Berlin: The making of a Capital city


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: You go toBerlin forBerlin. This was especially true during the Cold War. My brother had the required permit to fly his plane there through the air corridor fromWest Germany but, nonetheless, was chased by Russian Migs and forced to land in theBerlin airport designated by them. Such restrictions isolatedBerlin. It was an island in the forbidden surroundings ofEast Germany. Even now it is a destination preferably to be reached without distraction by other “uninteresting” sites on the road. ButBerlin is not without detractors. A few yeas ago I was visiting a German Ambassador I knew who had retired to a home inBonn, the Capital of West Germany. He said there was nothing much to do inBerlin which had recently become the Capital of unifiedGermany. He took me to see Beethoven’s house. “You don’t need to go toBerlin to see art,” he said. But I did. The return of the city that had often claimed primacy inEurope was a cause not just for celebration of its artistic heritage but for full attention to its exemplary historical fate.



“Klavierkonzert Nr. 12,” the radio announcer identified the piano concerto when it was finished. Then he said the composer’s name in full: “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”. This was now followed by that most familiar piece by “Ludwig van Beethoven,” again announced in full. His Fifth Symphony took “the listener imperiously forward into the spirit world of the infinite,” as its famous early admirer, E. T. A. Hoffmann, had written. I looked around at the finite corners of my small hotel room in Berlin. On the desk were four volumes of Suddeutsche Zeitung Bibliothek (The Great Novels of the 20th Century). I could make out the title of only one; it was Anthony Burgess’s “Die Uhrwerk-Orange,” which I assumed was A Clockwork Orange. My German was woefully inadequate. The book next to my bed was also in German; it was a volume of Berliner Anthologie. There was a note on my pillow, a twelve line poem, “Verklarter Herbst” by  Georg Traki, about how the year ends in the “Transfigured Autumn.” One line was especially appropriate: “Mit goldnem Wein und Frucht der Gärten (With golden vine and fruit in the garden).” There was a bowl of fruit on the side table in my room next to a window that overlooked the exquisite garden courtyard of this hotel, Brandenburger Hof. At the bottom of the poem, the hotel said it wished me good night: “Wunscht Ihnen Gute Nacht.” The innkeeper added a personal welcome note in English:  “Live in my urban villa for a day, for a weekend -for a marvelous time.” I told myself I might just do that.

Bismarck(Otto von) would have approved. I was staying near Kurfurstendamm, the boulevard he commissioned (in late 19th century) to rival the Champs-Elysees, on one of its side streets of residential buildings where the refined lifestyle of earlier times still lingered. The hotel’s restaurant had earned a star from Michelin. Like the hotel’s notable bar it attracted the same somewhat stuffy European clientele that had given the Ritz of Place Vendome its signature character. The “Direktor” of the hotel, also called Otto, was positively Prussian in his mannerism.

The crown jewel of  Ku’damm (as locals called Kurfurstendamm) was the KaDeWe, which was an abbreviation for Kaufhaus des Westens (Department Store of the West). With “60,000 square meters of sales space,” it is continental Europe’s largest store. On its 6th floor, I strolled in its legendary food hall, comparable with the Harrods’ basement in London. I sat at the sea-food counter  for dinner and shared a conversation with a man visiting from the suburbs. He had come to Berlin for his regular “cooking night” with his buddies; that was to be the following evening. “We get together and cook a meal every month, while our wives go shopping,” he said. “I get my inspiration from this kitchen,” he laughed.

He updated me on the eventful history of KaDeWe. “It was just bought by a Jewish man from New York,” he said. The department store itself was still making money but “its mother company had been doing poorly. That was the reason for the sale.” The last time a Jewish enterprise bought KaDeWe, in 1927, it was a hugely successful store. Soon, however, the worldwide Recession hit, followed in a few years by anti-Jewish policies after Hitler’s ascendancy in 1933. Ownership changed, and the store did not recover from its adversities, including bombing by the Allies during the War, until 1950 when it reopened.

