Temples of Drama and Music

Temples of Drama and Music

The very word opera conjures up high drama – and no city does it better than Berlin. Over the past century it has experienced lawlessness and decadence, followed by dictatorship, terror, poverty, division and reunification. Berlin is an opera in its own right and has taken this art form to its heart.  In 2020, Berlin has three world-class opera houses, the Staatsoper, the Komische Oper and the Deutsche Oper, staging a total of over 80 productions a season and offering something for everyone – from the traditionally tragic and comic to the contemporary, edgy and satirical.

Tosca at the Staatsoper

Tosca at the Staatsoper

Love of Three Oranges at the Deutsche Oper

Love of Three Oranges at the Deutsche Oper

Spring Storms at the Komische Oper

Spring Storms at the Komische Oper

Each Berlin opera house has a unique history and atmosphere and for almost forty years I have followed their fortunes closely. The Staatsoper, built by Frederick the Great in 1742 in the style of an ancient Greek temple, retains its air of nobility from a commanding position on Unter den Linden.  It has had to be rebuilt several times and was recently reopened after seven years of renovation.

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

A few hundred metres nearer the Brandenburg Gate is the Komische Oper, founded in 1892 as a theatre. It then became a music hall and was commandeered by the Nazis as a venue for their ‘Kraft durch Freude’ (‘Strength through Joy’) entertainment programme. Largely destroyed in the war, the Komische Oper was rebuilt with a plain modern exterior, although its neo-baroque interior was restored.

Komische Oper

Komische Oper

Komische Oper

In contrast to the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper, the Deutsche Oper building is an icon of post-war modernism, both inside and out. It was completed in 1961 to replace the Deutsches Opernhaus opened in 1911 which was destroyed by bombing in the war. In particular, the interior is a far cry from most traditional opera houses Plain wooden panelling and disc-shaped hanging lights serve to focus the audience’s attention on the stage.

Deutshce Oper 1

Deutsche Oper 2

Deutsche Oper

Having lived in West Berlin in the 1980s when the city was divided by the Berlin Wall, I still think in terms of East and West Berlin. During those years of division, West Berliners were restricted to the Deutsche Oper. But members of the ‘Protecting Powers’, which included American, British and French military and diplomats in West Berlin, had unlimited access  to the eastern half of the city and were able to buy tickets for the two opera houses in East Berlin as well. At about 15 east marks each, converted at a rate of one to one against Deutsch Marks, they were an incredible bargain.  The only disadvantage was having to queue at the box office in person to buy the tickets when they were released for sale to the public. Many were allocated in advance, not to season ticket holders as they were in West Berlin, but to the SED (Communist) Party. I can recall standing in line in the snow on Unter den Linden – which in those GDR days was almost empty of traffic and people as it was so close to the Wall – and being prepared to freeze in the interests of acquiring the maximum number of tickets possible for each of the next batch of performances.

A deserted Unter den Linden in 1984

A deserted Unter den Linden in 1984

I must have seen every opera and ballet in the repertoire.  The Russian ballet ‘Spartacus’ was a favourite with the East German audiences, perhaps because of its socialist theme and Russian music generally was high on the agenda, but there was plenty of Mozart, Wagner and Puccini too and the standard was generally very high. Most performers were either East German or from Eastern Bloc countries and many of them went on to have international careers after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It always felt to me as if the East Berlin audiences found opera and ballet the perfect escape from Real Socialism, even if they rarely seemed to show much emotion.

A deserted Unter den Linden in 1984

Staatsoper programme from March 1984

Komische Oper brochure, 1985

But it wasn’t only the musical drama that made my evening sorties across Checkpoint Charlie into the eastern half of the city so memorable. They offered political drama too. Any Allied military present at the opera (almost exclusively men in those days) would be in dress uniform and most of the East German men had a Communist party badge pinned to their lapels – the contrast couldn’t have been starker. In the interval, when the audience repaired to the bar for a glass of East German Sekt or beer, there was a definite atmosphere of suppression and suspicion; none of the noisy laughter and opulent fashion associated with opera houses in the West. A more prosaic difference was that the ladies’ cloakroom attendants were generally male and although the facilities were kept meticulously clean, the East Berlin sewerage system had a distinctive aroma that lingered in the opera houses as well as in the streets.

Outside the Staatsoper in the 1980s

Outside the Staatsoper in the 1980s

When the curtain came down, we would head off for a meal. The East Germans seemed to disappear into thin air – I learnt afterwards that the majority would have obtained their tickets through their factories or offices and had little money to eat out at restaurants, such as there were. There seemed to be only three in the vicinity of the opera houses that offered good food. These were the Ganymed, now a French Brasserie, next to Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble theatre, the rococo-style Ermeler Haus on the Märkisches Ufer which dates back to 1760 and is now a venue room at the Art’otel Mitte and the restaurant on the top floor of the 37 storey Hotel Stadt on Alexanderplatz, now the Radisson Park Inn Hotel and still the tallest hotel in Germany.  We were never shown a menu, just given suggestions on the best dishes to order. They were probably all that was available. The meat was then usually flambéed at the table. We imagined that most of the waiters who served us were members of the Stasi and that the chandeliers above our tables were bugged. This all turned out to be true.

