I’m a Berliner now

I was in Germany in April 2023, I’d been to Leipzig for the Bach 300 festival before catching a train for ten great days in Berlin. A city I last visited in the late 1990s, just a few years after Germany’s reunification and the city was still like a building construction site. Then it was possible to travel from the former Western Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate to the former East and see the immediate change from glitz to drab. This was all in the process of change. Twenty-five years ago, I was working on the English language dub of a film with my German colleague and friend from EuroArts, Bernd Hellthaler and the Hungarian film director, István Szabó. I was staying in a small hotel on the well-known and poetically-named street Unter den Linden (under the linden trees) that runs straight, East to West, through the centre of Berlin. I had the opportunity at that time to discuss, with these two intelligent, liberal-minded, and much more informed people than me, what was going to happen in Germany after the great change. Their mood was of cautious optimism. In 2023, I was interested to see how Berlin must have changed in those twenty-five years.

This time, I was happy to get an unexpected message from Bernd soon after my arrival in Berlin, and, as well as being pleased to see that he is still the same charming guy, and a key figure in music broadcasting, even though he has now retired, he is also still very much the pragmatist who answers political questions with his characteristic shrug. We had a convivial and still largely optimistic meeting with coffee and kuchen, but these days conversations about East and West are dominated by talk of Russia and Ukraine, but not without an opportunity grabbed to rib me about the UK’s unpopular decision over Brexit. I was happy this time to be able to wave my new Irish passport showing that I’m still very much in the EU.

I was staying here in ‘quirky,’ ‘arty,’ ‘gritty,’ ‘edgy,’ or just plain ‘trendy, Kreuzberg, a student quarter, south of the city centre, Mitte, in a ‘trendy’ and ‘arty’ apartment, next to a very cool bar on one side and a hipster restaurant on the other, with more down the street on both sides and Babylon Kino, an arthouse cinema at one end, in a district that has almost wall-to-wall graffiti.

Very soon, this bar became a kind of home – a place to go if you wanted to go out somewhere interesting but couldn’t be bothered to go far. Next-door was often far enough for me, especially when it was as pretty as this place.

It became the rendez-vous of choice when meeting up with family and friends, who also happened to be in Berlin, before moving on a few yards up the street for dinner. Max & Moritz was a really classy but informal ‘German’ restaurant, serving authentic, no really, German food.

And then, when it was time for bed, I only needed to stagger a few steps and I was there,

With the blinds open, I used to wake up in the morning to a leafy inner-courtyard view and, if I was lucky, a sighting or two of the local red squirrels, who might have been watching me.

Every morning, rain or no rain, I headed to the end of the street to a small square called Oranienplatz, an open space in this area of dense housing.

Oranienplatz supplied me with a gritty, in the literal sense, square for my martial arts practice…and so, yet again, I had found an ideal Kung-fu and tai-chi dojo. My audience, most mornings, was a trio of elderly Turkish women. One of them, on my last day, did a funny and unexpected imitation of my upper crane block.

If Kreuzberg is ‘edgy,’ it only seemed like that a couple of times at the entrance to the Kottbusser Tor metro station, when it was probably wise not to pay too much attention to the furtive huddles of young men rolling small polythene bags into silver foil. If we are talking about crime in Kreuzberg, the statistics tell us that serious crime is minimal here, with at worst, some drug peddling and drunken behaviour. I was careful, but not fearful in this vibrant part of the city.

Kottbusser Tor station was the quickest way to get into the city centre, so I went there a lot, excited, the first time, to be on my way to Berlin Alexanderplatz, the location of one of my favourite books. Alfred Döblin’s montage-style 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz. It is the story of Franz, an ex-con who is drawn back to crime in the working class districts around the famous Berlin square, in the closing days of the Weimar Republic and the beginnings of the rise of Nazism.

The novel was made into a masterly and, yes, unforgettable tv series in 1980 (now remastered) by film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Here is a short trailer for the remastered videos, sorry, but I could only find the version with French subtitles. It is still one of my very favourite TV series – all these years later.