When I came out, the moon was peaking through an iconic reminder of that War, just a few blocks away on Ku’damm. The  bombed-out tower of Kaiser Wilhelm MemorialChurch has been left standing, nicknamed “Hollow Tooth.” I recorded the moment on the camera ; I was struck by the speed that the moon  moved on . When I told Steve about this, he nodded thoughtfully. “Time flies,” he said. He was now talking about himself: “It is now 35 years that I have been in Berlin.” He was the guide on the “hop on, hop off” bus that gave me a tour of the highlights of the city. He had come from New Jersey and stayed on. He spoke German fluently enough so that he gave commentaries in both German and English. He said his real job was in music. “I am a pianist, mostly jazz but also classical.” He said “well, Berlin is that way; it is hospitable to expats like me.”

Steve had arrived in Berlin in the wake of political turmoil. “(Ulrike) Meinhof and (Andreas) Baader had just committed suicide,” he said, referring to the two leaders of the Red Army Faction, the radical remnant of the 1960s left-wing student movement. “The rest of that movement eventually evolved into the Green Party.”  It was that party which, Steve said, is about to take over the government of Berlin. “It is no longer a red-red city; the Greens are ahead in the polls.” He explained that a “red-red” coalition of two parties, the center left SPD (Social Democratic Party )and far left Die Linke, won the city-wide election in 2001. Its choice, a gay man (Klaus Wowereit), has beenBerlin’s mayor since.

The Berlin that Steve was showing us from his bus also marked the signs of time. Prominent among his landmarks were the new architectural styles of foreign embassies erected sinceBerlinreclaimed its position as the capital of the newly unifiedGermany. Some belonged to the new or newly important states like India, Egypt, and Mexico. Some were remnants of the legations of old allies such asJapanandItaly. The Italian embassy was symbolic, an old structure refurbished. These were all in a cozy neighborhood at the edge of the city’s central park, Tiergarten.


The pre World War II Berlin was collected on the other side of Tiergarten. Its heart had been resuscitated in the Brandenburg Gate with its Pariser Platz . The Plaza again served as the city’s “reception room,” where tourists checked in for the short walk around the period monuments. The Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, on the top of the Brandenburg Gate is once again brandishing the Iron Cross which in the 19th century the Prussians had put in place of the original olive wreath meant to signify it as a symbol of peace. The East German government had removed the Iron Cross as a symbol of militarism. Its return is part of the “critical reconstruction” of the area looking back to the Prussian tradition. The same architectural guideline has kept at bay the encroachment of Frank Gehry’s now ubiquitous curved titanium structures. They were allowed only inside the building of DZ Bank  at one side of the Plaza. Michael Jackson’s antics, however, could not be kept out. From the reconstructed venerable Adlon Hotel  next door, the entertainer caught the attention of the world in 2002, by dangling his infant son out of the window of his room.

“That day, a noisy crowd cheered Michael Jackson on,” our tour guide recalled. In contrast, the nearby Holocaust Memorial we were visiting now invited somber silence. We meandered through its 2711 sarcophagi-like columns that rose up a few meters above the uneven ground . “It cost $27 million Euros in public fund,” the guide said. “Some people said it would have been better to spend that amount differently, for example, to endow free bus services for visiting the concentration camps. But this is very strategic. It is a place for all to see.” She continued: “Also, it is not meant just for the Jews of Germany. It is called ‘the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’” Its designer, “from New York, Peter Eisenman, has declined to give an explanation for his design. He has only said vaguely that it was based the Jewish cemetery in Prague. He has left it for each viewer to decide what it meant.” Our guide now invited us to say what the Memorial meant.  One woman said that it was “ugly but the event it commemorated was also ugly.” Another woman said, “The money spent was worth it because it reminds us of atrocities elsewhere, likeCambodia.”

Where Hitler killed himself was devoid of a reminding marker; his famous bunker of World War II had been turned into an ordinary park ing lot. “No meeting of the new Nazi party is allowed at this site,” our guide said. A few blocks away we saw the monument to a past gathering of the precursors to this group. In the square before the faculty of law of Humboldt University, empty shelves in a basement visible through a glass pane commemorated some of the 20,000 “un-German” books from the University library burned here by the assembled Nazis on May 10, 1933. They were led by rightist students; the authors included Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, and Thomas Mann. The commemorative plaque quoted a Jewish writer, Heinrich Heine, who, in 1820 had reflected on that age-old original Inquisition: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people” .

