Berlin, Film

Making a short film in 48 hours…

This weekend I took part in Shoot and Run, a Berlin-based project in which you and your team have just 48 hours to make a short film.  It’s a regular competition, which focuses on a different area of Berlin each time.

The theme / genre that we were given at the 7pm registration on Friday evening was “Bicycle Road Movies” and the setting was Charlottenburg.

Off we set, brainstorming ideas, scripting, planning, shooting and editing the movie in order have it finished and delivered to the organisers at the location of the screening in Charlottenburg by 7pm on Sunday evening.

Working collaboratively with a wacky group of amateur film-makers, all of whom met for the first time on Friday evening, was an incredible creative experience.

I know you’re curious, so here’s our Charlottenburg-based bicycle-road-movie:

Two prizes were awarded at the end of the screening: The Jury Award and The Audience Award. Our film won the latter.

It was a brilliant experience, but badly organised; the screening details on the website were incorrect; the actual location of the screening was outdoors, which, considering the cold, rainy weather yesterday was a stupid idea, on top of which the organisers made everyone wait around in the cold for almost two hours before actually showing the films.

Of all the films shown, the only one without a bicycle in it won the Jury Prize. Why? Because after we’d been told the theme, that team came along and complained about the ‘bicycle’ bit (like getting hold of one in Berlin is akin to getting hold of a Bible in Saudi Arabia or something), so the theme was changed to suit them, and no one bothered to inform us…I would express exactly how I feel about that, but then this site would need a password due to excessive use of outrageous obscenities.

P.S A few people have asked, so here’s the link to the film that won the Jury Prize, and managed to get the rules changed:

art, Berlin

Berlin Street Art

Berlin is a world hub for the street art scene. It is everywhere and, as is the nature of street art, forever being re-plastered and re-painted over. Here are some photos I took in Friedrichshain at the weekend…

For more on Berlin Street Art, this blog has info about well-known artists and crews working in the city,  The New York Times covered the subject a couple of years ago, this blog has some cool recent photos, and there are masses of images on Flickr.

art, Berlin

Turning the Seventh Corner

Turning the Seventh Corner is an installation by Tim Noble and Sue Webster currently at the newly opened Blain|Southern gallery in Berlin.

The installation, made in collaboration with architect David Adjaye, was inspired by the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs and is an allusion to the Book of Proverbs, 9:1 – “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars.”  The work focuses on light and shadow, which the artists are most well-known for, although this has been described as their most ambitious project to date. 

The visitor walks through a dark passageway turning a series of corners at the end of which… well, I don’t want to spoil the surprise for anyone who wants to experience it for themselves.

Blain Southern Berlin

The gallery space is impressive; it is a spare concrete, steel and glass structure in a hof just off Potsdamer Strasse which used to house the printing presses of the Der Tagesspiegel.

The hof is also home to a cluster of about three or four other galleries including the also newly opened Maerz gallery, which specialises in works from the New Leipzig school and features work by Hans Aichinger, Tobias Köbsch and Ilkka Halso. At the moment, this gallery has quite a small collection (there was nothing, for example, by Aris Kalaizis when we went) so hopefully they’ll get some more stuff in soon. 

Turning the Seventh Corner is on until 16 July 2011 at  Blain|Southern Potsdamer Straße 77–87, 10785, Berlin

art, Berlin, Life in Berlin, politics

Exhibition Opening: Compass, drawings from MoMA New York

twombly, Kompass Zeichnungen aus dem Museum of Modern Art New YorkThe Bavarian, ever since deciding that we ought to buy some art for the flat, has been insisting that I refer to him as A Collector of Contemporary Art. I wouldn’t mind, if it weren’t for the fact that he has collected exactly zero pieces of art thus far. As usual, unlike a normal person, he has gone completely over the top with this art-business; we’ve visited artists’ studios, planned a trip to Leipzig (home of the New Leipzig School and Germany’s thriving art scene), and most ridiculously, he has convinced a gallery to DHL us a couple of paintings to hang in our flat while we decide whether we want to buy them or not. They arrive today.

It’s due to this new obsession that we attended the opening of Compass, a collection of 250 drawings from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) New York, curated by Christian Rattemeyer from over 2500 works aquired by Judith Rothschild between 2003-2005 and subsequently donated to the Museum.

Penis Hat, Paul McCarthy, 2001, Compass MoMAThe title of the exhibition – as well as referring to the compass as a drafting tool – reflects its aim of representing geographically distinct artistic centres; London, Glasgow, Los Angeles, New York, Cologne/Düsseldorf and Berlin. It features a wide range of artists including Jasper Johns, Georg Baselitz, Robert Rauschenberg, Hanne Darboven, Jeff Koons, Mona Hatoum, A.R. Penck, Donald Judd, David Hockney and Martin Kippenberger, bringing together historical, minimalist, abstract and conceptual works, detailed narrative drawings, collages and large-scale installations. The works range from the 1930s to 2005, providing a panorama of the state of drawing today, and are displayed in the freshly renovated rooms of Martin Gropius.

AereiThe Bavarian, due to his other obsession – planes – was particularly impressed by Alighiero e Boetti’s Aerei (left) and Mona Hatoum’s map of flight routes. He was unimpressed by the fact that the wine was not free, and that we had to sit through some boring speeches before getting to see the collection.

On the subject of speeches, the American ambassador made one and I was shocked to discover that he speaks German like a two-year-old. Yes, that’s right; the American ambassador to Germany cannot speak German because, unlike Britain and Germany who choose their ambassadors based on sensible criteria such as political experience, knowledge of the language, culture e.t.c, the Americans simply give these positions away as thank you notes. So it turns out that the US ambassador to Germany, Phillip Murphy, is a former Goldman Sachs banker who gave a massive donation to the Obama campaign. I never knew that…

Compass – Drawings from the Museum of Modern Art New York is open from 11 March to 29 May 2011 at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin


Film Review: Unknown

Want to see Liam Neeson eating a currywurst? A car chase down Friedrichstrasse (which, in typical Berlin fashion, involves a lorry full of beer)? A bomb go off in the Hotel Adlon? It’s always fun to see an action thriller set in the place you live…

Unknown film
Unknown: A taxi flies off the Oberbaumbrueke in Berlin

Neeson plays Martin Harris, who arrives in Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones) for a biotechnology summit. At the hotel, he realises that he has left his briefcase at the airport and jumps into a taxi, driven by Bosnian immigrant Gina (Diane Kruger), to retrieve it. The taxi is involved in an accident, careers off the Oberbaumbrücke, and lands him in a coma for four days.