When my train got into Alexanderplatz station, I knew that it would be a totally different experience to the novel, the series, and even the historical Alexanderplatz, which was destroyed by bombing in World War 2.

The station is beautiful – colourful, bright and clean…

…and up on street level, it has gained in shopping mall convenience what it has lost of its, yes, ‘edgy’ reputation. And, I forgot to tell you, it rained a lot during most of my stay. Apparently, it really can rain in Berlin.

Nothing, though, can rob me of my inner image of Alexanderplatz, even if, I have to admit, I am more that a little bit disappointed by its rebuild.

These days Alexanderplatz mostly exists indoors, like here in the giant Galeria Kaufhof – but if nothing else, it makes a welcome refuge from the rain.

I was a brave and often rather a damp sight-seer around Berlin city centre, but that didn’t stop me appreciating the mammoth changes that have happened since I was last here twenty-five years ago. I had often wondered how the city would handle its reconstruction, or maybe I should say series of reconstructions, since the long tale of the war and its consequences took its toll on what was once a handsome city with a long history of welcoming people from other countries and cultures.

Unter den Linden 1852-53 by Eduard Gaertner (1801 – 1877) Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Rear view of the houses at Schloßfreiheit (Ansicht der Rückfront der Häuser an der Berliner Schloßfreiheit) 1855 by Eduard Gaertner (1801 – 1877) Nationalgalerie, Berlin

I was intrigued to see what the new architects had been doing to replace the shattered centre of Berlin – there are some wonderful new buildings by innovative architects, but not maybe, in the very middle of town, the so-called Island of Museums, where they have gone for rebuilding replicas of the originals. It was a marathon job, of course, and one to admire, but, I couldn’t help feeling that the soul of those buildings has been lost in the replications. It is not really for me to say, but I would have liked to have seen a new cathedral built here instead of the monumental duplicate that they built in its place.

I love a lot of the new buildings and admire the way Berlin, and Germany in general, has become a modern culture not afraid to recognise its past, even the most distressing aspects of it. The well-known British comedy series, Fawlty Towers, had a running gag where the Brits are repeatedly told ‘don’t mention the war’. I never felt that I had to pretend when I was in Berlin. I was especially impressed by the number of open spaces, bomb sites, that instead of being simply built over to make a white-washed new city centre, a few prime sites, where the Wehrmacht had its centre, have been left either untouched or dedicated to a grieving and dignified form of remembrance as in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermodeten Juden Europas), designed by Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold (2005) where 4.7 acres of valuable real estate in the centre of Berlin has been covered in a maze of 2,711 concrete slabs with an underground Ort der Information (Place of Information) that holds the names of approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims.

Not far from there is a small inner city carpark which is the unmarked site of Hitler’s bunker, and not much further away, one of the last Nazi era constructions, once the largest office building in Europe, built in 1936, as the headquarters of the Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe, then the House of Ministries during the Democratic Republic and now, bizarrely, it is the headquarters of the German Finance Ministry.

Running along the side of the indestructible building, are some of the remains of the Berlin Wall, now a memorial too, for all those who died trying to cross it into West Germany during the DDR, or GDR (German Democratic Republic). The derelict land in front of the wall, still a kind of No-Man’s Land, it is, I was told, the site of the Gestapo and SS Headquarters. It seems that the land, like the Biblical Potter’s Field is just too contaminated to have any use other than one for mourning the dead.

Thinking about the Berlin Wall and the days of East Germany, the DDR, I visited the DDR Museum, a brilliantly designed and curated record of what ordinary life would have been like during that era. Sure, the repression and autocracy is there, some dreams too, but it is also a museum to a world which was temptingly so much less materialistic than ours is today.

Life for that mystical tribe known as ‘ordinary people’ had its ambitions restricted, certainly, but looking round the museum, I couldn’t help feeling that those who didn’t become victims of the Stasi, were freed from the negative effects of too many choices – what kind of deodorant, washing powder, or kitchen units? Does it really matter? I thought. Maybe they had something there.

Then, of course, there was the dead hand and chilly smile of autocratic bureaucracy, and my mild envy for those people disappeared like a short-lived daydream.

