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, 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, 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, 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
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.
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. 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).
Last week I experienced Berlin’s new concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, and fell in love with this fabulous addition to the city’s music scene. It is the brainchild of pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who wanted to create a performance space and a music academy allied to his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young musicians from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds. Barenboim was a great friend and admirer of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-2016). They enjoyed a close musical collaboration for over forty years; you can read Barenboim’s thoughts on Boulez’s visionary thinking by following this link to an interview he gave in 2005.
The Pierre Boulez Saal
Daniel Barenboim with Pierre Boulez
Situated in the cultural heart of the city, just behind the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden and close to the Gendarmenmarkt, the Pierre Boulez Saal brings music to life in a unique way. The elliptical shaped hall is lined with Canadian cedarwood and is built into the ground, just below street level. Its mellow warmth embraces the audience in a full sweep of 360°, so that the listener is never separated from the performers by more than a few metres. This creates a direct connection with the musicians and draws the audience into their concentration. As a result, the music speaks to the mind as well as the heart.
Concert hall interior
The inaugural concert took place on Saturday 4th March 2017. More than 600 invited guests, among them the German president Joachim Gauck, finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and Berlin Mayor, Michael Müller, gathered to hear a three-and-half-hour programme which included complex works by Pierre Boulez. Also present, were architect Frank Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyoto, who donated their services for the new hall’s design. You can still hear this concert in full by following this link or watch Barenboim talking about it on a video on the Deutsche Welle website.
The inaugural concert
Tickets for future concerts are in high demand. Lang Lang, Sir Simon Rattle and Pinchas Zukerman are among the big names who will be performing this season, quite apart from Daniel Barenboim himself. The concert I heard last week was given by students of the Barenboim-Said-Akademie. They performed two string quartets and had the audience spellbound with the intensity of their playing. It was the first afternoon ‘Studentenkonzert’ and tickets cost just 10 euros. The next one takes place on Thursday 1st June. If you subscribe to the Pierre Boulez Saaal Newsletter, you will receive details of all forthcoming concerts, including the student series.
Interior design for the buidling
Even if you don’t have tickets, it is worth visiting the Pierre Boulez Saal. Apart from the concert hall itself, there is a grand, towering foyer area with two floors of galleried exhibition space. Until 16th July 2017, ‘Klang der Utopie’ (‘The Sound of Utopia’) tells the inspiring story of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. This youth orchestra, founded in 1999 by Barenboim and academic Edward Said, is named after ‘West-östlicher Divan’, an anthology of poems by Goethe. It has become a living symbol of the possibility of peaceful relations in the Middle East and shows how music transcends religious and political borders. Now that Barenboim has established his music academy in Berlin, the scope of further international cooperation among music students has been extended.
Stepping insider the foyer
There are café facilities at the Pierre Boulez Saal and tables set out in the foyer. I can recommend both the coffee and the exotic middle-eastern pastries. Today, 21st May 2017, the Pierre Boulez Saal is holding an ‘Open House’ event. There are several performances of string quartets by Elliott Carter, a New York–born composer, who lived to the age of 103 (1908-2012) and short concerts for children as well. Free tickets are available at the box office and the concert hall is open for viewing. Full details can be found on the excellent Pierre Boulez Saal website where you can also subscribe to their newsletter.
Mid-February is a great time to visit Berlin, with the Berlinale film festival plus a carnival to beat the winter blues. And it’s all wrapped up a week before the Oscars in Hollywood and the carnival celebrations in the rest of Germany. Just like Berlin to be ahead of the game. Now in its 67th year, the Berlinale is as popular as ever. It’s a true peoples’ event, with a reputation for political integrity and cutting through red carpet hype. Tickets are reasonably easy to come by; quite a number are available online three days before the event and there are four ticket outlets in the city centre, with plenty on sale over the ten days of the festival. For a round-up of this year’s films and winners go to the Berlinale website
One of the best things about the Berlinale is the final Sunday, known as ‘Publikumstag’ (audience’s day). The prize-winners have been announced and the stars have gone home, but many of the films are shown again and tickets only cost eight euros. The venues are still packed full and the applause at the end of each showing is just as enthusiastic. This is genuine appreciation of the art of film-making in a city that has always loved the cinema.
This year the Berlinale Publikumstag coincided with the annual Berlin Karneval procession along the Kurfürstendamm. The carnival season in Germany, also known as the ‘Fünfte Jahreszeit’ (Fifth Season) begins each year on 11 November at 11:11 a.m. when the planning starts, and finishes on Ash Wednesday of the following year. The main festivities take place on or around the Monday before Ash Wednesday – ‘Rosenmontag’, but carnival week itself officially starts on ‘Weiberfastnacht’ (Women’s Carnival) ,the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. Follow this link for more German carnival detail.
Berlin is not traditionally a carnival city – the main ones are in Roman Catholic parts of Germany and the most famous parade of all takes place in Köln (Cologne). But Berlin loves a party and has plenty of local carnival guilds who want to join in. The Berlin procession this year took place on the Sunday before carnival week starts in the rest of the country. After the terrorist attack at the Christmas Market on 19th December, there was some debate about whether the procession would still go ahead. But it got the green light – amid strengthened security precautions and with the proviso that there should be five hundred metres of silence when it passed Breidscheidplatz, where the atrocity took place.