The historic Ganymed

The historic Ganymed

Hotel Stadt, East Berlin 1980

Hotel Stadt, East Berlin 1980

When we emerged from either the Ganymed or Ermeler Haus, both situated on the River Spree, I would often cross the cobbled dimly-lit street and look down into the dark water, wondering what lurked beneath – perhaps bodies of unknown East Germans who had attempted to swim across to West Berlin. Trains rumbled across iron-girder bridges in the direction of Moscow. I was living through my own John le Carre novel.

The River Spree under Friedrichstrasse railway bridge

The River Spree under Friedrichstrasse railway bridge on the former border between East and West Berlin

What a contrast the West Berlin Deutsche Oper was to the two East Berlin opera houses in those days. During Berlin’s division, the Deutsche Oper building boasted many advantages over its East German counterparts. It had more seats, a much larger stage and superior technical features. Its opera and ballet companies attracted performers from all over the world and were free to include avant-garde productions in the repertoire. Tickets were pricier than in East Berlin, but they were less expensive than for other comparable Western opera houses as the West German government provided subsidies to ensure that West Berlin remained an affordable destination.

A Deutsche Oper programme from 1985.

A Deutsche Oper programme from 1985. The programme design remains the same to this day.

An evening out at the Deutsche Oper in the 1980s was an entirely different experience from one at the Staatsoper or the Komische Oper. The West Berlin audiences enjoyed promenading in the huge, high-ceilinged bars before the performance and during the intervals. No uniforms, no hint of suppression, more a case of comfortable capitalism and self-expression. And when the curtain went down, we spilled out into the bright lights of Bismarckstrasse and into one of the many restaurants nearby, often Don Giovanni, with its autographed gallery of famous opera stars who have dined there, and which is still thriving forty years on.

Don Giovanni today

Don Giovanni today

Since 2004 Berlin’s three opera houses have been all part of the Berlin Opera Foundations and this has assured their long-term future. But they remain three distinct gems. After the fall of the Wall, the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper regained their artistic freedom and are as likely to stage bold, outrageous productions as the Deutsche Oper.  But for me their walls still echo with the racial discrimination and persecution of Nazi rule followed by the censorship of the GDR and the infiltration of the Stasi. And the Deutsche Oper will always be associated with the death of Benno Ohnesorg, a student shot by police in 1967 during a demonstration against the Shah of Persia who was attending a performance of The Magic Flute that evening.

Memorial to Benno Ohnesorg outside the Deutsche Oper

Memorial to Benno Ohnesorg outside the Deutsche Oper

The Germans have a great word ‘Vergangenheitsüberwältigung’ which means ‘overcoming the past’. In Berlin, one way to achieve this is to experience the exhilaration of a great performance at one its three opera houses: Art conquers all.  Find out about this season’s highlights by following the links below All productions have English surtitles and tickets are not as expensive as at comparable opera houses elsewhere.

https://www.staatsoper-berlin.de/en/

https://www.komische-oper-berlin.de/en/

https://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/en_EN/home

And for further reading about opera in Berlin, here are three more links:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/arts/music/berlin-opera.html

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/apr/04/berlin-opera-barenboim-fiona-maddocks

https://www.dw.com/en/9-facts-you-need-to-know-about-berlins-new-staatsoper/a-40717667

The Fantastic Futurium

The Fantastic Futurium

And now for something completely different – a museum that looks forward to the future rather than back to the past. Called the ‘Futurium’ or ‘House of Futures’, it opened to the public on 5th September and poses the huge question: “How do we want to live in the future?”

Futurium Berlin

You can always trust Berlin to come up with totally avant-garde ideas and this project has not been without its detractors. There has been some criticism of the building; it cost 60 million euros and is constructed of reinforced concrete, glass and steel which are not ecologically sustainable. But the design, resembling a huge geometric crystalline gem, is certainly eye-catching and the location – between the River Spree and the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and facing the new government district and the Reichstag – is spot on.

Futurium Design

Eye-Catching design

Great location by the Spree

I visited the Futurium a couple weeks after its opening. There were four us, from three different generations, and we all loved it. We arrived early on a Saturday morning and timed our entrance well, because by midday there were long queues waiting to get in. Word has spread that the Futurium is a great family outing and it helps that entry is free. There are two entrances to the building, each with sheltered forecourts under the angular cube construction and the paved area outside is patterned with polka dots and scattered with round benches and planters.