A strong desire for the new in 1968 is unsurprising. In those years, the new often meant building on bomb sites. Berlin had been given, not as a gift, a rubble-covered tabula rasa for building on. The Neue Nationalgalerie building was one of those masterpieces, designed by the famous Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a vast ground floor exhibition space with a lower floor for the permanent collection (Picasso, Munch, Mondriaan and Calder among others). It was closed for six years in 2015 because the design led to many technical problems, especially cracking glass and condensation. The British architect, David Chipperfield, undertook the major renovation and the gallery was opened again in 2021.

The Pillars of Society 1926 George Grosz (1893 – 1959)
Woman sitting in a chair (Femme assise dans un fauteuil) 1909 Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)
Sanbornville I, 1966 by Frank Stella (B. 1936)

The main new exhibition here on my visit was the series Birkenau (2014) by the German artist Gerhard Richter. The works are based on four photographs taken in the concentration camp that Richter has gradually transposed with charcoal and oil paint until they became abstracts with the original drawings invisible. They are positioned in front of four matching mirrors that add to their own level of transposition. Other parts of the exhibition show over-painted photographs in Richter’s long exploration of how to represent the Holocaust in art.

Gerhard Richter (b 1932), the German abstract and photorealist artist.
Overpainted photograph 4.12.06, 2006, by Gerhard Richter

Another brave new 1960’s building in Berlin is the Philharmonie, opened in 1963, with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethovens 9th Symphony, the Choral – a hot ticket, I should imagine. The old Philharmonie building was destroyed by British bombs in World War 2, but there can be few complains about its wonderful replacement. The Berlin Philharmonic were away on tour when I was in Berlin, but I managed to get tickets for a concert at the Philharmonie with Berlin’s other world-class orchestra, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra), with their principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski. They were playing Shostakovich’s excitingly modern Symphony No. 4 in a performance that is still playing in my head over a year later.

Before the symphony, there was the German premiere of a new work by the Russian composer Elena Firsova. Her Piano Concerto for the pianist Yefim Bronfman, is, she says ‘very personal and reflected my meditations about the mystery and meaning of Death.’ She quotes a phrase from Beethoven’s late String Quartet op. 135, over which Beethoven had written: ‘Muss es sein?’ (Does it have to be?). Born in St Petersburg and a student in Moscow, Elena Firsova now lives in London, but before she left Russia, she, like Shostakovich, was condemned by the authorities for her modernist tendencies. The Congress of the Composers’ Union in 1979 attacked her and two other composers of her generation: ‘Elena Firsova, Dmitri Smirnov (her late husband) and Sofia Gubaidulina compose pointless and noisy mud…..they should be denied the right to represent Soviet music abroad.’

We were not denied the chance to hear this thought-provoking new work with its very human struggle for meaning in life and, also, maybe death. I don’t think Stalin would have liked it, but Beethoven, and I think, Shostakovich would have approved.

Unsurprisingly she is dismayed by the war against Ukraine; it ‘fills me with deep shame, I count myself lucky I left Russia thirty years ago and was last there seventeen years ago.’

Russian-born Elena Firsova (b.1950)
Soviet-born Israeli-American pianist Yefim Bronfman with Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski after the German premiere of Elena Firsova’s Piano Concerto.

Here is a video taken at that performance of the Firsova Piano Concerto in Berlin on 18 April 2023

Shostakovich’s fourth symphony was composed in 1935/6 and has had a dramatic history as it is the last work that Shostakovich wrote unfettered by the rules imposed on creative artists during Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union. Pravda, the official newspaper was instructed by Stalin to write a critique which was a barely veiled personal attack on Shostakovich, who was at that time the brilliant enfant terrible among Soviet composers. His opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsenisk, which shared a lot of musical material with the fourth symphony, was called ‘muddle instead of music.’ Rehearsals had started for the premiere when it was announced that Shostakovich had withdrawn the work – probably to save the orchestra from Stalin’s wrath – and the symphony wasn’t premiered until 1961, long after Stalin’s death. Something died in Shostakovich after this….the fiery and dangerously challenging part of his creative genius was at least partially paralysed if not killed outright. He certainly never wrote anything like this symphony again.

