Adventures in the New Berlin
Published: April 2009
By Gary Shteyngart
Berlin has become an electrifying international cultural scene, with a 21st-century brand of unpolished, after-hours glamour thriving under the weight of 20th-century history.
“Berlin ist gross und ich bin klein” (Berlin is big and I am small) reads a popular children’s T-shirt featuring a forlorn mite of a penguin staring up at the immensity of East Berlin’s iconic TV tower. At barely five foot six I know how that penguin feels. I have spent four months in Berlin talking to people’s navels and having drinks passed over my head. If I ever joined the 15.5 percent of Berliners who are unemployed, I could make an attractive footstool for one of the gentle giants here. One night, at a failing bar in an outlying district, lost in a sea of blond heads crowned with halos of cheap smoke, I notice the kind of person who I think is still referred to as a midget waving happily to me across the room. I wave back with a big smile and an awkward thumbs-up. It is one of the happiest moments of my stay in Germany’s capital. I love the towering denizens of what is easily Europe’s coolest metropolis. But now I know that I am not alone.
And there’s more help on the way. “This is the year Berlin went international,” a long-term expatriate who works in art and publishing tells me at a party. Get out your measuring tape: the short, non-Teutonic folks are coming! By my estimate, at least half of them seem to be New York expatriates, intense, wiry, funny Jewish men who talk up their novel-in-progress, their nascent yoga practice, and their plans to open yet another art gallery to the interested local Fräulein, who peer down at them from their stratospheric heights. Making an absolute mockery of everything Joseph Goebbels ever stood for, Berlin is now a city where you hear more English than in New York and more Russian than in London. The foreigners come for the cheap rents, to be sure, but also for a nightlife that begins at midnight on Thursday and sputters dizzyingly to an end at 8 p.m. on Sunday. And there is so much culture that by the end of my stay I can only dream of using the bathroom of the neighborhood pub without running across a flier touting a gallery opening, an avant-garde theater performance in a disused bathhouse, or the frightening advent of yet another “Bolshoi Bandits Russian Ska East Bloc Music DJ-Team Party.” Berlin is its youth, and its youth are hip—even the teenage llama at the zoo has a fashionably retro Pat Benatar haircut. They are restless, and they are up for anything.
And the new Berliners are one other thing: earnest. One of the greatest gifts that can fall in the lap of any emerging artist is the opportunity to fail. When you’re paying 200 euros a month for a high-ceilinged room in a so-called W.G., or Wohngemeinschaft, an Oberlin-style “living community” where young people share chores and each other, you can spend years of your life “working only with adhesive tape,” as one would-be Warhol told me. But maybe that’s just the cynical New Yorker in me speaking. Whether German or foreign, these young people genuinely care about the communities they have forged out of the rubble of the 20th century’s most problematic metropolis. And they appreciate the creative impulse around them, because it’s still okay to be excited by things in Berlin.
To wit, a freezing Friday night in the middle of a season the rest of Europe still regards as autumn. At the Glass Pavilion of the Volksbühne theater in the former East, dozens of people are huddled together in the small space, warmed by nothing but cheap beer for free and the warbling of one overtaxed radiator. We are braving the elements to watch a brilliant short film by the British visual artist Tacita Dean about the British poet and translator Michael Hamburger, who was exiled from Berlin in 1933 and passed away last year. The film flickers on the makeshift screen, the elderly poet is picking up apples and talking about them at great length (“The Boskoop is good for baking, but also for eating…,” he creaks. “I was very taken by the Devonshire…. It is just about the darkest apple I’ve ever seen”). The film is hypnotically simple and rendered with an ambient quality that somehow makes the end of life seem both close by and oddly matter-of-fact, like the dark Devonshire apples the elderly subject so loved. As the film unfolds, there is not a sound in the little theater, except for the balding twenty-and thirtysomething men and very young women in vibrant leggings, who are taking snapshots of the screen with their cell phones. It’s the kind of cultural encounter that I may pretend to remember from the New York of the 80’s and early 90’s, but in any case it is here in Berlin right now—and it is touching and it is real.
