Reigniting the dazzle of a roaring era with a tour of West Berlin
Boris Pofalla and Robert Nippoldt trace the glory of the 1920’s that remains
The era of new ideas and creative energy is experiencing a resurge in popularity. From art to literature and film, it has recently inspired successful TV productions such as Babylon Berlin, and now takes us to its bustling heart.
The 1920s was one of the most dazzling decades of the last century in Berlin. Although the myths surrounding the Roaring Twenties really only apply to a few years, the era has come to represent the emergence of a modern zest for life, including a vibrant nightlife, set against the backdrop of a buzzing metropolis. “Perhaps it’s that the era gave rise to ideas that could certainly still stand today,” says Boris Pofalla, who recently published a gigantic illustrated book on the topic, together with Robert Nippoldt entitled Night Falls on Berlin in the Roaring Twenties. Cabaret, theater, film, art, literature, and architecture: truly innovative ideas were born during this crazed time of upheaval, between the aftermath of World War I and the brewing catastrophic economic crisis and later Nazi rule. Author and journalist Boris and illustrator Robert guide us on a tour inspired by the Roaring Twenties, a time that offered bohemians, night owls, and intellectuals much diversion and creative energy. Naturally, our tour takes us to the heart of the ’20s culture and nightlife: the Kurfürstendamm.
The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church) on Charlottenburg’s Breitscheidplatz is one of Berlin’s most famous landmarks. Boris and Robert selected this for the first stop on our tour because “the area around the church was the centre of Berlin’s nightlife in the 1920s,” Robert says. Back then, avant-garde personalities like Gottfried Benn, Else Lasker-Schüler, and Egon Erwin Kisch strolled between the countless jazz clubs, cafés, cinemas, and dance halls of the day. Cabaret artist and composer Friedrich Hollaender transformed the church into a musical landmark when he wrote the revue “Bei uns um die Gedächtniskirche herum” (1928). Robert’s good friend Stephan Wuthe is “a total expert when it comes to the history of the era.” He says: “I’d recommend his ‘Swingwalks’ — musical and historical city tours — to anyone.”
“There were some 40 theaters and 170 variety shows in Berlin in the 1920s. Those who got to perform under the night sky at the famous Wintergarten were those who’d made it.”
“At the right cinema, you’re never at the wrong film,” says Jan Rost, co-director of the Delphi Film-palast, as he greets us, smiling. Originally built as a dance hall next to the Theater des Westens, the Delphi building was bombed in World War II and later rebuilt as a cinema in 1947. For a while, it held the title of Germany’s largest cinema. “Starting in the 50s, the Delphi played all the big American Hollywood films,” says Jan. Today, the opulent cinema, which evokes the mood of days gone by with its red fabric walls and cozy blue velvet seats, mostly shows European art house films, including many from Germany. Boris and Robert make themselves comfortable in the first row of the gallery, which offers the best view in the house.
“It’s time for a hot chocolate,” decides Robert. There’s only one place to get one: Grosz café on Kurfürstendamm. In the afternoon, the coffee house and restaurant offers afternoon tea with small bites and tasty sweets baked in their own bakery, L’Oui. Grosz is located in Haus Cumberland. Built in 1912, the building has been home to a diverse collection of tenants, including the Imperial Arms and Munitions Office, a grand hotel, and the Regional Post Office. The café opened exactly 100 years later and was named after the Berlin artist George Grosz, who is known for his drawings and paintings depicting a critical view of life in Berlin in the 1920s. Boris notes, “Grosz is one of the most intriguing people of his time. That’s why we’ve dedicated a chapter of our book to him.”
Not far from Grosz is the Berlin flagship store of Taschen Verlag, the publishing house that brought out Boris and Robert’s book in November 2017. Naturally, we stop by to have a look and Robert proudly picks up a copy of his freshly printed book. The exhibition “Es wird Nacht im Berlin der Wilden Zwanziger” (Night Falls on Berlin in the Roaring Twenties), curated by Robert Nippoldt, is on display in the Taschen store until the end of March 2018. However, a visit to the Schlüterstrasse location is always worthwhile. Taschen specialises in beautifully illustrated books on fashion, music, art, travel, and photography. So it’s easy to while away a leisurely afternoon in the fine bookstore browsing the dark wooden shelves and lounging in the luxurious armchairs.
The Schaubühne at Lehniner Platz has been home to one of Berlin’s most beloved theatre ensembles since 1981. The building, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, soars above Kurfürstendamm like a massive steam ship. It must have been quite the spectacle in 1928 when the building housed Kino Universum, a cinema boasting 1,800 seats. “The architecture is unique in that the three stages are flexible and can be converted into one gigantic hall,” explains the Schaubühne’s Charlotte Jaquet. The theatre programme itself offers plenty of variety: here, contemporary theatre can include a dialog with art, music, literature, or film. Live video streams and sound labs are also always welcome on this stage.
Le Petit Royal
If Le Petit Royal had existed in the Roaring Twenties, it certainly would have been a culinary hotspot for countless artists, writers, and other glamorous personalities. The eclectic French-style restaurant is a branch of the famed culinary empire Grill Royal. Located near Savignyplatz, Le Petit Royal opened in 2016 and instantly attracted Berlin’s bourgeoisie and international guests alike. Boris likewise considers it one of his favorites. The upscale cuisine is celebrated for its modern interpretation of classic French dishes, such as Bouillabaisse and Coq au vin. It’s hard to resist the turbot served with anchovies, capers, spinach, and beurre rouge, or the eccentric salade maquereaux with grapefruit, avocado, and horseradish dressing.
“There were some 40 theaters and 170 variety shows in Berlin in the 1920s. Those who got to perform under the night sky at the famous Wintergarten were those who’d made it,” explains Boris. The Wintergarten opened in 1880 as part of the Central Hotel on Friedrichstrasse and soon became a world-renowned performance space. However, the building was completely destroyed during World War II. The Wintergarten Varieté on Potsdamer Straße has carried on the tradition since 1992. It’s no surprise that Boris and Robert want to pay a visit to this new stage with an old name. Its program includes shows, music, dance, and acrobatics all set against a 1920s crimson backdrop. There’s even the option of enjoying a three-course meal set beneath the artificial night sky, just like back in the day.
This tour exploring West Berlin was inspired by the book Symphony of a Great City, written by our guides Boris and Robert and available at Taschen Verlag. Read more stories discovering the German capital and other cities such as Hamburg and Vienna in Companion Magazine, which is available at all local 25hours Hotels.
Text: Celina Plag