Intellectual epicenter

This place with its “empty library,” was once the intellectual epicenter of Berlin, Opernplatz (renamed Bebelplaz). It was the parlor of the National Opera House, the favorite of the music loving Prussian king Frederick the Great (1740-86) who erected the many buildings of Berlin’s cultural center called Forum around it. Even today, the opera’s orchestra comes out into this Plaza to play “for the people” twice a year. Nearby, the statute of Frederick, re-installed on his horse in 1980 by the Communist East German government, looks on approvingly.

The Communist regime had reinforced yet another legacy of the Prussians here– HumboldtUniversity. Berlin’s oldest university, Humboldt was established in 1810 in a former royal palace with the permission of the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III. It was renamed after him in 1828. The statue that I saw standing at its entrance, however, was not of a Prussian royalty. It was that of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the school’s founder, after whom the Communists again renamed the university in 1949. The plaque under the statue said that it was the gift of the University of Havana, erected in 1939. The rather tenuous connection was that Humboldt was Al secundo descubridor (second discoverer) de Cuba. Humboldt and his brother Alexander were respected lecturers in sciences at the University. Their reputation, however, pales next to the other luminaries’ associated with this university. For this has been no ordinary school.

I walked into the lobby of the school’s building and perused the brochure made available to visitors. It boasted that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Albert Einstein, and Max Planck had taught at Humboldt; since 1901, twenty eight Nobel prizes had been awarded to the University’s natural and medical scientists; and its historian Theodor Mommsen had received the Nobel Prize in literature for 1902. The man whose presence above all dominated the lobby was an alumnus of the University’s law school (1836-40): Karl Marx. On the wall over the landing in the staircase facing the entry were these words by Marx inscribed in golden letters:

“Die Philosophen haben die welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verandern.”

The brochure translated them into English:

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.”  Those words from Marx were installed in 1953 by the East German regime when it reconstructed the lobby which had been destroyed in WWII. They are not from any of Marx’s famous writings. Rather they were discovered after his death “in an old notebook of Marx” by his friend Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). Engels, who co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Marx in 1848 and published the 2nd and 3rd volumes of Das Kapital after Marx’s death, was also a student at Humboldt.

Marx’s notebook was about “eleven theses on the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach.” Feuerbach (1804-1872) was the highly influential German philosopher, who similarly studied at Humboldt, attending all of Hegel’s lectures which shaped his thinking. As Engels wrote in his Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy about those notes by Marx, “These are notes to be elaborated at a later time, written in haste, absolutely not intended for print, but invaluable as the document wherein the ingenious seed of the new ideology is deposed.” It was Marx’s note on the 11th thesis of Feuerbach that was on display in Humboldt’s lobby. A young fellow with a backpack was standing next to me, looking at those words. I asked him if he understood what they meant, as he did not have the brochure in his hand. “Yes, of course.  I am a Marxist!” I asked him where he was from. “Greece,” he said.

To mark the 200th anniversary of Humboldt there was a competition to find an installation that would redesign the lobby. The British artist Ceal Floyer won. Her installation is called Vorsicht Stufe (Mind the Step). Fifty six identical brass signs inscribed with these words have been mounted on the steps of the main staircase of the lobby and the two upper flights branching out to the left and right.

Floyer has explained her work as the “re-contextualization” of Marx’s words in Humboldt’s lobby. They are simple warning signs that we all know, she has said, but the hidden strength is in the perception of the situation created. “Seen from the foyer, the signs appear to continue indefinitely…. But it is precisely this confusion and the matter of danger, both of which grasp our attention, that the risk of tripping up -physically and mentally- becomes hidden.”

In the post-Communist unified Germany, the retention of Marx’s words in Humboldt was criticized by those who called them “a symbol of the old regime.” Others argued that keeping them were, in the words of the brochure, “a sign of the historical tolerance and the internal satisfaction of a formerly divided country.” They have prevailed.