My four months in the city were spent at the lakeside American Academy in Berlin (where I’d been invited to be a fellow for a semester). The Academy’s villa is located in the near-distant suburb of Wannsee, across the lake from the House of the Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution to the so-called “Jewish Problem” was signed. My temporary home had been owned by a Jewish banker who fled the country during the 1930’s. The house then fell into the hands of the Third Reich’s minister of finance, who added several architectural details, including my balcony. In the warmer months, I happened to divide my time between my Jewish study and my Nazi balcony (to add to the confusion, my bedroom was once occupied by the playwright Arthur Miller). Berlin, as the old adage from historian Karl Scheffler goes, “is a city that never is, but is always in the process of becoming.” The city the international art world has inherited has been in mad flux since the collapse of the Wall, but its physical infrastructure has more or less taken shape. Now that the terrific rupture of the Cold War has been sealed and partly cauterized, Berlin has become something—an often hypermodern, usually well-functioning, deindustrialized metropolis with almost no money (“Poor but sexy” is how Klaus Wowereit, universally described as “Berlin’s popular, gay, socialist mayor,” describes his city). The results of the building boom have been uneven. The glass box of the chancellor’s office has been rightly drubbed by locals as “the washing machine,” while next door, the Reichstag, with its transparent Norman Foster dome and top-notch collection of contemporary art (cue Gerhard Richter’s stunning interpretation of the German flag in the lobby), is a blessing upon the urban grid and a serious statement about Western democracy’s chances of survival.
On the other hand, Potsdamer Platz, the new commercial and touristic heart of the city, resembles a rouged-up version of the skyline in Raleigh, North Carolina. Four billion dollars and five years were sunk into the building of this supposed future-scape just so that one of its main squares—Marlene-Dietrich-Platz, mind you—could host a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, a sad-looking casino, and Mamma Mia!, the musical. Arriving at the glassed-in Hauptbahnhof, the central train station and one of the largest in Europe, is like pulling into a mall/office complex from the farthest reaches of suburbia. The task of reassembling a city whose history still has the capacity to make you gasp has led many of the world’s best architects to perform open-heart surgery on Berlin’s center, but along with generous helpings of glass and steel, they have injected a surfeit of anesthesia.
And yet, just a few minutes away from the studied plasticity of Potsdamer Platz lies the postwar Berliner Philharmonie, by architect Hans Scharoun—widely considered one of the best concert halls in the world and still the greatest artistic joy the city has to offer. The audience is seated like the U.N. General Assembly around the warm, glowing orchestra stage, and my favorite way to enjoy the music is not to close my eyes, but to remove my glasses and stare myopically at the golden haze around me, at the hushed and indistinct humanity; in this space, even the soft coughs of those afflicted by the city’s damp air resound with a hidden melody. During the intermissions hordes of Japanese music students rush the stage to feel themselves at the apogee of classical music. Conductor Simon Rattle’s interpretation of Mahler’s majestic and oddly hopeful Ninth Symphony brings the teenage concertgoer next to me to tears, and by the end of the performance she is shouting—shouting, mind you—for Sir Simon to grace us with an encore, which he does. How Berliners love their dandelion-haired British maestro.
And there are more Berliners on the way. The city is a baby-making machine. German parents receive a sizable subsidy for each child, and that child then collects a stipend until the age of 25. Hence, the tony eastern neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg on a Thursday evening becomes a parade of well-dressed women on fancy bicycles with swaddled bundles of joy perched on the backseat, the occasional husband following behind at a respectful distance. The fecundity of these people is astonishing, and one wonders what this generation of new Berliners—born to be mild amidst a landscape of hatha yoga and bio-products—will be like when it comes of age. While the children seem mellow, coddled, and rosy-cheeked, Berlin motherhood is fierce and competitive. Crossing at a red light while a Kind is watching might earn you the reproach “Are you color-blind?” from a mama worried that you are setting a dangerous example.