At this point, the mystery, which has so far concerned a friendly customs officer (when have you ever been welcomed to Berlin?!) and a nonsensical taxi route from Tegel Airport to Hotel Adlon, thickens. He wakes up to find that his wife no longer recognises him, and that another guy claiming to be Dr Martin Harris has replaced him.

The plot is gripping, almost to the end, when it becomes predictable and cheesy.  Although there have been a number of ‘I’ve lost my identity’ action thrillers (e.g. Bourne), the genre is kept fresh in a number of ways; the relationship between the protagonist and his female counterpart (Gina is always saving Martin), the not-so-black-and-white portrayal of the good guys and bad guys (an example is the brilliantly portrayed character of Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former Stasi officer whose help Martin enlists to figure out what the hell is going on), and the location.

Berlin is the perfect setting for a film concerned with identity, memory and harsh pasts.  Not Berlin in the summer of course, when everyone is lounging around drinking beer, but Berlin in the winter, when the frozen streets are tense with cold, covered in forgetful snow (yes, Berlin in the winter always reminds me of Eliot). If you live here you’ll probably appreciate this above the adreneline-pumped action. Watch the trailer on YouTube.

And if you’re into film,  Berlin Film Central is a new site which publishes film reviews, news about the film industry in Berlin and once in a while, through the BFC Channel, videocasts with interviews with filmmakers and personalities involved in the film industry in the city.

Berlin, Humour, Life in Berlin

Happy New Year

Berlin New Year 2011Well, frankly I’m glad it’s over; Christmas, New Year, the whole lot…

Yesterday, we decided to have a quiet night in. Fat chance. Fireworks were going off all over the place before it even got dark. (The Germans have a mad love of fireworks, as Deutsche Welle’s Dan Bishton recently commented.)

This is my first New Year’s in Berlin; last year we were in India, which was an altogether more civilised affair that at least respected basic health and safety precautions. After a short walk down Schönhauser Allee at about 6 pm, which was teeming with drunkards setting explosives shooting off down the road and banging in the bins, we decided not to venture out again. It’s no wonder that last night, between 19.00 and 06.00, Berlin’s fire brigade responded to no less than 1568 calls.

The Bavarian and I divided the evening between watching TV and standing at the window, fire-extinguisher at hand (don’t ask why we have a fire extinguisher; the Bavarian ordered it off Amazon just after Christmas), commenting on the idiocy of those setting fireworks off on the pavement below just a few metres away from themselves and their children, and the woman who decided to take her dog for a walk at midnight.

The worst, however, were the people on the ‘show-off balcony’, which is what we call the balcony opposite ours. They have been annoying us all year – in the summer they decorated their balcony with an almost indecent array of flowers and LED lights that changed from pink to blue to green, in the autumn they put a covering over it so they could still use it despite the falling leaves, rain and wind, and in winter, streams of fairy lights like celestial snowflakes fell gracefully down the sides of their balcony – and yesterday was no exception. They waved sparklers about with their friends at midnight and thoughtlessly threw lighted rockets off the balcony and onto the parked cars below.

“Next New Year’s, we should fire some rockets straight across at that balcony,” I say, seeing the opportunism that such chaotic New Year‘s celebrations can offer. In between keeping an eye on the trouble-makers outside, we fought over the remote control, switching between the obituaries on BBC World (my choice), Naked Gun (his choice), Mr Bean (my choice), Dinner for One (his choice) and the coverage of the New Year‘s celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate (both our choices).

More than a million people welcomed in 2011 at Brandenburg Gate last night, making it the biggest open air New Year‘s Party in the world. We didn’t go because a) everyone knows that it’s for tourists, b) it’s too damn cold and c) judging by the line-up I’d have to agree with my father-in-law, who says that instead of throwing a party, Berlin should spend the money on a proper method of clearing the snow off the streets (as they do in Bavaria).

They’re not kidding when they say that Berlin has no money, because most of the acts (Paul Potts, the English pop opera tenor who won the first series of “Britain’s Got Talent”, girl group Big Soul, who came second in Germany’s X-Factor, and Leslie Mandoki and The Soulmates, who…well, I don’t know who they are), would have appeared in exchange for just travel and accommodation expenses. David Hasselhoff, as always the highlight of the night, would have been happy with just a bottle of vodka.

Here he is, singing his little heart out:

Anyway, my new year’s resolution is to post more often, so watch this space and A Very Happy New Year and Best Wishes to everyone who reads this blog!

Berlin, Germany, history, News

Hitler and the Germans

Unlike the Austrians, the Germans have always been open about the whole business of Hitler and the Nazis. Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek famously said that the nature of German toilets, where “the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect” revealed their existential attitude as a nation; that of “reflective thoroughness”, and it would seem that he is right.

Spiegal Magazine covers featuring Hitler
Spiegal Magazine covers: countless articles have been written on Hitler

Policemen stand outside synagogues, countless books, articles, studies and films have been produced, and almost every discussion, from politics to art, comes back in some way to the Nazis. (Godwin’s Law, that as a discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison to the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1, is a fact of life round here).

However, of the many exhibitions about the Holocaust and the Nazis, the one currently at the Deutsches Historishes Museum (German Historical Museum) is a first. The exhibition Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime focuses on the dictator and his relationship with the German people.

It opened in mid-October amidst fears that such a strong focus on the dictator would attract and encourage Neo-Nazis. However everything on display – Nazi flags, street signs, decorations, swords, medals, newspapers, Hitler busts, portraits, propaganda images and films – serves to illuminate the relationship between Hitler and the Germans, from the hopes that he embodied for them when he first came to power to disillusionment, resistance, and representations of him in the media up till the present day. It shows how fiercely the dictator permeated every day life in the Third Reich, and throws a unique light on questions such as ‘How could such a thing have happened?”

Street sign: Adolf Hitler Platz
Street sign: Adolf Hitler Platz

Most strikingly, it draws attention to the volume of things that have been hidden, taken away and replaced, such as grave stones featuring swastikas. It also raises the fact that although the process of denazification did remove Nazi iconography from public view, its success did not extend to people and institutions.

Although a few elite were brought to trail, the majority of people who were complicit, from CEOs of companies to government officials, kept their positions – especially as the Americans abandoned their denazification programme at the onset of the Cold War. This enabled people such as Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a member of the Nazi Party and official at the foreign ministry, to continue in politics and eventually become German Chancellor in 1966.