Important as Humboldt University is, it is the other legacy of the Friedrich Wilhelm IIIthat attracts the visitors’ attention these days: the Berlin Museums. The Prussian king followed the trend that had become fashionable among European royalties in the late 18th century by making his private art collection available to viewing by the public. His museum put Berlin on par with Paris, London, and Madrid which contemporaneously established their Louvre, British Museum, and Prado. It has since grown into a collection of five museums in Berlin, all clustered together on the tip of the small island in the River Spree  next door to Humboldt. It was on this island that Berlin began as a settlement in the 13th Century. Its “Museum Island” now aims to display human culture “from its earliest beginning to the present day” in the five buildings, connected by an underground walkways, of the Old Museum, New Museum, Old National Gallery, Bode Museum, and Pergamon Museum. Construction work for renovation and repair of damages, mostly caused by bombardments in World War II, still continues although the last of the main buildings, Pergamon, was built in the 1910-1930 period.

The Director General ofBerlin’s State Museums, Michael Eisenhower, personally welcomed me in theNewMuseumwhich he called the “jewel” of all five national museums. This was through the medium of the audio guide. He went on to talk about Nefertiti, who is called “Berlin’s most beautiful woman.” He acknowledged that “perhaps most of you came to this museum for her.” The bust of the Queen of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BC) was in the museum’s North Dome Room. I examined it behind its glass cabinet.

It had remained almost perfectly preserved in the sands of Armana, Akhenaten’s capital city until 1912 when it was discovered in its sculptor’s shop, by archeologists fromBerlin. Only its ears were damaged. The sculpture looked not yet completed. Inlaid jewels had been set in only one eye. It was the portrait of a mature woman, with creases under the eyes and corners of the mouth.

The Museum’s brochures said the display of its Nefertiti formed “the apotheosis” of its “unprecedented exhibit” which “places special emphasis on giving visitors a good idea of what the Ancient Egyptians looked like, through a series of sculptures arranged in several rooms to various viewpoints.” These and a freeze of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, as well as a painted relief from the tomb of Pharaoh Seti in Luxor’s Valley of the King were good for Berlin but, frankly, less impressive to a traveler like me who had spent the week before that in Luxor and Cairo marveling at their innumerable collections of masterpieces of Egyptian antiquities. Their abundance had not quieted the Egyptians’ demand that their patrimony be returned. The Berlin Museums argued back on the signs in its galleries that their foreign artifacts were kept based on the consent of the “local governments,” or a payment for retaining them.

I was impressed by the sheer size of such artifacts from foreign lands that Berlinheld in PergamonMuseum. The Museum was literally custom made to fit them. These artifacts, beginning with the collection of “Ancient Near East,” founded in 1899, had been brought here mostly around in the early part of the next century following German archeological expeditions in the ancient cities of Babylon, Assur, Uruk, Habuba Kabira in Mesopotamia, and  Miletus and Bergama in today’s Turkey. So much is due to the last site that the Museum is named after it. Its centerpiece is a reconstructed Pergamon Altar dating from the Hellenistic era nearly 2180 years ago. I climbed up the many steep twenty-meter wide steps [21] to better admire the 113 meter long freeze  of battling gods and giants  covering the facing wall. Next door in the Museum, Roman architecture from the early 2nd century A.D. was showcased in the reassembled “Market Gate of Miletus,” brought here from that town which is just south of Bergama.

From Miletus the Museum takes you toBabylonCityof eight centuries before. Here you are dazzled by the splendor of glazed bricks in orange, blue, and ochre that make up the huge reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate  to King Nebuchadnezzar II’s city. This is followed by similarly colorful Procession Street that leads to the king’s Throne Hall. All along on the freezes you are watched by sculptures and reliefs of lions , horses , and dragons  which were the main Babylonian gods. The Old Museum of Berlin displays artifacts collected in ancient Rome and the territories it occupied inEgypt. Roman culture is presented as being based on those of Etruscans and Greeks, but also influenced by ancient Egyptians. From the Etruscan city of Vulci, north of present day Rome in central Italy, there were the fragments of a statute of a woman and the male-head of a crouching Sphinx with a lion’s body and wings that once stood as sentinel at a grave , dating to 600-550 BC. Greek influence was evident in clay oil lamps  and pots with decorations depicting “Gods and Demigods from the Circle of Dionysus/Bacchus” with animal body parts and in “unrestrained sexual activity” .