Prenzlauer Berg, arguably the most attractive of the East’s neighborhoods, used to be the place in which to get pregnant. Now I see Maclaren strollers everywhere. Trying to figure out Berlin’s neighborhood of the moment is like trying to corner an especially smart chicken. But one thing is certain: the trend of colonizing the East seems to have been reversed, with formerly uncool western neighborhoods that were the preserves of punks, draft dodgers, and the Turkish community during the Cold War—often beautiful Kreuzberg, but also the grittier Neukölln, to the south—now attracting the mommies and daddies of the city’s creative class, not to mention a cascade of Americans with juicy Fulbrights.
My favorite stretch of Kreuzberg runs along the banks of the Landwehrkanal. Here, Turkish and bohemian Berlin meet in a way that makes the city feel as multicultural as Paris or London. On a Tuesday or a Friday I start at the Turkish Market,
which stretches along the Maybachufer bank of the canal, to sample a smorgasbord of fat navel oranges, hot spinach böreks that flake to nothingness in your grasp, glowing aubergines, piles of octopus glistening in olive oil, every gradient of feta known to the Bosporus. The Anatolian young women in beautiful sequined chadors and men screaming out their prices until their voices break remind you of the greater world beyond the glacial forests and lakes of Brandenburg.
All that produce calls for a terrific meal. I head west along the canal to Defne, a restaurant that is nominally Turkish, but also smartly plays with the flavors of the Mediterranean. In other words, the greasy döner kebab that feeds Berlin’s workers and party people is blessedly absent from the menu. One night I sit next to a German man with a beautiful flowing mullet like the mane of a balding lion, his breast adorned with a necklace of miniature pelts, perhaps an homage to the Navajo people. He is sampling one of my favorite dishes, the Imam Fainted—a zesty mix of aubergines with pine nuts and peppers, in a tomato-herb sauce. Defne also has the spiciest octopus in town, drowning in garlic and white-wine sauce and oven-baked with—I’m not really sure how this works—crumbly feta cheese. The so-called Well Brought Up Lamb skewer is charred but red-centered, and perfectly lives up to its name. Even more shocking, the service, for Berlin, is competent and caring: a waitress, when summoned, may come.
In need of a nightcap, I head to the nearby Ankerklause, a bar boat moored by the Turkish market, afloat with hipsters, punk rockers, and the occasional aging French tourist couple who have steered way off course. When the sun sets (that would be 5 p.m.), the bar becomes the kind of Berlin free-for-all that has made the city the world’s capital of informality. As Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” blasts across the canal, I take a peek outside to watch the resident swans—those most blasé of Berliners—tuck their beaks beneath their wings and drift off to their complex avian dreams.
The swans are asleep, but the city is just getting started. Berlin lives by its nightlife. Even the average cabbie knows the score and will tell you that “Tresor is over and Café Moskau is full of teenagers,” but Berghain is still the place to go. The club is housed in a muscular former power station in a nether zone between West Kreuzberg and the gentrifying Friedrichshain area of the East (you’ll simply never find it). In its mix of straight and gay, this fantastically imposing space recaptures the Weimar aesthetic Berlin has been aching for ever since the Third Reich wiped out much of the city’s eclectic culture. But before you can enter, a guy with three lip rings, some sort of pirate’s vest, and the mien of a young Mozart—the bouncer, in other words—will carefully scrutinize your worth. “Berlin is the city for electronic dance music,” says Mark Butler, a fellow at the American Academy and professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on the Berlin scene. “Almost every twenty- or thirtysomething you meet is a degree or two removed from someone who is recording techno or running a label.” And half of them seem to convene at Berghain every Saturday night. By 9 a.m., when the club’s shutters suddenly open to reveal the stealth arrival of a gray Berlin morning, the purist techno rhythms may well have grabbed your heart and taught it how to beat.
If not, something else will do the trick. Berlin may be tamer than it was in the 1990’s, when people would organize spontaneous after-hour parties in the ATM vestibules of their local banks, but the nightlife is still thumping. Back in Kreuzberg, the Monarch bar, on the second floor of a hilariously dreary housing project, beckons the 40-year-old hipster who wishes to turn the clock back by exactly 15 years and is ready to groove to a disco version of “Hava Nagila” or the gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello.