Over 200,000 people turned out to watch the carnival procession, many of them in fancy dress themselves. The colourful floats and bands set off at precisely eleven minutes past eleven from Olivaerplatz with 2,000 revellers making their merry way along the Ku’damm towards Wittenbergplatz, showering 30 tons of sweets into the crowd, who shouted back carnival greetings such as ‘Hai Jo’(Berliners) and ‘Alaaf’ (Rhinelanders). There are many local traditions associated with carnival, but all over Germany the participants are known as ‘Narren’ (fools) and often behave accordingly. It’s a time to let your hair down before the seriousness of Lent and poke fun at the establishment.
Later in the day, I managed to catch two films on ‘Publikumstag’. The first was ‘A Prominent Patient’ (original title: Masaryk), described in one review as a ‘stately, handsomely-mounted biopic of Czech wartime statesman Jan Masaryk’. Set in 1938/39, it focuses on the political intrigue leading up to the Second World War and tells the story of the son of Czechoslovakia’s first president, a diplomat who loved jazz and cocaine. It was a perfect film to see in Berlin. Interestingly, the sub-titles (where needed) were only in English. Most foreign films in the Berlinale are subtitled in both English and German.
The second film was ‘Helle Nächte’ (Bright Nights). A mourning father (played by Georg Friedrich from Austria won the Silver Bear award for best actor) tries to rekindle his relationship with his 14-year old son after years of absence and lack of communication. He takes him on a car trip across northern Norway during the summer solstice, hoping it is not too late. Much remained unsaid in this film, but it rang true. It also had the definite plus of being shown in the huge Friedrichstadtpalast, a theatre normally used for glitzy variety shows and where the air conditioning mist floats out of the top of the seats.
For the final blog of 2016 here is something joyful – a recommendation for a tip-top night out to a Berlin comic operetta; something to lift the spirit and warm the soul. It is dedicated to those people who were tragically involved in the terrible Christmas market massacre of 19th December. I had been standing on that very spot only a week before, buying Christmas Lebkuchen hearts, and while the dreadful event was unfolding I was posting my last blog about four magical markets. It is a very sombre scene now on Breitscheidplatz, where a mass of candles and flowers marks the scene of the murders.
Flowers and Candles on Breitscheidplatz
But Berlin is the ultimate city of resolute survival. Tonight, there will be more fireworks than ever at the Brandenburg Gate and the show will go on at every venue imaginable. For a night out that conjures up the cabaret atmosphere of pre-war Berlin, I can recommend the Tipi am Kanzleramt, a marquee theatre hidden away in the Tiergarten, only a stone’s throw from Angela Merkel’s office and the Reichstag. The Tipi is a permanent venue for variety acts, cabaret, musicals and chansons, but has the nostalgic feel of a Spiegeltent, where travelling artistes bring music, magic and a touch of decadence to the general public.
The Tipi am Kanzleramt
Until the end of January, Berliners are flocking to see ‘Frau Luna’ (Mrs Moon), a ‘burlesque and fantastic operetta’, composed by Paul Lincke, and first performed in 1899. Lincke had previously worked at the Folies Bergères in Paris and in 1908, he became principal conductor and composer for the Metropol Theater, whose spectacular revues were the capital’s biggest attraction. He is considered to be the father of operetta in Berlin, and has the same significance for the German capital as Johann Strauss for Vienna and Jacques Offenbach for Paris. On his 75th birthday, Lincke was made an honorary citizen of Berlin. Now this new production marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.
The original cast of Frau Luna in 1899
German postage stamp commemorating Paul Lincke
Frau Luna has a crazy storyline, which involves a group of ordinary Berliners going to the moon on a home-made craft. It’s full of mad scenes and characters, but the main theme of escapism and chasing dreams comes clearly through. There are plenty of foot-tapping and hand-clapping songs, especially ‘Das ist die Berliner Luft’, (‘That’s the Berlin air’) which is Lincke’s most famous composition and has become the well-loved anthem of Berlin. (Follow this linkto see the Berlin Philharmonic perform it as a march). Frau Luna is not considered suitable for non-German speakers because of the German dialogue and jokes, but the music has instant appeal and there are slick dance routines. My English-speaking friend loved the glamour of the whole spectacle, staged in festive silver, black and white. You can get a flavour of the show from this trailer on You Tube.
The 2016 production of Frau Luna
Not all the entertainment happens on stage in the Tipi am Kanzleramt. Members of the audience sit at tables and can order (or pre-order) food and drink. The menu features Berlin specialities as well as beers, wines and Sekt from Germany and Austria and prices are quite reasonable. People-watching becomes part of the fun and the traditionally-dressed waiters provide impeccable service, under considerable pressure.
The audience arriving in the Tipi
The Tipi programme also includes plenty of shows and acts in English. In summer 2017, it features ‘Cabaret – the Musical’ once again and the Kit Kat Club will be recreated in the Tipi tent theatre. Tickets can be bought online and need to be booked early, especially for the best seats. Follow this linkfor the Tipi website.