There’s a homeless man sleeping under the tracks of Nollendorfplatz Station. He’s spread out across old blankets, his head propped up on a soft pillow, his fully clothed body wrapped in a cover that used to be a pastel shade of pistachio. His eyes are closed, he appears peaceful and comfortable, he is protected from the rain and no-one bothers him. In this quiet enclave of the station, I’m not sure anyone’s even really noticed that he’s there. I noticed because behind him, propping up the railway lines there’s a great big, beautiful old statue. A ghost lurking in the shadows to remind anyone curious enough, that Nollendorfplatz was once a pretty little park full of trams and trains. A gentrified hub linking Schöneburg to the rest of Berlin.
I have my breakfast sat on the sill of a disused window in the wall beneath the tracks. A stuffed croissant and a coffee, hastily bought from a stall in the station and this allows me to watch the world go by. Nollendorfplatz has clearly seen better days, yet it’s pleasant and relaxed and for 10 minutes I enjoy being an observer of its world.
I’m waiting for a man named Brendan. I’m early. I’m in Schöneburg to be a tourist, a very specific kind of tourist who’s searching for a lost Berlin. The Berlin of Cabarets, of Dietrich and Berber, of Otto Dix, George Grosz, of Brecht and Weill. I’m looking for Cosy Corners, landladies, masochistic eccentrics and aspiring English singers. I’ve come to Schöneburg in search of Christopher Isherwood.
I’m drinking my coffee, keeping an eye on the clock across from the Goya building. I look away, glance around at my surroundings, watch a man cross the road and a guy stroll down the street clad completely in leather. When I look back there’s a man with white hair stood by the clock, looking around, waiting. This is Brendan, my Isherwood guide.
I wander over and shake hands. Brendan is instantly likeable, his demeanour echos the calmness of the surroundings. He’s also the best kind of guide you can ever get for something like this, he’s a Brit in love with his adopted city. He explains that there were meant to be three of us, but one doesn’t seem to know what month it is and the other is ill. This means that I have the tour to myself, this has happened on other tours I’ve been on, it’s always been a little weird. But, Schöneburg, with its tree lined streets and endless cafes doesn’t have any feeling of tension and I’m already enjoying the day.
Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden
Brendan has a file of information and pictures, he starts with a brief history of Isherwood and shows me some photographs of the man himself. Isherwood, with his good friend Wystan Hugh Auden. Christopher was a handsome man in his mid twenties, with slicked back hair and a plain but casually worn suit and tie. Auden seems a little awkward, pushed to the side, clenching his hand to his arm, even his lips seem tense in comparison to the easy smile of Isherwood. Being in Schöneburg makes me realise how easily he would have fit in here, how his informal manner would have so perfectly suited somewhere so laid back.
We head to Nollendorfstraße 17, one of the places where he lived and certainly the place that inspired much of Goodbye to Berlin. Another leafy street, quiet but with a subtle buzz of life, it’s buildings are all pastel shaded with balconies in full summer bloom. Half way down the street is number 17, a building the colour of orange blancmange and it has a plaque that commemorates Isherwood. Brendan points to the second floor, that is where Christopher Isherwood lived, where he became the camera recording an unforgettable part of Berlin’s history.
From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and secondhand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.
I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all of this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.
Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood
‘top-heavy balconied facades’
As I turn and stare across the street at the ‘balconied facades’, it’s hard to imagine what would happen next. You can still see the tiny details of day to day life, glimpse the things that human beings do which remain constant and unchanging. Bikes, cars, hand written signs outside store fronts, the back of a chair pushed up against a window, a small congregation of friends talking in the street. But history can be heavy handed and these simple things would be taken away from Isherwood’s Berlin.
Brendan had shown me a couple of brass squares set into the pavement, these are stumbling blocks – the Stolperstein created by Gunter Demnig. They are spread across different cities in different countries throughout Europe. Each one is handmade and carries a brass plate with a name, birth date and the date and place of death. Auschwitz, Lodz, Theresienstadt, Dachau, a list of places all too familiar. If Isherwood didn’t directly know these fated people, he would probably have passed them in the street. Their names are remembered at 13-14 Nollendorfstraße, Siegfried Perl and Marie Perl, he died in 1943 in Theresienstadt, she died in Auschwitz in 1944. They are a stone’s throw away from where Isherwood lived.
