Over the weekend my partner kindly took me to Berlin as a belated birthday present. This is the first time I’ve visited the city and one of the highlights was taking a tour of the primary neighbourhood Christopher Isherwood inhabited when he lived there from 1929-1933. This tour was given by a gracious and informative man named Brendan who has an extensive amount of knowledge about Isherwood’s writing/experiences and life in Berlin during the interwar period and you can find information about his tours on the site Isherwood’s Neighbourhood.
I read “The Berlin Stories” when I was a teenager and, like many people, came to this book after watching the film ‘Cabaret’. So, even though Isherwood only lived in Berlin for a relatively short amount of time, he’s inextricably associated with the city in my mind. I reread sections of the stories to my partner while we were staying there. What I so admire about them is how lively and fun they are while also containing such an ominous feeling about this incredibly politically troubled city. There’s a glamour to the bohemian sensibility of the many freewheeling sexually-liberated characters, but also a melancholy edge to some like landlady Frl Schroeder whose position in society was so reduced due to rising inflation and the downfall of the middle class. And, of course, the encroaching control of Nazis in the city darkly colours all the stories.
We weren’t able to enter the apartment Isherwood rented because it’s still privately owned, but there’s a plaque outside. Passages of the novel really came alive as we looked at the facades of the buildings, many of which were stripped of decoration from Nazi influence or which had to be rebuilt after wartime bombing. One of the most striking locations we stopped at was the former site of the Eldorado club, a nightspot popular with gay crowds and famous for its cabarets which featured performances from people such as Marlene Dietrich in the late 20s and early 30s. It was a venue that Isherwood undoubtably frequented and informed his writing. But it was bracing hearing about how this space of liberation was turned from such a lively club to the local headquarters for the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary. This happened over the space of a few short years and its sobering to think about how quickly things can change.
Berlin is an absolutely beautiful and lively city, but it’s also filled with such a weighty sense of absence. This can be seen on both a large and small scale wherever you go. There’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which stands badly damaged from a 1943 bombing raid and I also took a tour of the Tempelhof Airport which is enormous and largely empty, but the airfield is currently the site of a refugee camp as featured in Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel “Go, Went, Gone”. There’s the Stolpersteine which are small brass memorial plates inscribed with the names and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution that can be found throughout the city. I also visited the Bebelplatz, a square which was the site of the largest Nazi book burning ceremonies and now has a memorial of a glass plate set into the cobbles giving a view down below to empty bookcases with space enough for 20,000 books.
I’d love to spend longer than a weekend in Berlin and learn more about it. I feel like my knowledge of German literature is seriously lacking so if you have any suggestions for books about Berlin I’d be grateful to hear them.