As if to illustrate the point, just a week after the exhibition opened it came to light that the German Foreign Ministry, who had for years maintained that they had disapproved of the Nazis and their aims, had in fact, according to historian Eckart Conze, “actively supported all measures of persecution, rights deprivation, expulsions and the Holocaust.”

So it seems that Germany is suffering a kind of schizophrenia regarding its history; on the one hand there is an open, even over-compensating attitude, (I saw an example of this yesterday around Mauer Park when a group of people felt the need to protest against war whilst coach loads of old people attended a military music concert), and on the other, silence and secrets.

Yesterday around Mauer Park: People protest against war during a military music concert
Yesterday around Mauer Park: People protest against war during a military music concert

Günter Grass embodies this contradiction; he acted as the moral voice of Germany, but took 60 years to admit that he was a member of the SS.

Maybe Zizek was not entirely correct about the Germans; after all nobody has even begun to inspect the history and Nazi involvement of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND, or Federal Intelligence Service), and I’m sure there is a lot of shit lurking there…

The exhibition “Hitler and the Germans” is on until February 6, 2011 at the Deutsches Historishes Museum.


Review: City-Lit Berlin

city-lit BerlinUnlike other Berlin guidebooks, City-Lit Berlin is a literary guide that encompasses 127 excerpts from texts about the city by no less than 69 writers. It seems an apt approach to getting to know this city, the most volatile capital in Europe for more than a century; a city of ghosts and of artists that has been so many things to so many people.

The book lives up to the challenge, presenting a wide range of impressions, from German classics like Theodor Fontane’s Effie Breist to Tobias Rüther’s description of David Bowie’s cycle through Berlin. It includes blog posts, a number multicultural viewpoints, such as that of Indian writer and journalist Salil Tripathi and Turkish author and actress Emine Sevgi Özdamar, as well as texts never before translated into English.

These brief sketches build, layer upon layer, a detailed picture of the city. The cover bills the city-lit series as ‘perfect gems of city writing’, which every piece in this book is. It is a book that you can dip in an out of, picking up a gem of writing and rolling it between your thumb and forefinger as you walk round the city before inspecting the next gem. At the very least, it serves as a good reading list for anyone interested in Berlin.

City-Lit Berlin, edited by Heather Reyes and Katy Derbyshire, is published by Oxygen Books.


Berlin LitFest: Barbara Hammond and Harald Martenstein

So Berlin Literature Festival has kicked off, and we’ve attended two very different events so far.

Barbara HammondOn Wednesday evening Barbara Hammond read her dramatic monologue Eva the Chaste at Cafe Hilde. Eva has returned to Dublin after 20 years abroad to look after her dying mother. In that hour when night turns to dawn, Eva speaks about everything from the Catholic guilt and sexual repression of her childhood to her sexual promiscuity as an adult.

Her monologue is frank, peppered with dark humour and interesting turns of phrase. At its heart is her dysfunctional relationship with her mother, and the drama builds layer upon layer, towards its inevitable end.

Hammond herself read the monologue, although it is usually performed by actress Aedin Moloney. Eva the Chaste previously toured in New York living rooms, so having a group of about 15 people (including a very well-behaved baby) gathered around her armchair at the intimate Cafe Hilde seemed apt. She did not get distracted by the fact that the noise from the cafe was a bit too loud at the beginning – testament to the fact that she is an actress as well as a playwright and director – and read with an authentic, confident voice and fluidity throughout.

She seemed pleased, even a little surprised, that people had turned up to see her, and hung around to answer questions afterwards. During the conversation that followed, she explained that the character of Eva had just started talking to her one day, as characters sometimes do, and as Eva had yet more to say she was considering making the piece longer and turning it into a novella.

Harald Martenstein Kino Babylon 2010Yesterday evening well-known German columnist and writer Harald Martenstein presented his new novel Gefühlte Nähe to an audience of roughly 100 people at Kino Babylon. The book is more like a series of 23 short stories, all related from the point of view of different men who have one thing in common; a woman named N. Martenstein’s intention was to explore the love-lives of people in the late 20th century.

The first story he read was about a teacher on whom N had a crush as a schoolgirl, and the second was a conversation between two guys (one of whom had had an affair with N) about women. Both were unexceptional. The first at least had a story going for it, while the second was filled with clichés about women being princesses in love with their fathers etc that you would hear down the pub, which isn’t a problem in itself but becomes one when nothing else really happens, in which case it becomes more like a rant – or, for that matter, a column (for what are columns but rants?)

Martenstein’s particular talent is his humour, and his stories certainly got some laughs, but ultimately they lacked substance. If he weren’t such a well-known figure, I doubt he’d get these published.

He writes well in the male voice, and said that he had chosen to write all these stories from male perspectives because that was what he felt more comfortable with. However, part of a writer’s skill is to be able to write from different points of view. Moreover, even though this book is about men, there’s something chauvinistic about the fact that they are all tied together by a woman who never gets her say. And why is she simply called ‘N’, and not named?

Literary critic Marius Meller asked him a few questions between the two readings, but didn’t draw the author into any meaningful conversation about the work. In any case, he seemed more concerned about the fact that we all had to get out of the room by 8pm. There was no opportunity for the audience to ask questions, although one brave woman did grab her chance to shout out a question about whether Martenstein endorsed the kind of lifestyle that he was writing about. I bet she wished that she hadn’t bothered, because he cut her down with a comment about how he relies on the intelligence of his readers to recognise the difference between the author and his fiction. This inevitably got a few laughs, which encouraged Martenstein to go on insulting the woman, in effect repeating the same point about five times.  What an arrogant git.


Top Ten Berlin Novels

Berlin has been the inspiration and provided the setting for many novels. Here are my top ten!

10. Book of Clouds by Chloe Aridjis

book of clouds“Ever since arriving in Berlin I’d become a professional in lost time. It was impossible to account for all the hours. The hands on clocks and watches jumped ahead or lagged behind indiscriminately. The city ran its own chronometric scale.”

Tatiana is a Mexican in Berlin who flits from one job to another. One of her jobs is typing for a reclusive old historian. The subject? The history of Berlin. This book is very much about the city, where the past seeps into the present and the story unfolds in a dream-like sequence.

9. The Innocent by Ian McEwan

the innocent“On weekday evenings they walked to the Olympic Stadium and swam in the pool, or, in Kreuzberg, walked along the canal, or sat outside a bar near Mariannenplatz, drinking beer. Maria borrowed bicycles from a cycling club friend. On weekends they
rode out to the villages of Frohnau and Heiligensee in the north, or west to Gatow to explore the city boundaries along paths through empty meadows.”

