Friends, today I went in search of Weimar. I was on the hunt for decadence, depravity and degenerate art in Berlin. And where better than Charlottenberg and Tiergarten, Berlin’s pre-Nazi playgrounds?
It started off very badly with a whiz round a fantastic community market and the beautifully restored Catholic St. Matthaiskirche in Schoneberg. Badly, in that there was very little decadence to be found round Winterfeldplatz – only handmade woolen goods, the world’s most beautiful cheeses, happy families and a man pressing fresh seed oils. I hunted and pecked to find a link to the church, so that you could see some of the 45 subtle, exquisite stained glass windows – solid blocks of colour, expressionistic forms. No dice. On the way to the market I did pass by Christopher Isherwood’s old digs on Nollendorfstrasse – that must be good for half a point in decadence bingo – as well as the new dance hall, Goya, that was once a haunt of Hitler’s, to watch UFA star Zara Leander, and the home of experimental epic theatre director Erwin Piscator, The Piscator-Buhne, during Weimar. Am I getting warmer?
The search began in earnest, moving swiftly toward Charlottenberg, home of Zoo Station, the Erotik-Museum (which I did not visit), and KaDeWe, the second largest department store in Europe, after Harrods. A Jewish-owned business, KaDeWe suffered under Hitler’s race laws and the store became “Aryanized” then bombed and ruined. It was completely rebuilt just in time for the Wall to go up. With a history like that, you think I’d like it, you’d think I’d root for its prosperity. But I found it a place of incredible decadence. Maybe it’s because I had a hole in my trousers, but it was the least friendliest place I’ve visited. Women stopped short of grabbing top-Euro leather boots out of one another’s clutches, but only just. I was lucky to get through the WC queue and get out alive. I haven’t seen such a collection of solely expensive goods for a long time; it goes without saying that there were beggars outside, red-faced men opening breakfast beers, Roma women flapping their accordions while their men looked on. It seems mean of me to point it out, but there it is – decadent spending back then, decadent spending now.
Next stop, and first art museum of the day, was the wonderful Kathe Kollwitz Museum. Kollwitz is known for her “War Series” of drawings, “The Weavers”, and her anti-war propaganda pieces such as “Brot!” I have long been a fan of her work, and it was marvelous to see the original pencil and ink drawings that I have only seen as jpegs, as well as some of her woodcuts. As the wife of a doctor who tended the poor of Berlin, Kollwitz was best placed to see how the government was failing its people in the period between the wars. She found the means to say something meaningful and accessible at the same time. Unsurprisingly, her work was banned by the Nazis from their first “art purges” in 1933; they threatened her with deportation to a concentration camp in 1936. She was not deported, in fact – her international standing kept her safe – but she died just before the end of the war at 77. Her work is the most moral “degenerate art” I have ever seen.
Next stop on the decadence trail led to Tiergarten’s Bauhaus Archiv. Alongside expressionist painters and creators of the avant-garde, Bauhaus designers and designs were banned by the Nazis. Work was scattered across the globe until the creation of the Berlin Archive in 1960. It is, as you would expect, a clean, white place: well-proportioned, everything just so. And still the moratorium on big bags. I don’t know. I wanted to feel for the plight of the Bauhaus designers, but I suppose they’ve had the last laugh in the end. The world has fallen in love with their furniture. We’ve all gone mesh and tubular. Even the Nazis were inspired by their proportions. In a contentious posting on Haaretz.com there is a claim that a Bauhaus designer became similarly inspired by the Nazis. Depraved, indeed! Even I could not escape the insidious lure of its design. Reader, I left with my big bag bulging. And so, on to the day’s third museum, Neue Nationalgalerie, home to more of my favourite “degenerate artists”, particularly Otto Dix and Hannah Hoch, as well as a few I didn’t know. You can also watch a wonderful film celebrating the full-speed-ahead techno-culture of Berlin circa 1927, “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City” by Walter Ruttmann. They dance and type and eat, not knowing the end is just around the corner… This might not sound near-degenerate-enough for you, but to read there the lists of the works destroyed by the Nazis is chilling. It is, of course, not as bad as destroying people. But it is very, very bad to destroy things simply because you do not like them or do not understand them.
By now, the dark is coming. I am on Potsdamer Strasse on a Saturday night and the world is my oyster. Did I run for the nearest fetish bar? I did not. (Please, my mother’s reading this blog!) Instead I hied me to The Wintergarden, Berlin’s home for variety entertainment since 1888. This may not be the Tingle Tangle Club, but that doesn’t exist anymore and any re-creations will be filled with tourists like me looking vainly for authenticity. Nein, it will not do. I decided to see what Germans were seeing – what brought them out for a Saturday night in a tourist-free place. I found it was The Tiger Lillies, “the world’s foremost Death Oompah band, and their Freak Show. I myself could never resist the promise of a freak.
The Wintergarden is a joy to visit, crystal chandeliers in the lobby, a goodish size small stage with cabaret seating downstairs and traditional theatre seating up. There are stars on the ceiling and a mirror ball. You can order dinner and eat while you watch a large, strange man with demented Kabuki make-up sing about Flipper Boy and how he wants to start fires. At the interval a lovely girl offers pretzels and Eis when once she would have sold cigarettes from that box around her neck. Everyone is feeling very jolly. Every up-tempo song, they clap along. Every quiet moment, they listen to with the utmost quiet, only the odd punctuation of fork on plate. During one particularly jaunty song everyone is clapping overtime – until the lyric mentions Hitler. Now, this is a crowd who didn’t flinch at the song “There’s a Death Train Comin'”, but a throwaway lyric of Hitler brings the clapping to a stop. It isn’t a stop of protest. It is simply that they have been taken out of this moment, this dark carnival with the two dwarves who cannot dance and pull small train carriages relentlessly around the stage, and into another, much darker carnival. They falter, but the show goes on. By the show’s end everyone is clapping in time, demanding more, lusty on their feet. They have forgotten it already. And so it goes. Here is a picture of The Tiger Lillies tonight, and the moment when the dwarves attacked one of the band, just because they could:
The last time I saw The Tiger Lillies they were doing Shockheaded Peter in London. That was a long time ago, but I remember the show so well. I have already forgotten much of Freak Show. Never mind. But it did make me think that I haven’t shared my favourite book purchase of the trip so far. Here, in homage to The Tiger Lillies, it’s Shockheaded Hitler.
Get comfortable and I’ll read you a little bedtime story:
“Just look at him! There he stands
with his nasty hair and hands.
See! The horrid blood drops drip
from each dirty finger tip:
And the sloven, I declare,
never once has combed his hair;
Piecrust never could be brittler
than the word of Adolf Hitler.
And if you can find a better rhyme for old Adolf than that, I’ll read you another story from the wonderful Struwwelhitler. Good night.