We leave Nollendorfstraße and make our way up Eisenacher Straße to the fake Eldorado. It sits on the corner of Motzstraße, it looks like a British working man’s club lost its way and found itself in Berlin. It has Berliner Pilsner awnings over continental pavement tables, and proclaims itself a Musikbar. Everything is in place but it just seems so wrong, it doesn’t quite fit and we carry on along Motzstraße. On the opposite corner, at Motzstaße and Kalckreuthstraße is the Speisekammer Im Eldorado, the real site of the Eldorado Cabaret.
Eldorado – 1932
During Isherwood’s time in Berlin, the Eldorado was a cabaret club with an interesting homo/heterosexual clientele. In the ballroom style surroundings, you could buy ‘chips’ for a dance with a transvestite, you could have seen Dietrich or Berber perform, or casually had a chat with Magnus Hirschfeld. It was a liberal place in which almost anything was tolerated and gender definitions became blurred. Today it’s a Bio Supermarket with pastel yellow walls. Once the sign above the door proclaimed that ‘Here is Right’, now the signs tell me about Sesame Bread. Still, it’s a vast improvement on the Swastikas which adorned the building when the SA shut the cabaret down, and turned it into their local headquarters.
We make our way along Kalckreuthstraße, back to Kleiststraße and the site of the Kleist Casino. Brendan informs me this is the site of the oldest gay club in Europe. It’s just another bar in a dirty cream coloured building, it has no windows and today it’s called Bull – a 24 hour, 365 day a year gay fetish bar. It has no charm and, for a place that can make such a claim I kind of wanted something grander. Ballroom splendour maybe, chandeliers and people dressed in tuxedos and ball-gowns elegantly smoking thin cigarettes. There’s a guy standing outside, looks like he’s escaped from a Tom of Finland picture, he goes in and the door closes.
Goya – 2012
The final stop on the tour is the Goya building. Built in 1905 as the Neues Schauspielhaus, it was built as a theatre and concert hall in the Art Nouveau style. Christopher Isherwood would have been a regular visitor there, taking in many films in the cinema. I have to admit that I got a little excited about the fact that Brecht would have been there at some point too. Naturally it was bombed during the war but the facade and cinema survived, and in 1951 it was renamed the Metropole. By the 1980s it had become a concert venue and now, it’s the Goya which hosts a club night once a week.
We’re back at Nollendorfplatz, Brendan has been joyous company for over an hour. The tour is well researched by a man who is as enthusiastic about the Weimar as he is Isherwood. No question was left unanswered and his knowledge of the local area, both historic and current is truly amazing.
With anything like this, there is a past which seems so much more interesting than the present, so much clearer and purposeful. I’m not going to lie, I would like a time machine so that I could go back, I’m so consistently drawn to this time in this place that it feels like it might just be my ‘homeland’.
The homeless man is still asleep under the tracks, just like he would have been in the 1920s when he found himself the victim of mass unemployment and hyper-inflation. Those tiny details of day to day life, the permanent reality that we shut out with cabarets, nightclubs and bars is always waiting, though:
You can’t help smiling, in such beautiful weather. The trams are going up and down the Kleiststraße, just as usual. They, and the people on the pavement, and the tea-cosy dome of the Nollendorfplatz station have an air of curious familiarity, of striking resemblance to something one remembers as normal and pleasant in the past – like a very good photograph.
Goodbye to Berlin – Christopher Isherwood
Nollendorfplatz – 1903 Nollendorfplatz – 1910
Nollendorfplatz – Max Beckmann – 1911 Nollendorfplatz – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – 1912
Nollendorfplatz de Nuit – Lesser Ury – 1925 Railway Station Nollendorfplatz at Night – Lesser Ury
Nollendorfplatz Station – 2012
Nollendorfstraße 17 (Second Floor) The Eldorado 2012
Anita Berber by Otto Dix – 1925