Set between 1955-56, the novel centres around English spy Leonard Marnham and his love affair with German woman Maria Eckdorf. The novel brings together the story Marnham’s mission, which is to help build a tunnel from the American sector to the Russian sector to tap important phone lines, with his love affair, making it a thrilling tale about lost innocence and loyalties that plays out in pre-wall Berlin.

8. Berlin Alexanderplatz by Döblin

Berlin Alexanderplatz“There is a lot of wind on the Alex, at the Tietz corner there is a lousy draft. A wind that blows between the houses and through the building excavations. It makes you feel you would like to hide in the saloons, but who can do that, it blows through your trousers pockets…Early in the morning the workers come tramping along from Reinickendorf, Neukolln, Weisensee. Cold or no cold, wind or no wind, we’ve gotta get the coffee pot, pack up the sandwiches, we’ve gotta work and slave, the drones sit on top, they sleep in their feather-beds and exploit us.”

I have to admit, I put this novel in here because I had to; it is considered to be a literary masterpiece, influenced strongly by Joyce’s Ulysses. It has a cinematic, shifting, collagic style, and captures the speed, anonymity and chaos of modern city life. Set in 1920s Berlin, it is about small-time criminal Franz Biberkopf. The fragments describing life around Alexanderplatz are beautiful, but it is a hard read.

7. Pleasured by Philip Hensher

pleasured“The car drew to a standstill. The moment of fear and memory and excitement was gone. He was stuck in the middle of a vast and terrifyingly foreign country, on an East German transit road between the borders of West Germany and West Berlin, with two strangers, on New Year’s Eve. The worst place, the worst time, the worst people.”

It is New Year’s Eve 1988 and three people find themselves stranded in a car in East Berlin; Englishman Herr Picker, who has a plan to flood East Berlin with ecstasy tablets in an effort to liberate its occupants, half-hearted terrorist Daphne, and Kreuzberger Friedrich. The novel follows the lives of these three characters over the course of the following year.

6. Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

alone in berlin “The Rosenthals used to have a little haberdashery shop on Prenzlauer Allee that was Aryanized, and now the man has disappeared, and he can’t be far short of seventy. […] And now the old woman is sitting in her flat all alone and doesn’t dare go outside. It’s only after dark that she goes and does her shopping, wearing her yellow star; probably she’s hungry.”

Primo Levi called this “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis”. It centres around an apartment block where a couple who lose their son in the war start resisting the regime in their own way. A sad but moving picture of Berlin during the third Reich.

5. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

the kindly ones“In front of me was the entrance to the U-Bahn station, Stadmitte on the C line. I ran down the steps, went through the gates, and kept going down into the darkness, guiding myself with one hand on the wall. The tiles were wet, water was welling out of the ceiling and streaming down the vault. Sounds of muffled voices rose from the platform. It was littered with bodies, I couldn’t see if they were dead, sleeping or just lying there, I stumbled over them, people were shouting, children crying or moaning. A train with broken windows, lit by wavering candles, was standing at the platform: inside, some Waffen SS with French insignia were standing to attention, and a tall Brigadefuhrer in a black leather coat, with his back to me, was solemnly handing out decorations to them.”

Okay, so this isn’t entirely a Berlin novel, but a lot of it is set in Berlin – and what a gripping, vivid Berlin it is. The novel is about an SS Officer who encounters people such as Himmler, Speer and Eichmann and is present during significant events such as the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine, the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin. Historians have praised the novel for its historical accuracy so if you would like a meticulous portrait of Berlin as the centre of the Nazi regime, look no further.

4. Berlin Blues by Sven Regener

berlin bluesInstead of a quote from this novel, I’m going to give you a clip from the film, which was made in 2003, because it is the most hilarious depiction of the fall of the Berlin Wall I have ever seen:

(Update – apologies, this clip has been taken down because of possible copyright issues! But if you go ahead and watch the film, you’ll see which scene I am referring too!)
Like the clip, the novel by Sven Regener, who is also the lead singer and songwriter of band Elements of Crime, is immensely funny. It centres around Herr Lehmann, who is about to turn 30, and his life as a barman in Kreuzberg just before the fall of the wall.

3. Berlin Noir Series by Phillip Kerr

berlin noir“Berlin. I used to love this old city. But that was before it had caught sight of its own reflection and taken to wearing corsets laced so tight that it could hardly breathe. I loved the easy, carefree philosophies, the cheap jazz, the vulgar cabarets and all of the other cultural excesses that characterized the Weimar years and made Berlin seem like one of the most exciting cities in the world.”

Three books; ‘March Violets’, ‘The Pale Criminal’ and ‘A German Requiem’, make up this series, which centres around a Berlin private investigator Bernie Gunther solving crimes during the Nazi regime (March Violets is set in 1936, Pale Criminal in 1938 and German Requiem in 1947). Kerr’s Berlin is a dark place full of corruption and moral ambiguity and his stories are tight, complex page-turners.

2. The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

the gift“A multitude of streets diverging in all directions, jumping out from behind corners and skirting the above-mentioned places of prayer and refreshment, turned it all into one of those schematic pictures on which are depicted for the edification of beginning motorists all the elements of the city, all the possibilities for them to collide.”

The Gift tells the story of a Russian writer Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev living in Berlin, and his love affair with Zina Mertz. It is filled with vivid descriptions of 1920s Berlin, and focuses on the Russian émigré population in the city.

Nabokov lived in Berlin between 1922 and 1937 and for anyone interested in his literature and relationship with the city, I would really recommend  Dieter E. Zimmer’s article on Nabokov’s Berlin , complete with pictures and all. (And if you like that, he‘s written a book with the same name too).

1. Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

goodbye to berlin“Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the iron-work of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb.”

Goodbye to Berlin is one of the two novels that make up Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (the other being Mr Norris Changes Trains). Set in Berlin between 1930 – 1933, Isherwood depicts an intriguing array of characters, from prostitutes to wealthy Jewish store owners, and their lives in the city during the Nazi rise to power.

