion by the young art historian who led our group. In just 90 minutes they managed to pack in a wealth of fascinating background details on the bunker itself and its owner, and shed welcome light on the significance of the artworks on display and the intentions of its creator.

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Explaining the context

If you are in Berlin over the next couple of weekends of January 2017, you still have a chance to see the second Boris Collection before it is dismantled, although there are no guided tours available. Then the building will close until April, while the third Boros Collection is being assembled and installed. Booking opens online in March. Check out the Boris Collection website for full details and make sure you reserve your visit well in advance

‘Potse’ Parlour

‘Potse’ Parlour

 

The Joseph-Roth-Diele is always perfect for a weekday lunch or dinner. With its stone-tiled floor, dark wood panelling and old-fashioned furniture you would think this café bar was a pre-war Berlin haunt. But this is new nostalgia. It only opened in 2002 and is dedicated to the Jewish-Austrian journalist and author Joseph Roth, who lived in the building next door in the ‘Golden’ 1920s.There are shelves stacked with his books and the walls are decorated with photographs of Roth and quotes from his writings. Red and brown tones recreate the warmth and cosiness of a Viennese coffee-house, slowing life down to a literary pace. The word ‘Diele’ means parlour, a homely place to be among friends, have something good to eat and drink and pass the time agreeably. A perfect description. (more…)