The signs in the museum tell us that much could be learned from the necropolises. “The urban culture is most prominently comprehensible in the necropoleis (sic).  These cities of the dead mirrored the world of the living in layout, style, and pieces of furniture.”  The Romans at first followed the Etruscans and cremated their dead. Later they changed their practice to interring. By 120 AD the upper class was using stone sarcophagi for their deceased. In the east of theRoman Empire the old Egyptian burial rites were adopted as the Museum’s Roman mummies discovered in the Oasis of Fayum showed. The Museum also had examples  of portrait paintings that accompanied the mummies in that Egyptianprovince of Rome.

A further reminder ofEgyptwas a section of a floor mosaic, dating to 80 BC, found in Praeneste (close to the city ofRome). It shows couples reclining underneath a pergola in what the Museum called “Banquet during the Festival of the Nile Flooding. The template for the artist is believed to have been an illustrated travel account.

It is in the Roman sculptures that, as the Museum signs said, one can find “the most impressive” example of the “creative adoption” of various strands from foreign lands. “The models from the Classical age of Greece were adapted to the Roman taste”. Perhaps the best examples were the sculptures of the famous love and power quadrangle of the Macedonian-Egyptian Queen Cleopatra , Rome’s Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) , and his successor Octavian Augustus who defeated the rival Mark Antony , Caesar’s successor as Cleopatra’s lover, causing the couple both to commit suicide.

From the Museums I strolled toward a street they share with HumboldtUniversityas part of an urban campus. The cafe-restaurant I entered was full with a mix of tourists and students, as my friendly server Christina described them. She was herself a student. She introduced me to her friends at the table next to mine, students hosting relatives from out of town who had just visited the Museums.  In our conversation someone brought up the subject of “contextualization,” something which the artist Ceal Floyer had attempted in the Humboldt foyer. I had seen the original “contexts” of the OldMuseum’s mosaic both as to the substance (in the Luxor’s Templeof Karnak) and as to the art form (in the ruins of Pompeii). I had also seen in situ the Roman ruins of the Pergamon type, a few miles south inEphesus,Turkey. I had been inside of the tombs next to Seti’s in theValley of the Kings. Yet, I argued, there was value in seeing distant objects in the center of a city, even beyond the important issue of accessibility to many. Here was a glance at the collective heritage of mankind. That was a service a capital city had a duty to provide.

The Wall

The art that contextualizes the memory of Berlin’s division after World War II is elegant in its simplicity. It is a line of two bricks set side by side on the streets going 27 miles where the Berlin Wall dissected the city. The Wall was put up in August 1961, and brought down in November 1989, by the East German government which called it the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. Its purpose was in fact to prevent the defection of East Germans, some 3.5 million of whom had departed since the establishment of the East German government. In that, the Wall was successful until it was undermined by the collapse of the Soviet bloc which made migration through the neighboring Communist countries a practical alternative for the East Germans.

I followed the brick line to the most famous of the nine crossings at the Wall where movement intoEast Berlinhad been allowed. This one, Checkpoint Charlie , was restricted to passage by Allied personnel and non-Germans. I heard several tour guides who brought their hordes of eager customers here, ironically, deriding its “Disney-Land” transfiguration since the fall of the Wall. The Wall itself had immediately become a target of souvenir hunters who chipped away parts. The government removed the rest, setting up protective barbed wire around the small segment left for viewing by tourists.

The graffiti that still remain on this segment expressed the sentiments of West Berliners toward the Wall at the time of its fall. Their reaction at the time of the erection of the wall was expressed by their Mayor, Willy Brandt:  “The Wall must go, but until it goes, the city must live.”

Unified Berlinremembers the East German regime in the contrast of two narratives on display at that regime’s bureaucratic center, called “The Ministry of Ministries.” Formerly the headquarter of the Nazi Air Force, this building was so solidly built that it was the only one which survived the war and could be used immediately. In the colonnaded entry hall of the building, I saw a massive mural painted in 1952 in the style of social realism, showing an ideal scene of happy people engaged  in all types  of work  and civic activity . In the plaza fronting the building, under the ground seen through glass [62] was a different tableau created after the unification. It consisted of pictures of real people engaged in the protest demonstrations of May 1953, in response to the East German government’s recent decrees calling for more work and less money, which led to riots demanding the resignation of the government. “The demonstrations were put down by the Soviet army; afterward that there was no demonstration until 1989,” our guide said.