The fact that Isherwood lived in Berlin during this period, the novels’ easy style, and the claim that his main character (also a writer named Christopher) makes as being ‘a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’, fools the reader into thinking that this is a memoir. However, it is a well-crafted piece of fiction as James Wood’s insightful analysis of the following paragraph shows:

““The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickle and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk-jugs. The pavement was chalk-marked for the hopping game called Heaven and Earth. At the end of it, like a tall, dangerously sharp, red instrument, stood a church”

The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems ‘a slice of life’, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet. The passage begins with an entrance: the entrance of the chapter. The reference to hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses introduces a note of menace, which is completed by the sardonic reference to commercial bills advertising ‘auctions and crimes’: this may be commerce but it is uncomfortable close to commercial graffiti – after all, isn’t auction and crime what polititians, especially the kind involved in communist or fascist activities, do? They sell us things and commit crimes. The Nazi ‘crosses’ nicely link us to the children’s game called Heaven and Earth, and to the church, except that, threateningly enough, everything is inverted: the church no longer looks like a church but like a red instrument (a pen, a knife, an instrument of torture, the ‘red’ the colour of both blood and radical politics), while the ‘cross’ has been taken over by the Nazis. Given this inversion, we understand why Isherwood wants to top and tail this paragraph with the Nazi crosses at the start and the church at the end: each changes place in the course of a few lines.” (Wood, How Fiction Works 44-45)

Goodbye to Berlin inspired the play I Am a Camera and the Tony Award-winning musical Cabaret, which in turn was adapted into Bob Fosse’s film Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli.


Leonard Cohen at the Waldbuhne

Last night Leonard Cohen played at the Waldbuhne to an audience of more than 12,000 people.

I’d seen him play in London a couple of years ago; he was less conversational last night, but as always he gave a good show.

He and his wonderful band played for over three and a half hours, and his voice – at the age of 76 – was as deep and powerful as ever. He was polite, sincere and humble. He even sang ‘Lover Lover Lover’ (the only Cohen song to make the German charts) right at the end as someone held up a banner requesting it.

Leonard Cohen at the Waldbuhne 2010

Seeing him perform in the open air arena in the middle of the forest, originally built and used by the Nazis, was a quasi-religious experience, and of course ‘First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin’ really got the crowd going. Here it is, followed by a very interesting recent interview:

history, Life in Berlin, music

The Cemeteries at Mehringdamm

If you wander through the cemetery gates at 21 Mehringdamm, you may be forgiven for thinking that you are entering just one cemetery instead of five.

During the reign of King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia in 1735, work began on the cemeteries outside the city gate of Hallesches Tor for the parishes of Jerusalem Church and New Church as burials were no longer permitted within the city gates. Cemeteries for the Trinity Church, Bethlehem Church (for the Bohemian community, who fled to Berlin in 1732) and Morovian Church followed.

Here’s a plan of the cemeteries today:

Cemeteries at Mehringdamm plan

The place has an improvised, mishmash feel to it because of the many changes its seen in its almost 300 year history. It has been through various expansions (especially when Friedrich Wilhelm II banned all burials in churches and inhabited areas in 1794) and suffered heavy damages during the second world war. The Berlin Wall separated the cemetery in the west from its parish in the east, which led to it falling into a state of neglect and disrepair, and between 1968 and 1971, the oldest part of Trinity Cemetery was lost when Bluecherstrasse was re-routed.

It’s an extremely interesting place to walk around, with many notable graves. Here are some highlights: 

Felix Mendelssohn grave

Felix Mendelssohn, composer, pianist, conductor

3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847

One of the most popular composers of the Romantic Era, most famous for his Wedding March, Elijah and Fingal’s Cave

Fanny Hensel grave

Fanny Hensel, composer, pianist

17 November 1805 – 11? May 1847

Nearby is the grave of Mendelssohn’s equally talented sister. A significant number of her works were published under his name. Felix Mendelssohn became very depressed after her death and died 6 months later. The line of song engraved on her stone translates roughly to “our thoughts and songs rise up to heaven.”

Franz Duncker grave

Franz Duncker, publisher, left-liberal politician and social reformer

4 June 1822 – 18 June 1888

Responsible for the left-liberal newspaper Berliner Volks-Zeitung, and a leader of the revolution of 1848. Together with Max Hirsch and Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch, he founded the  Hirsch-Dunckerschen Gewerkvereine, an early trade union movement.

Adelbert von Chamisso grave

Adelbert von Chamisso, poet and botanist

30 January 1781 – 21 August 1838

His most important work as a botanist was the description of trees of Mexico in 1830-1831, done with Diederich Franz Leonhard von Schlechtendal. As a poet, he was famous for Frauenliebe und -leben (1830), a cycle of lyrical poems set to music by Robert Schumann, Carl Loewe, and Franz Paul Lachner.

Anna Schramm grave

Anna Schramm, soprano, soubrette and actress.

8 April 1835 – 1 June 1916

Considered one of the most popular artists in Germany before the turn of the century.

There are many more notable graves here including ETA Hoffmann, Henriette Herz and Adelbert Delbruck. Look out especially for the graves of landscape painter Karl Wilhelm Bennewitz von Loefen and his wife, as they are each marked by a sculpture of a woman’s head by Ignaz Taschner.

Life in Berlin

From London to Berlin

berlin bearWhilst spending some time in London recently, I couldn’t help but notice the fine distinctions between the two cities. Here’s a list of top 5 random observations:

1) Exotic Animals: London seems to be full of them – from statues of lions to the painted elephants they’ve recently plonked around the city. In Berlin, we only get bears.

2) Use of escalators: In London, you stand on right and walk on the left. There is also a system for the trains – you let everyone get off before you get on. In Berlin, it’s whatever, which means that you spend a lot of time faffing around people getting in your way. It makes you consider how on earth the Germans got a reputation for being efficient and systematic!

3) Space: To be fair, Berliners probably don’t have a system for the above because it isn’t nearly as crowded. In Mitte, you can sometimes find yourself on a street with no-one else on it but yourself, which is a far cry from the streets of London where you’re lucky if you can find an inch of pavement to put your toe on.

4) Beautiful people: London has more. At least, if they’re not more beautiful, they are more fashionable. Here the fashion is limited to boho-chic and punk and people actually try to look like tramps.

5) Credit cards: In London you can use them to buy a penny sweet or a McDonald’s as well as to pay your cabbie. No-one bothers with cash, which is reflected in the fact that when you want to withdraw some, the cash machine asks you whether you would like £10, £20 or £50. Here, the cash machine asks you whether you want €300, €500 or €1000. That’s because even when you buy over €1000 of furniture from some shops, they refuse to accept credit cards.

Still in the swing of things from London, I used my EC card to buy a pack of plasters from Rossman yesterday and the woman actually tutted and gave me a dirty look! And it’s not even a credit card, it’s electronic cash!!!

Despite all these differences, whilst I was there I felt a twinge of homesickness for Berlin…here’s a song to express my feelings:

food, Life in Berlin, restaurants and bars

Unsicht Bar, Berlin Mitte

The Unsicht Bar in Berlin is the first blind restaurant in Germany; you eat in pitch black served by blind waiters and waitresses.