Wedding is a gentrifying neighborhood of art galleries and new clubs just north of the Hauptbahnhof. Here is Haunch of Venison, the branch of a London gallery that put on a stunning display of Zhang Huan’s 13-foot-tall Berlin Buddha, which was made entirely of incense ash and took three months to disintegrate—impermanence being yet another of this city’s leitmotifs. Opposite the Haunch is a club called Tape, home of the World Championship for Chess Boxing, where the contenders play chess for four minutes and then beat each other up. At other times, this enormous space hosts well-known acts like the Swiss diva Miss Kittin and the singer Peaches, the ever popular mistress of incorrectness, whose filthy Canadian mouth has found a perfect home in Berlin.
And then there’s the KMA 36 bar, on the broad and unrepentantly socialist boulevard that is Karl-Marx-Allee, formerly known as Stalin Allee. The vodka martinis are excellent, and the bar’s architecture alone is worth the visit—this former GDR cosmetics studio is an open constructivist glass box that would rank with the best of Warsaw Pact design. Glowing bright at night, the bar has a simplicity and inclusiveness that belie its ridiculous roots.
As Berlin swells with expats and the economy picks up a bit (picture media parks and town house developments), the question remains: Is this the new crucible of world culture or just an unusual city with a tiny airport?The galleries are here (although the buyers often are not), the nightlife, the youthful excitement, the coffee shops full of media types with laptops are all in evidence, but the international set likes to eat well, and restaurants have never been Berlin’s strong suit. That’s changing. Celebrity chef Tim Raue, who has done much for the city’s cuisine at the restaurant 44 in the Swissôtel, is moving on to the famous Adlon Hotel. Here is a chef with affection for watermelon and the ability to bring Asian-chili heat to a humble piece of cod, a level of spicing appropriate for the global tongue. Another worthy entry is Facil, on the top floor of the Mandala Hotel at Potsdamer Platz. The space is reminiscent of the clean lines of the Neue Nationalgalerie down the street, and one is mesmerized by the two rows of chestnut trees—yellow and green in equal measure—shivering in the autumn cold on the attractive patio. The weird acoustics deposit snatches of political and economic German on your plate, along with the helicopter laughter of powerful men. The wine list is heavy on fine Austrian Sauvignon Blancs, and one night I was moved by a shoulder of Brandenburg venison with pine-cream chicory that was as good a treatment of the city’s anorexic deer as I’ve ever had.
But this is above all a city of cozy neighborhoods—a local will swear foremost allegiance to his Kiez—and some of the best restaurants are little places that serve food, often from the south and west of Germany, to people from up and down the block. I’m thinking of a fairly new spot called Lebensmittel in Mitte, a grocery store with a shock of fresh green vegetables laid out in front, along with cans of tasty homemade cherry preserves. A typical night could find its back room full of nursing middle-aged mothers (“I’ve never seen people who love their children so much,” a visiting American tells me), their husbands dividing their time between the hollering tots and a soccer match on the television—as close as Berlin will ever get to feeling like Naples. Highlights include the occasional appetizer of homemade lard with plums and bacon, a tender goose with a glistening layer of fat, and a plate of spaetzle egg noodles smothered with cheese and perfect for brunching.
A civilization can often be judged by the quality of its chicken, and Kreuzberg’s legendary Henne offers the moistest, crispiest milk-roasted bird to be found in Mitteleuropa, along with a décor that’s a celebration of Berlin as a working-class city, with its wooden ceilings, tartan tablecloths, and dingy, nicotine-stained walls. A draught of golden Landbier from the northern part of Bavaria and the occasional drag of a forbidden cigarette (Berlin has just enacted a shocking smoking ban) will help you feel as drunk and rheumatic as the rest of the clientele.