Meanwhile Willy Brandt’s city not only “lived” but it thrived. It became known as edgy, with an “experimental climate”. I continued my walk in that town along the footprints of the Wall. I noticed people inside a gallery at the street level. I tried to read the posters on the window. There was a reception desk at the door. There were three women tending it. One motioned me to come in. I went in.

There were red and white wines on a table, and a guitar player who was also singing. I started looking at the pictures on the walls. A young woman was looking at me. I asked if she was one of painters. She said she was in charge of organizing the event. This was a Water Department (Berliner Wasserbetriebe) building and she was in their public relations office. The Water Department had dedicated this gallery to showing paintings about water fromBerlinartists; they were to have three shows a year. Soon they had run out of “Berlinpainters of water”. They had to expand the genre. They now showed all German painters on all subjects.

This show was by three painters, two women and one man. I met one of them, Eike Emsel, and she accompanied me as we saw her paintings. She was from a small town nearLeipzig. I told her I especially liked a whimsical one that was in the Marc Chagall style. Her expression of modesty was in the form of saying “I have my own style.” She gave me two postcards of her works. One was the picture that headlined tonight’s show as a poster . It was mysteriously dark. When she wanted my comment, I asked “What mood motivated this painting?”. “Rain,” she said. Her favorite was the one on the other postcard: a plump nude jumping joyfully “as a rite of spring,” she explained.

A young man overheard us and came up to me after Eike Emsel left to talk to other viewers. He said he was an art critic fromLeipzigwhere a new style of painting had become famous worldwide. “It is called Neue Leipziger Schule (NewLeipzigSchool). Its famous painters are Neo Rauch and David Schnell. They are different, but what they have in common is a mastery of figurative art which greatly influences their works, something that was lost in the West’s recent artistic trends, but protected in the old fashioned paining departments of universities inEast Germany, isolated due to the Berlin Wall.” Then he said “It is ironic, but that now seems to have been one of the few advantages of the Wall.”  His comments which I summarized here were unusual in that I had heard nobody else saying anything good about the East German rule inBerlin. Its role in the reconstruction of much ofEast Berlin after the war was taken at best with benign neglect.

I told my interlocutor fromLeipzigthat it was a promising sign of German unification that aBerlingallery was hosting an artist fromLeipzig. He said “yes, but much more needs to be done.” The protest movement for change inEast Germanywas focused on the “freedom of movement, freedom to travel.” He remembered how thrilled he was as a young boy to see “on the night of November 9, 1989, when the Wall fell, the flimsy East German cars, Trabants, passing through Checkpoint Charlie and being received enthusiastically by West Berliners thumping on it.” He said since then “the attitude has been that the West would invest inEast Germanyand that this would creates jobs.” But, he said, “the profits are taken out to the West. You cannot develop the East if the profit goes out. This is like in other developing countries. The gap is due to the fact that the West Germans lived long in a capitalist system and were able to accumulate wealth but not the East Germans. And the gap is between the north and south as well as East andWest Germany.”

Radialsystem V

It was only coincidental that my next destination was another facility of the “Berlin Water Services;” around the turn of the 20th century it had been the city’s main pumping station. Since 2006 it has been Radialsystem V, which is billed as Berlin’s new “creative space for the arts.” It maintains that it is “a cultural centre where new ideas ‘radiate’ out in all directions.” Run by a nonprofit foundation, Radialsystem V promotes “the idea of the dialogic principle,” which it defines as “the combination of apparently opposed concepts leading to a result that exceeds the sum of its parts.”

If that sounds like dialectic, Radialsystem V is not out of place, physically. It is located in the Freidchshain District of former East Berlin, with its main street, Karl- Marx-Alee, running through it. It has been a rather poor area with a high unemployment rate, a habitat for students.  I was going there to see a performance.