The Bavarian’s sister gave us a voucher for the restaurant as a wedding present, which The Bavarian was positively annoyed about. He whined about gimmicky restaurants for the entire journey there – partly because he’s a conservative guy when it comes to dining out and would rather stick to somewhere like Dressler, and partly because now that we’re married he feels free to whine as much as he likes. He was so grumpy that by the time we got to the restaurant he had concocted a wicked plan to buy a yodeling lesson for her wedding present in return.

I, on the other hand, being unaverse to new experiences and a frequent victim of gimmicks, was rather looking forward to it. It didn’t matter that my date was grumpy; I wouldn’t even be able to see his surly face throughout dinner.

Before being led in to the restaurant by our blind waitress, we had to choose from a number of set menus. These were no ordinary menus; they gave you no clue as to what you were ordering save for indicating whether it was vegetarian, fish, beef, lamb or chicken. It was filled with descriptions like ‘the igneous Spaniard lolls in a harsh-sweet bed and relaxes with voluptuous green’, which irritated the Bavarian even more.

I put my hands on the shoulders of the waitress, the Bavarian grudgingly put his hands on my shoulders and we trotted off into the dark like a choo-choo train. It was a strange sensation – after all, we rarely experience pitch blackness and are not used to placing that much trust in a waitress. It didn’t help that she accidently walked into a chair whilst leading us to our table.

The first course arrived, and I realised that there’s a reason why human beings don’t eat in the dark: It’s bloody difficult. I spent the meal ramming forks and spoons into my face at all angles like a delinquent two-year old. Most of the time, when the fork or spoon was inserted into my mouth, it was empty – either because whatever it was had fallen off on the way to my mouth or else because I was doing it wrong – for example stabbing my risotto with the fork thinking it was fish or scooping up a big piece of fish thinking it was risotto.

The Bavarian, on the contrary, was having a great time. He decided to dispense with the cutlery altogether during the first course and ate his chicken and noodle salad with his hands. This sense of liberation expanded to him randomly hitting me on the head whenever he felt like it, drinking his soup straight from the bowl, stealing my spoon and informing me that he was picking his nose. By dessert, he was licking the chocolate off his plate. Around that time, I too, had dispensed with the formalities and ate my ice-cream with my fingers.

All in all, the concept that you experience your food better through your other senses if you eliminate the sense of sight is flawed. You ended up concentrating more on the basic mechanics of eating rather than actually enjoying the food. There was also the problem of getting just the right mix of things from your plate onto your fork so as to make it an enjoyable tasting experience. Added to that, although there were no bones in the fish, there was skin, which I don’t like. As it was dark, I spat it out onto the side of my plate as soon as I realised what I was eating.

Part of the reason you go to a restaurant is the ambience, and this is not the kind of place where you would feel comfortable sitting around in for ages. The courses followed one another swiftly, and for the price (approx. €50 per head excl. wine) the food was average. Normally, we taste each other’s food and inevitably The Bavarian ends up finishing mine. Here, this proved difficult – when he did manage to find my plate with his fork, he ended up eating the fish skin that I’d spat out. Although we had fun, it’s a one-off place.

A couple of positive things came to light though; when we came out of the restaurant we were given a proper menu which informed us of what we had actually eaten. It turned out that The Bavarian had happily munched through a bunch of courgettes after years of claiming that he hated them and screwing up his nose whenever I cooked them. We also came up with a brilliant concept for a new Berlin restaurant; the bunker experience. You’ll be locked up in our basement with some stale bread and canned meat by while alarms, crashes and booms go off outside. Email to make a booking.

Life in Berlin, News, politics

Christopher Street Day (CSD) Parade

christopher street day berlin 2010Yesterday was the CSD Parade (or the Gay Pride Parade) in Berlin. The parade ran from Ku’damm to Brandenburg Gate and the entire area from Brandenburg Gate to The Victory Column was converted into a party zone crowded with gays drinking champagne, lesbians drinking beer, drag queens strutting about with seemingly no effort at all in six-inch high-heels and everyone in between.

The location ws perfect due to its proximity to the Tiergarten, which meant that people easily coud slip into the woods for a bit of hanky panky. (Tiergarten has traditionally been a gay cruising area). More poignantly, the city’s memorial for gay holocaust victims is also nearby. Approximately 54,000 men and women were convicted of homosexual acts under the Nazis and 7,000 died in the camps.

Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit gave a speech encouraging tolerance, and the motto for the day was ‘Normal ist anders’. The parade involved 64 groups, and attracted half a million people. However, of the groups in the parade, most of them – apart from the five political parties and a footballers’ group – were commercial groups such as Ikea and DildoKing.

Compared with Pride London, where almost every institution from the Metropolitan Police to teachers’ unions have a float, the Berlin parade seems to be politically impotent. Even the political parties were handing out general manifestos and agendas rather than specific info pertaining to gay rights. Perhaps this is an indicator that despite appearances Germany lags behind England when it comes to championing diversity and equality…

American gender theorist and Berkley lecturer Judith Butler, who was presented with a prize for civil courage on the CSD stage last night, critisied the march as too superficial and commercial. She rejected the prize and claimed preference for the alternative CSD, which due to take place is Kreuzberg next Saturday (see her speech on YouTube).

For more photos, the Tagesspiegel has a good gallery.

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history, Life in Berlin

The Letters Museum

The Letters Museum (Buchstaben Museum) is a collection of old shop signs innocuously hidden away amid a building site on Leipziger Strasse in Berlin Mitte.

The Letters Museum

At the moment, the two small rooms that contain the jumble of letters is a temporary holding place open to visitors a few times a month while the curators raise funding for a permanent exhibition space.

The Letters Museum, Leipziger StrasseAs it stands, the feel of the exhibition is strangely apt; it is a wasteland of letters, abandoned shop signs that have lost their original purpose. Although some letters come with little cards printed with information such as where they came from, the font and date of receipt, the majority do not and you must piece together which letters belong together, and guess at their history.

The oldest sign in the collection is from a leather shop from 1946, donated by the grandson of the family business when it was closing down.

Letters Museum, Berlin

Check it out if you’re into typography or history – it’s open tomorrow between 1-3 pm, then on the 3rd June between 1-3 pm. For further opening times in info, go to their website.

Life in Berlin, News

Carnival of Cultures

carnival of cultures 2010The Carnival of Cultures (Karneval der Kulturen) is a four-day street festival that takes place in Berlin every year to celebrate the city’s cultural and ethnic diversity.