In another part of Kreuzberg, on the relatively posh Bergmannstrasse, I swear by the restaurant Austria, which I love for more than its monstrously sized schnitzel perched atop a tangy potato salad made with onion and vinegar. In this folksy, low-ceilinged, crimson setting, former Berlin resident Jeffrey Eugenides celebrated the completion of one of the best novels of the new century, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Middlesex. In fact, the hero(ine) of his novel, Calliope Stephanides, goes on an important date at Austria and is taken with the many sets of deer antlers that line the restaurant’s walls, which are described as “comically small, as though they come from animals you could kill with your bare hands.” During my last meal at Austria, I watch yet another young Berlin mother cutting a schnitzel with an optician’s precision for her brood of three. Two children are reaching up for the crusty bits of veal like newborn chicks, but one little fellow is too engrossed to eat: he is…reading a book. “The restaurant is dark, warm, woody and comfortable,” Eugenides writes. “Anybody who wouldn’t like it is somebody I wouldn’t like.”
One chilly morning, after consuming our body weight in schnitzel, a short Jewish friend and I cross the lake to the House of the Wannsee Conference, where on January 20, 1942, the head of the Reich Security Main Office, Reinhard Heydrich, invited a group of gentlemen for “a meeting to be followed by breakfast.” The gentlemen in question were high-ranking members of the S.S. and other Nazi entities; the meeting was a plan to murder all European Jews; and the breakfast must have been a traditionally healthy German one, with lots of small talk and gales of morning laughter. As with all German historical sites, the documentation in this thoroughly pleasant lakeside villa is meticulous. After learning of the Nazi plan to deport the country’s Jews to Madagascar (if only!), my friend and I realize that most of the conference involved the so-called Mischling question—in other words, what to do with Germans of mixed Jewish-Aryan blood. After deliberating the semantics of the question for an hour and a half, the gentlemen decided that if an individual looks, “feels, and behaves” like a Jew, then he “should be classed with the Jews”—in other words, gassed. As I’m stroking my dense, near-rabbinical beard and my friend is playing with her Sephardic curls, the inevitable older German woman quickly gravitates to us and says, apologetically, “It was a dark time in our history.” And I’m torn between sadness and revulsion, an appreciation of the sentiment, and the impotent feeling that I do not have the power to absolve.
The visual artist Thomas Demand is, in my opinion, the finest artist in Germany today. Some of his work re-creates life-size models of recent historical events—for example, the lectern used by Serbian dictator Slobodan Miloševic in 1989 to declare open season on Yugoslavia’s other ethnic groups (Podium). The models, constructed of colored paper and cardboard, are photographed and then destroyed. Whatever the subject matter, these works, to my mind, accurately and honestly capture what it means to be born under the canopy of history in a perennially overcast part of the world. Demand is able to tease out a paper-thin beauty from his often mundane subjects, while in a work like Podium we are left with a brief, if stylized, visual portrait of what history looks like during the tremulous instant, that last exhale of breath, before the slaughter begins. Which is to say that unlike that of other contemporary artists, Demand’s vision frightens me. He works from a 15,000-square-foot storage building behind the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, a place that in any other “world city” would house 800 graphic designers and an overpriced Thai-Mexican restaurant. Part of Demand’s factory space is cantilevered over a garden that used to be taken up with train tracks, a potent Berlin symbol, while his studio building runs right up to the frontier of the former Berlin Wall. “Can’t do anything about it,” Demand says, one finger on his thick dark frames. “History is everywhere.”
He’s right. As of 2008, Berlin’s guilt infrastructure is almost completely in place. Tributes to its tragic past have been cropping up recently, including the thousands of concrete slabs that form the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate and the adjacent bunker that will be the new U.S. Embassy. The most impressive memorial, however, does not aspire to architectural glory or to strenuous interpretation. I take the S-Bahn west for 20 minutes to the tiny suburban train station of quiet, leafy Grunewald. Between 1941 and 1945, more than 55,000 Jewish Berliners were deported to extermination camps from what is now a disused track labeled Gleis 17. The dates of deportation and the destinations of the trains are carved onto the edge of the platform. But on the day I come to the memorial, my last day in Berlin, a fresh snow has obscured everything. Only the lights of nearby cottages blink in the gloom. And all I can see are snow-covered boughs gently arching across the tracks. And there, in the far distance, some young trees, sturdy and short, have found a foothold.
When to Go
The best time to visit is May through September, when temperatures are in the 70’s. From October through April,
expect damp, colder weather.