It was getting dark and walking there was not easy as I had problems matching street signs with my map. I kept asking passersby for directions. The last one was Mack who was himself going to Radialsystem V. It was his first time and he was from Victoria, Canada, but he had been in Berlin for some time. He was a Tuba player and a composer and was studying in Berlin’s well-known school for modern music. “Is it still atonal?” I pretty much exhausted my knowledge of the genre by that question. “Yes, but it involves more.” Largely with Mack’s help I soon found out what he meant.

The concierge of my hotel had told me that the performance for which he had bought a ticket for me was a recital of “oboe and flute.” In fact, it was neither. What I saw did not involve any instrument including the voice, as in singing.  The first piece was a form of pantomime, the second was a reading of John Cage’s discussion of the evolution to modern music, and the third consisted of disjointed sounds made by an artist in a formal composition.

Mack was fond of this last, by Kurt Schwitters, called Ursonate and composed in 1932. Mack thought it was not intended to be funny, although two girls sitting behind us continued to laugh loudly throughout the performance.  I did not wait for a session of discussions by the audience (publikums-gesprach) that was to follow. I took a taxi to my hotel where loud conventional music was playing for a private party which was identified by a balloon attached to a chair that said “Just Married,” in English. Oddly, the attendees were all German.

 Night at the opera

Berlin’s venerable National Opera House  — built by Frederick the Great, bombed by the British in 1941, rebuilt by Hitler, bombed by the Americans in 1945, rebuilt by the Communist regime in 1955– was closed for renovation. The consolation prize was the program at Deutsche Oper Berlin, the city’s other state-funded opera house: Don Giovanni, deemed to be Mozart’s best opera. Gustave Flaubert had called this singular opera one of “three finest things in creation.” Johann von Goethe was overwhelmed and inspired by it and Richard Wagner felt humbled before it. Although Mozart himself had catalogued it only as an opera buffa, Don Giovanni was far more than a mere comedy; it had melodrama and supernatural elements. Indeed, as would become clear later, what Soren Kierkegaard had said about it was perhaps most relevant in light of the production I was about to see: Mozart’s Don Giovanni is “a work without blemish, of uninterrupted perfection.”

Deutsche Oper Berlin which was established for the burghers ofWest Berlinwhen they were deprived of the opulent Opera House in the East, looked physically unsightly. Its lobby was not grand, but we were welcomed in by six musicians playing Mozart’s. We gathered at the bar where I met two regular subscribers, Dagmar, a dentist, and Manuela, a “natural Doctor of physiotherapy.” They said the “music supremacy” of Deutsche Oper Berlin was commonly acknowledged.

Soon we were ushered upstairs, to the waiting room at a level corresponding to our seats. The waiting room was small and cramped with a crowd. Most wore jacket and tie and cocktail dresses; a few men had open collar shirts. Most were middle age; a few were younger. No usher was in sight here. No program magazine was offered. In English, there was only a page of writing on both sides called Synopsis, set on a table in one inconspicuous corner. It was signed merely by “Ronald Schwab, Christian Baier.” The assumption was that they needed no introduction. In the English materials I had read before, Schwab was listed as the Inszenierung (Director) and Baier as the Kunstlerische Produktionsleitung (Artistic Director).

The forty-year old Schwab has a reputation for favoring “vivid images and fantastical dramatic landscapes.” I sat in the second row and was intrigued by the stage as the lights went on. The only light was white. There were almost no props.  There were about twenty men and two women on stage. The men were black suits and the women all white. The men brandished golf clubs. They all sang with dramatic group movements. I liked their voices and found their dances invigorating. They were fit and attractive. The exuded an air of sensuality.

At Deutsche Oper Berlin all operas are performed in their original languages; and the Italian libretto of Don Giovanni was translated into German on a sole sur-title above the stage. Schwab wanted to create a Don Giovanni conversant with Berliners of today. That explained the staging. Elsewhere in writing Schwab explained the frolicking and his overall intent further:

“Opera forces a director to declare himself on the essential nature of the riot of life, the rite of life. Don Giovanni is no Casanova, whose seduction of women is an end in itself. Don Giovanni’s women are stepping stones on his path to transcendence. In the erotic, the physical and psychological wasting of oneself, all boundaries of exterior civilisation are done away with and the parameters of social propriety are no longer valid.“

Now on the stage two performers clothed in cellophane rode on a carousel with red lights. Near us, a topless maimed woman hobbled in a metal leg brace on the edge of the orchestra pit used as an extension of the stage. The focus lights shone on musicians on the two upper chambers above the stage corners who were amplifying Mozart’s sound coming from the orchestra. A male performer came into the isle facing me, held up the head of a man sitting in front of me and flashed his light into his face.