Now in its 15th year, the carnival is expected to attract approximately 1.4 million visitors between Friday and Monday (21st – 24th May) – the highlight being the parade that took place yesterday involving 4,800 performers from 70 nations.

Although the Germans always gush about Berlin’s multicultiness, my impression as a Londoner has been that the city is unexceptional in this sense apart from its large Turkish population (Berlin has the second biggest Turkish population in the world after Istanbul). So seeing the parade yesterday involving troupes from Thailand to Latin America was a pleasant awakening – there was even a group (albeit small) of Hawaiians.

carnival of cultures thailand 2010

Unlike Notting Hill, this carnival is not limited to one particular ethnic background but  to literally  anyone (there was even a carnival of cultures 2010Flintstones group!) From open bars and living rooms came the clash of different beats, from techno to latino, and stalls selling foods from all over the world lined the streets. Another notable difference was the lack of police presence, restrictions on where you could go and all that rubbish that’s really made Notting Hill more of a hassle than a pleasure to go to in recent years. As a result, despite the hoards of people, there was a feeling of space, safety and general laidbackness in Hallesches Tor and the surrounding areas.

For more info, photos and clips go to the rbb website…

Germany, Humour, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs Munich 2

Recently came across some hilarious videos from Broken Comedy that epitomise the Berlin / Munich conflict.

In Berlin, as in many cities in the world, you’ll sometimes stumble across a Bavarian pub; they are friendly, fun, the waiters are dressed in lederhosen, the women in dindls and the beer is great. This video, however, shows a typical Berlin pub opening up in Munich (sorry couldn’t embed it). So funny because it’s so accurate.

And here follow two songs – one for Berlin and one for Munich…

Life in Berlin, Literature

New poetry evening at St Gaudy Café

Thursday evening saw the first of a monthly poetry evening called Rage into the Night at St Gaudy Café, Prenzlauer Berg.

Unlike most poetry events in Berlin, this was not a Poetry Slam – which tend to be open mic competitions with a strong focus on performance – but an altogether more sombre affair featuring a line-up of four quite well-known poets.

First up was Will Carruthers, a poet-musician who is mostly known for playing bass in the bands Brian Jonestown Massacre, Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized. Despite his Chesterfield roots, Carruthers is very much a Hackney type – from the way he wears his tilted hat along with a blazer and jeans combo to his gruff cockney voice. In keeping with the whole trendy East-London thing, he read his poems from an Apple laptop.

His first few poems – about the end of the world and different places he has slept in – were uninspiring. (His claim that there is a poetry in place names is true, but only to a certain extent). His poetry, almost prosaic in style, really came to life with a couple of poems based on his experience of meeting his father for the first time and then hearing of his death. He also read a doggerel with flair towards the end of his performance.

Odile Kennel, a published Franco-German poet, fiction writer and translator living in Berlin, followed Carruthers. Her mellifluous voice and calm, concentrated air contrasted with his performance. As these poems were in German and French, I don’t feel qualified to comment on them, except to say that she was hypnotising to listen to.

Next up was Catherine Hales, a British poet and translator living in Berlin since 1999 who has recently published her first full-length collection titled Hazard and Fall. Her poetry is dense and full of meaning, and, judging from the selection she read, she leans toward the non-linear and the sonnet form. She read some pieces from her new collection, which incorporated contemporary cultural references such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dexter. Because of its complexity, her work is probably better read (and re-read) rather than listened to once.

On the other hand Martin Jankowski, with his charming character and booming voice was made to perform. He is another Berlin-based poet and writer and although many of his works were banned by the Stasi, his work became popular in the days leading up to the fall of the wall. He read his poems in English and German, although I’m not sure they worked as well in English as they did in German. He ended the night on a high-note by performing one of his poems along with Carruthers, which sought to answer the question ‘What is it like to have Malaria?” (You had to be there…)

The next Rage into the Night is to be held on 3rd June, but keep an eye on the St Gaudy Café website for details.

Life in Berlin, News, politics

May Day, Schönhauser Allee

Preparations for the 1st May around the Schönhauser Allee area started a day early; shops boarded up their windows and a police presence in Mauer Park prevented anyone from carrying in glass bottles and weapons. The result was a festive atmosphere, a ratio of two policemen per civilian and a disconcerting absence of beer bottles.

Today, contrary to my expectations, the atmosphere was much the same. I had heard that Berlin turned into a regular war zone on May Day, and this year had the potential to turn violent since a Neo-Nazi march was due to make its way from Bornholmer Strasse, through Schönhauser Allee to Landsberger Allee. The aim of the anti-demo protesters was to stop the demonstration, which the police have the right to do if it turns violent.

As it turned out, the approximatley 600 Neo-Nazis barely managed to make it out of Bornholmer Strasse; they were due to start their march at 12, and, after fires were started and arrests made, got moving at about 2.30 only to be turned back at the corner of Bornholmer Strasse and Schönhauser Allee and sent back home.

Some 250 Neo-Nazis foresaw that their effort to demonstrate might prove futile, as happened in Dresden in February of this year, and started an unofficial and therefore illegal protest on the Kudamm. Bottles and stones were thrown, and they were promptly arrested.

However, around the Schönhauser Allee area, there was hardly any violence. Music played, while families with children, punks, anarchists (mostly identified by their Schwarzer Block style clothing) and hippies danced, sang, shouted slogans, sat in the road, drank and ate and had a party in the traffic-free streets. The atmosphere was so laid back that someone even dragged a sofa out on to the road to sit on.

The diverse crowd no doubt reflected the fact that almost everyone is against the Nazis, and the politicians took advantage of the fact. Wolfgang Thiere, Deputy President of the Deutsche Bundestag (The Bavarian accidentally stepped on his foot once) sat down at Bornholmer Strasse to stop the march, and on the corner of Greifenhagener Strasse, Christian Ströbele, the Green MP for Friedrichshain, gave a speech. Representatives from the SPD, DKP (communist), the Left Party and the unions (Verdi and DGB) were also waving their flags around.

There was a massive police presence; between six and seven thousand police from all over Germany have come to Berlin for the first of May.  Most of them seemed to come from Bavaria, which pleased The Bavarian greatly.

Police dogs barked while helicopters droned above (apparently, the police increase the sound of their helicopters in crowd situations to make their presence felt) – but there was no need for all that as everything remained peaceful apart from a few trouble makers.

Tonight, however, will probably be a very different story – in Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg it is almost certain that Molotov cocktails, stones and bottles will be lobbed, street fights will break out and cars set on fire.