Dmitri Shostakovich in 1936

At the Philharmonie last April it was definitely music instead of muddle – we heard the voice of a radical young man shouting out loud for his freedom from oppression. Berlin felt like the right place to hear him, having walked round the remains of Hitler’s Reich and the last remains of Berlin’s Soviet wall.

I looked to see if there was a recording of that performance but couldn’t find anything, so here is a short except of it played by the Berlin Philharmonic, in the same hall, conducted by Simon Rattle.

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

The Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie) sits in a prime spot on Berlin’s Museum Island and I could have spent my whole holiday here. It was founded to exhibit the works of major German artists, but later it was expanded to include many major 19th century French and Dutch artists….worth a visit in itself. You can see Cezanne, Corot, Courbet, Daubigny, Daumier, Fantin-Latour, Jongkind, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Signat and Van Gogh. I shall ignore them, love them as I do, for the purposes of this blog, because a lot the German artists were new to me and I want to share them. I have long admired Friedrich, Böcklin, Klinger and Beckmann, but the others mentioned here, and many more, changed my perspective about German art in the 19th century, so dominated, for me at least, by the great French schools of Romanticism, Neo-Classicism, Realism, Impressionism and Expressionism.

Le Penseur (The Thinker) (1902) by Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) and Noisetiers en fleurs (Chestnut tree in bloom) 1881 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919)
The Age of Bronze 1877 by Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) and Dans la serre (In the conservatory) 1879 by Édouard Manet (1832 – 1883)
Portrait of the painter Casper David Friedrich 1810 by Caroline Bardua (1781 – 1804)
Monk by the sea (Der Mönch am Meer) 1808- 1810 by Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840)
Deep in the forest by moonlight (Waldinneres bei Mondschenen) 1823-30 by Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840)
Cabin covered in snow (Verschneite Hutte) 1827 by Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840)
Coast Scene by moonlight (Meeresküste bei Mondschein) 1830 by Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840)
Castle by the River (Schloss am Strom) 1820 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781 – 1841)
Pontine Marshes at Sunset (Die Pontischen Sümpfe bei Sonnenuntergang) 1848 by August Kopisch (1799 – 1853)
The Blue Grotto in Capri (Die Blaue Grotte auf Capri) 1860 by Carl Friedrich Seiffert (1808 – 1891)
Knight’s Castle (Ritterburg) 1861 by Karl Friedrich Lessing (1808 – 1880)
Flax barn at Laren (Flachsscheuer in Laren) 1887 by Max Liebermann (1847 – 1935)
Self-portrait with sports cap at the easel (Selbstbildnis mit Sportmütze an der Staffelei) 1925 by Max Liebermann (1847 – 1935)
Cobbler’s workshop (Schusterwerkstatt) 1881 by Max Liebermann (1847 – 1935)
Summer (Sommer) 1872 by Hans Thoma (1839 – 1924)
Archers (Bogenschützen) 1887 by Hans Thoma (1839 – 1924)
Self-portrait (Selbstbildnis) 1873 by Anselm Feuerbach (1929 – 1880)
The artist’s step-mother, Henriette Feuerbach (Die Stiefmutter des Künstlers, Henriette Feuerbach) 1878 by Anselm Feuerbach (1929 – 1880)
Self-portrait with Death playing the fiddle (Selbstbildnis mit fiedelndem Tod) 1872 by Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901)
Farmland in early Spring (Ackerfluren im Vorfrühling) 1884 by Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901)
The Isle of the Dead (Die Toteninsel) 1883 by Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901)
Self-portrait with yellow hat (Selbstbildnis mit gelbem Hut) 1874 by Hans von Marées (1837 – 1887)
The Rowers (Die Ruderer. Studie zu einem Fresko im Deutschen Zoologischen Institut zu Neapel) 1873 by Hans von Marées (1837 – 1887)
The Ages of Man (Die Lebensalter) 1877 – 78 by Hans von Marées (1837 – 1887)
Portrait of the young Adolph Menzel (Portät des jungen Adolph Menzel) 1839 by Eduard Meyerheim (1808 – 1879)
The balcony room (Das Balkonzimmer) 1845 by Adolph Menzel (1815 – 1905)
The artist’s foot (Der Fuß des Künstlers) 1876 by Adolph Menzel (1815 – 1905)
Tilla Durieux depicting Circe (Tilla Durieux als Circe) 1913 by Franz von Stuck (1863 – 1928)
Walkers – Ambush (Der Überfall) 1878 by Max Klinger (1857 – 1920)
Small death scene (Kleine Sterbeszene) 1906 by Max Beckmann