Arriving at the Futurium

A family experience

The Futurium’s interior is designed on three levels. ‘The Forum’ on the ground floor is conceived not only as the reception area, with an information desk and a fun museum shop, but also a place to meet and exchange ideas about the future, with a calendar of events advertising regular evening presentations and discussions. Its vast dimensions lend a futuristic feel to the space. A special feature is the ‘Wunschpeicher’ or ‘Database of Hopes’, a hands-on display that sets the scene for this museum’s concept – we can decide what kind of future we wish for.

Experimenting with the Database of Hopes

The ‘Restaurant im Futurium’ is conveniently located on ground level too, with views of the riverfront piazza. But by the time we had finished our visit, there wasn’t a seat free and we didn’t have a chance to sample the “culinary future snacks” served alongside “regional classics”. Run by the well-known entrepreneur and TV chef, Sarah Wiener, this restaurant is bound to be popular with Berliners.

Restaurant in Futurium

Self-service and eco-friendly café

A broad central staircase leads up to the first floor, or you can take the large space-like lift clad in black glass. Here you will find ‘The Cloud’, an exciting exhibition area with futuristic lighting and all-glass picture windows offering panoramic views of the city and the River Spree. The entire interior of the Futurium is almost zero-energy rated and fully accessible.

Staircase at Futurium

Staircase to The Cloud

Panoramic view towards the Reichstag

The fantastic displays in ‘The Cloud’ are designed both to inform and to challenge. How will we live and work in ten or twenty years? How will we feed ourselves and what forms of energy will we use? How do we meet our needs without harming nature? These questions are always a matter of interaction between nature, humans and technology and the exhibition is divided into these three parts or ‘thought spaces’.

Using Nature to shape our future environment

Children’s play area in The Cloud

At the start of your tour of the exhibition area, you are invited to put on a RFID wristband and use it to collect data on any exhibits of interest. In a room above ‘The Cloud’ the wristbands can be handed in and the data is collated on to a card with a unique number. You are given the card and can then enter the code on the Futurium website for more information about the future-related topics which caught your interest. This is a pretty cool thing to do and really extends the value of your visit as it is impossible to take in all the information while you are there.

A robot explains how to use the wristband

My unique card

On the very top of the building is ‘The Skywalk’, a pathway around the Futurium’s solar-panelled roof with fabulous views of Berlin. Follow this link to see a short video of this 360° attraction. https://futurium.de/uploads/vrContent/skywalk/skywalk.html

Finally, we took the lift down to ‘The Cave’ in the basement of the Futurium – a hands-on laboratory and workshop area for trying out futuristic concepts. This is the place to experience new technologies like 3D printers and laser cutters. There is even a test kitchen to see if insects will be part of our future diet.

Inside the Lab

Fun with digital imaging

I am sure that the Futurium will become an enduring Berlin attraction. Its contents will be continually updated to keep up with technological developments and environmental and social issues, and as the global debate on climate change becomes more urgent, it can provide a significant forum for discussion. We have only one present, but so many possibilities for the future.

I left the Futurium with the strong sense that although our technological progress is accelerating at an amazing rate, we are not living in harmony with each other nor with nature. One exhibit, the ‘Throne of Sunset’, by artist and peace activist Gonçalo Mabunda from Mozambique, sums up the abuse of human power. It is made of decommissioned arms, such as cartridge cases, pistols and rifle grips.

The Throne of Sunset (1975)

The Futurium is open from 10am until 6pm six days a week; it is closed on Tuesdays. One-hour bookable tours in English take place on Saturdays at 3.30pm and cost 5 euros. For all further details go to https://futurium.de/en/

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.

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.

Great Theater – with English surtitles

Great Theater – with English surtitles

Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. If you love the theatre but don’t speak German, you can still enjoy world-class drama in Berlin –  with the help of English surtitles. The German word for theatre is spelt ‘Theater’ – and can be singular or plural. There are scores of good Theater in Berlin, but my two favourites are the Deutsches Theater in East Berlin and the Schaubühne in West Berlin. Their productions are usually outstanding and they each have a loyal following which makes for a buzzing atmosphere. But perhaps most important, I can take English-speaking friends along when there are English surtitles. You only have to check out each of their websites for the dates of these selected performance dates, usually at weekends.