When the curtain came down on the first act that man and some of us sitting around him applauded enthusiastically. From behind I heard a noise that sounded like booing. The German man sitting next to me confirmed my suspicion. “Provincial people,” he said. “This would not happen in the Opera House in the East. They always have avant-garde performances there. Those who are booing here are typical bourgeois West Berliners.” A Japanese woman sitting to my left nodded. She was a physician who had come overnight from London, her home, just to see this performance. Her object of desire was Hildebrand D’Arcangelo, the Italian bass-baritone, who played Don Giovanni. “I try to go wherever he performs.” She had seen him twenty times, she said.

At the intermission I reviewed the Synopsis. It was unconventional. The program was described in two parts. The first, which we had just seen, was titled “The impotence of freedom.”  In summary, the Synopsis said, it sketched the following: “Coming out of the darkness -Don Giovanni.  Now that he’s getting on in years, the ‘seducer of all seducers’ has acquired so many faces! But who is he really?”

Unlike the first part, the Synopsis did not summarize the second part, called “The last temptation,” which we were yet to see. Its description included these cryptic lines: “Too much has been said, made up, written about him (Don Giovanni). After all the centuries of interpretation, there’s no room to move.” This sounded to be more about the Director’s dilemma. Schwab seemed to confirm this with another line from his Synopsis: “True hell is repetition.” At the end, however, he added “Heading into the darkness, towards the next interpretation- Don Giovanni.”

As we shall see, Schwab could not take us to the darkness at the end. For now I decided to use the remaining part of the intermission to learn more about his intent regarding “the next interpretation.” I asked the head usher. He went to some back office and brought out another person who introduced himself as “a director of some other operas” in the house. He said Schwab’s Don Giovanni was a story of “redemption, sexuality and religion.” This was “a new interpretation.”  It was controversial: “It faces conservative opposition by those who want conventional opera, but this is not an ‘industrial production.’”

About his interpretation Schwab had said:

“Albert Camus says: ‘Lust knows no lie.’ You have to let yourself go. But where do you go when you let yourself go? Don Giovanni is intent on finding this out. In a metaphorical sense he returns to a throbbing nightclub to find, at its centre, disillusionment, to understand, once and for all, who he really is.”

We now went back to the “nightclub” Schwab had prepared for us on the stage. The lights in this second act were multicolored- blue, salmon, peach, and red. The acting continued to be physical. The opera’s known sequence in story were followed until some twenty minutes to the end, when something totally unexpected and unplanned happened.

A dancer fell into the orchestra pit as its ledge collapsed under his vigorous movements. He was hurt and he hurt some musicians. The performance stopped as the stunned actors looked on. Medics were called in. IV’s were attached to the injured. Soon some from the audience approached the pit with their cameras. Some musicians left the pit. We were now all asked to leave the hall and wait in the lobby. There we waited ten minutes before being called back in. A person came on the empty stage and announced that the dancer and two musicians he hit “were seriously injured and had to be taken to the hospital.” The rest of the performance was canceled. We were offered no refund or other compensation.

The Japanese Doctor was disappointed. “The ending was the most interesting part of the Opera,” she said. In the ending of almost all contemporary productions of this Opera, the statue of a man (the Commendatore) who had been murdered by Don Giovanni takes him down into the ground as it sinks; and the moral lesson for Don Giovanni’s excessive follies is then delivered by a chorus, Questo è il fin: “Such is the end of the evildoer: the death of a sinner always reflects his life”. The unintentional sinking of Schwab’s production of Don Giovanni in the pit before us was dramatic enough. Our German friend reminded the Japanese Doctor that Schwab had intentionally eliminated the concluding chorus from his production so as to leave the “next interpretation” to the audiences.


This article, entitled “Berlin: The making of a capital city”,  was published on the following website of onApril 17, 2011, with related pictures:

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