And then I came to the pictures of King Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712 – 1786), painted with a propagandist brush by Adolph Menzel in his days as a history painter. Frederick was the sensitive and artistic son of an autocratic father, Frederick William I, the ‘Soldier King.’ Frederick, the unlikely heir, was first admired, or sneered at, for his interest in music and philosophy who, later in life, became interested in armies and soldiers and consequently, war. He modernised Prussian bureaucracy, reformed the justice system, and favoured the freedom of the press. Here in Menzel’s picture, he is seen as Old Fritz (der Alter Fritz), friend of the poor, who is going to be way-laid by a poor couple about to present him with a petition.

The Petition (Die Bittschrift) 1849 by Adolph Menzel (1815 – 1905)

He was all of those things, but we would be getting him wrong if we really beleive he was a man of the people, an honest Joe. He was, for all his liberal ideas, a firm believer in Enlightened Absolutism and, whatever else he thought he was, he was certain that he was the number one guy in the country – the first servant of the state.

Portrait of Frederick the Great 1740s by Antoine Pesne (1683 – 1737) National Museum, Stockholm

Is was tough being the lord of all you survey, so, I suppose it was understandable that sensitive and artistic Frederick, needed a beautiful summer palace to escape to when he needed some rest and refreshment. I had a long-held wish to see the place, romantically named Sanssouci (without worry) his version of Dun Roamin’, a kind of mini-Versailles, where, like Northern France, some of the gilt feels a bit washed out by the rain.

He was, as far as I know, happy here. He made the place just as he liked it….a bit camp, gilded and glittering, but also small in terms of other palaces, private too and, in his inner sanctum, simple and unpretentious.

The glitz was mostly reserved for the main reception rooms like this, his music room, where JS Bach’s son C P E Bach, played for him on the harpsichord and also accompanied the musical king’s flute. It was at Frederick’s other palace, the one at Potsdam, (bombed and destroyed during World War 2), that he persuaded CPE Bach to bring his father, Johann Sebastian along to play for him. The result, now famous, was that JS improvised multiple fugues on a tune composed by Frederick and later elaborated them further into what became A Musical Offering ( Das Musikalische Opfer, BWV 1079), one of the composers late and greatest masterpieces.

I suspect Frederick the Great was happiest though, later in his reign, to be alone in his study, reading, writing and practising his flute, and, from time-to-time, gazing out of the window at his favourite statue, placed there perfectly framed by his window.

Copy of Frederick’s statue the praying boy, the Berlin Adorant, an Ancient Greek bronze statue/ The original is now in the Berlin Altes Museum.

It was here, in his armchair, in his seventies, crippled by asthma and gout, that he died in 1786, leaving instructions to be buried at Sanssouci next to his beloved greyhounds.

Frederick the Great c. 1986 by Andy Warhol Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam

Unlikely but apt, somehow, I thought when I came across this framed screen-print of the old king, by Andy Warhol (1968). Weary, paranoid, camped up, and slightly ridiculous, the old man seems weighed down by monarchy and the impossibilities of finding happiness as an enlightened absolutist, or even here, sans souci – without worry. I’m sorry about all those wars, about the Partition of Poland, and for Frederick’s cruel treatment by his father, who had Frederick’s closest, and much loved, male friend beheaded in front of him after they’d tried to run away together. But, if for nothing else, I’m happy that Frederick invited Johann Sebastian Bach – the main reason for my trip to Germany – to come to Potsdam and to write one last masterpiece.

The flute concert of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci (Flötenkonzert Friedrichs des Großen in Sanssouci) 1850 – 52 by Adolph Menzel (1815 – 1905) Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

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