Great Theater - with English surtitles A scene from Lessing's Nathan der Weise

Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. A scene from Lessing’s Nathan der Weise, 2015

The Deutsches Theater is on Schumannstraβe in East Berlin, not far from Friedrichstraße Station, just around the corner from the Boros Bunker. It was built in 1850 and started life as the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Städtisches Theater, named after Frederick William IV of Prussia, when it was used mainly for operettas. In 1883, the Deutsches Theater was founded as an ensemble-based repertory company to promote German language and literature. Otto Brahm, the first Director, favoured Naturalist plays by Gerhart Hauptmann, August Strindberg und Arthur Schnitzler, then the legendary Max Reinhardt took over in 1905, and during his era the Deutsches Theater soon earned the reputation of being Germany’s top stage. Reinhardt fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and his former assistant steered the theatre through the Nazi period. During the GDR years, the Deutsches Theater was the most daring and experimental theatre in East Berlin and on November 4th 1989, actors from the Deutsches Theater helped organise the largest protest demonstration in East German history at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz – a pivotal event in the fall of the Berlin Wall five days later. The current Artistic Director of the Deutsches Theater, Ulrich Khuon, has recently had his contract extended until 2022.

Great Theater - with English surtitles The Deutsches Theater

Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. The Deutsches Theater

Behind its classical façade, the Deutsches Theater is home to three stages: the main stage, built in 1850, with an auditorium that seats 600; the ‘Kammerspiele’, established by Reinhardt in 1906 for modern drama, which holds 230 spectators; and the ‘Box’, a compact black box located in the Kammerspiele foyer, which opened in 2006.  With seating for 80, this is an intimate venue for contemporary plays with topical themes. The Deutsches Theater repertoire comprises about 50 productions. Each season sees about 30 premieres, with English surtitles for all the productions on the main stage. Last month, I went to see the ‘Marat-Sade’ by Peter Weiss at the Deutsches Theater, which first opened in the Schiller Theater in West Berlin in 1964. This a hard-hitting affair, telling the bloody story of Marat’s notorious death at the hands of Charlotte Corday in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The action takes place in a lunatic asylum and de Sade struts about the stage shouting directions and defending his individualism. There was genuinely never a dull moment with live music, a delinquent chorus and plenty of naturalistic horror in the ‘grand guignol’ style, where the actors appeared as surreal puppets. The audience loved it – and I spotted plenty of English-speakers following the translation above the stage. There’s still a chance to catch this production on Sunday July 9th.

Curtain call at the end of Marat-Sade

Curtain call at the end of Marat-Sade

The Schaubühne (literally meaning ‘show stage’) has a completely different look to the Deutsches Theater and is a very West Berlin post-war institution, attracting audiences from the well-healed suburbs around the Kurfürstendamm. This is not to say that its productions are any less avant-garde – far from it. The building itself is a conversion of the Universum Cinema, designed by the modernist architect Erich Mendelssohn in 1928, who also fled Nazi Germany in 1933. Heavily damaged in World War II, it was rebuilt and re-opened as a cinema and then a dance hall. The building’s current use as a theatre dates from the late 1970s, when the Schaubühne ensemble from Kreuzberg, directed by Peter Stein, was looking for a new home. Stein was strongly influenced by the 1968 German student movement and his productions won favour with the critics, if not the West Berlin politicians. In 1999, Thomas Ostermeier took over as artistic director and in recent years, the theatrical repertoire has focused not only contemporary plays, but included many ground-breaking interpretations of classic works. The Schaubühne showcases its productions all over the world. Their production of ‘Enemy of the People’ by Ibsen was seen in no fewer than in 30 countries and in February 2017, ‘Beware of Pity’ by Stefan Zweig came to the Barbican in London and was a sell-out.

The Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Ku'dammThe Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Ku'damm

Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin. The Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Ku’damm

Like the Deutsches Theater, the Schaubühne is keen to attract English-speaking theatre-goers and they include English surtitles on selected performances for all their main productions and provide surtitles for French speakers on other evenings. Since 2000, this theatre, with its strong social conscience, has also hosted a series of monthly political panel discussions called ‘Streitraum’ (‘space for argument’). I have been along to a couple of these and discovered that they are more or less conducted simultaneously in German and English. If you are thinking of trying out a play with surtitles at the Schaubühne, I can recommend their current production of Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. It is an absolute tour de force by the excellent company of actors resident at this theatre. The plot centres around a Jewish doctor at a prestigious private clinic who refuses to allow a Catholic priest into the room of a dying patient to administer the last rites, but it widens into an exploration of how elusive truth becomes when it is manipulated by opposing sides and delivers almost three hours of gripping theatre. Just the ticket in our post-truth era.

Scene from Professor Bernhardi

Scene from Professor Bernhardi. Great Theater – with English surtitles, world class drama in Berlin.

Both the Deutsches Theater and the Schaubühne take a break for a few weeks over the summer. You can already book for September at the Schaubühne and the Deutsches Theater publishes their schedule for the 2017/18 season on 1st August. It is best to email or call the theatre to book seats for productions with surtitles to make sure that you have seats where you can see the words clearly. Ticket prices are so reasonable and it is also worth mentioning that both theatres have good bar facilities – in summer, there’s plenty of seating space outside as well. ‘Verweile doch!’ (Stay a while! – a famous quote from Goethe’s Faust). 

both theatres have good bar facilitiesboth theatres have good bar facilities