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Sorry about the spelling mistake in the above video – can’t seem to replace the video on YouTube, so I’m just going to leave it!

Life in Berlin, politics

Summer in Berlin

Yesterday, it felt like summer for the first time in the city and the Berliners were out doing what they do best; lounging around in parks, cafes and restaurants. 

Mauer Park, Prenzlauer Berg
Mauer Park, Prenzlauer Berg

In Prenzlauer Berg the place to be was Mauer Park, where people were playing frisbee, basketball, bowls, walking on tightropes, juggling, barbecuing, singing, dancing, making music, listening to music, talking, sleeping, taking off their clothes and tanning, strolling around the flea market, eating and drinking beer….lots of beer. 

In the middle of the park, there was a mad version of karaoke going on, where anyone could step up from the crowd of about 500 people and entertain them with a song. I’ve just found out that this is a regular Mauer Park tradition – they even have a facebook page –  here’s a clip from last year…

Ah, I love Berlin in the summer. When it’s sunny in this city, the punks, families and bohemian types all come out to play and the city flaunts its laid back, cool vibe that is part of its charm. 

Next weekend however, Mauer Park will probably be very different, no matter how sultry the weather; on May 1st Neo-Nazis from all over Europe are gathering in Prenzlauer Berg to demonstrate, and where there are Nazis there are leftists and other protesters.

Although Mauer Park is traditionally a place where people gather on the 1st May, and has seen its fair share of riots, it has calmed down in recent years. In 2009 there was no rioting at all, just a party. This year however I expect Mauer Park will become a battle field, very different from the peace, love and beer atmosphere of yesterday.

Film, Life in Berlin

Short Film evenings: Monthly screenings at Cafe Hilde and Sputnik Kino

Here in Berlin, every second person I meet claims to be a film-maker so it is no wonder that there is a continuous stream of films being made and displayed in the city.

Two free monthly film screenings have recently cropped up; A Night of Short Film Wonderment run by The Privateer at Cafe Hilde in Prenzlauer Berg, and Testbild at Sputnik Kino in Kreuzberg.

They are very different – probably a reflection of their very diverse locations.

Night of Short Film Wonderment at Cafe HildeA Night of Short Film Wonderment at Cafe Hilde is all very sophisicated; the crowd, dominated by ex-pats, sip on cappucinos and beers whilst being entertained by a range of high quality films (including BAFTA, Oscar and Berlinale winners and nominees) that centre around a certain theme (last week’s theme was music). You can normally see the programme of films that will be shown beforehand at Cafe Hilde’s website.

With Testbild on the other hand, you never quite know what you’re getting. Film-makers turn up with their films half an hour early and hand them over to be played. The crowd is mostly German, although many international film-makers have shown their films there and a number of films are in English.

As can be expected with such a format, the films vary vastly in terms of quality – from surprisingly good to astonishingly bad…

The vibe in the kino bar is relaxed; people come and go and there is usually a dog running about. What’s really special is that after each film is shown, the film-maker gets the chance to talk about their film and the audience can ask questions.

It’s great if you are a film-maker because it’s a chance to interact with other people in the business and see what they are doing, which is often more useful than watching highly polished pieces made with higher budgets.  And if you are a film-maker (or a creative of any discipline) you’ll understand when I say that there is also a deep satisfaction to watching somebody else’s failures; it boosts our delicate egos, and gives us a chance to bitch at someone else’s work rather than our own.

bureaucracy, Life in Berlin

Getting married in Berlin

Apologies for the gap between posts – I’ve been spending long hours at the Pankow Rathaus (our local town hall) recently as the Bavarian and I have decided to tie the knot. As always in Berlin, there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved.

Pankow RathausThe first hurdle was figuring out what documents an English person and a German person need in order to get married. The Bavarian tried phoning, but could only get through to a central number where they insisted we had to come in to find out. It would be too much to ask for all the information to be easily accessible on a website, but they did have a contact email address – hooray! Except when we emailed, they replied to say that we should come in…

This is where Germany really differs – nay, lags behind – England, where you can do almost everything via the web from watching last week’s episode of EastEnders to paying your council tax. Here, they prefer paper and face to face contact.

So we went in. For some reason all these offices have really odd opening hours – this one is only open on Mondays and Tuesdays 8.30 – 13.00. They probably do it to generate queues. We waited in one for almost two hours before we got to see the nice lady who asked us why, actually, we had not brought all the stuff we needed with us.

I don’t know what prerequisites you need to work at the Rathaus, but being a dimwit must be one of them. We explained the situation, showed her our passports and she started reeling off list of stuff we had to provide:

  • A newly issued copy of both our birth certificates
  • A translation of my birth certificate by a Berlin-state approved translator
  • A print off of both our registrations in Berlin that is less than 2 weeks old
  • My passport
  • The Bavarian’s ID
  • My visa that shows I can live and work in this country

As you can see a lot of this list is bullshit. The first question we asked her was whether she knew that the UK was a member of the EU which meant that I could live and work here without a visa. She nodded vaguely and moved on. The translation is also a waste of time and money because the English words that appear on a birth certificate are few and basic- mother’s name, father’s name etc. But the biggest stupidity of all is asking for a print off of our registrations in Berlin – why? We registered as residents in Berlin, we already waited in a queue to give them our details which they tapped into a computer and that office is literally just down the hall from this office – it’s incomprehensible. Anyway, it meant another wasted morning at Pankow Rathaus.

Pankow Rathaus before the queuesBy the time we had gathered all the bits and pieces we needed, The Bavarian was having feverish dreams about a book filled with names of people ahead of us in the queue at the Rathaus, so he woke me up at 6 o’clock on Monday morning to ensure that we could be at the top of the list and that he would make his 2 pm meeting. I think we overdid it a bit because we were there at 7 am, and there wasn’t even a list to sign. The photo shows the normally packed hallway…

Although we had all the required documents there was an issue with the fact that I have a second name that I do not use. The only place that my second name appears is on my birth certificate, which means that my birth certificate and my passport don’t match exactly – something that the English aren’t bothered about but that the German bureaucrat cannot bend his mind round.

We finally managed, after signing various things, answering questions, taking oaths, paying etc etc to submit all our papers. Now we just have to wait for about a month for a court to check the documents before we can book a date and go to the Rathaus again to get married…No wonder the rate of marriages in Berlin is so low.

Germany, history, politics

When in doubt, blame the Germans

One of the great things about going out with a German is that you can always have the last word in every conflict by saying, “Yes, but we won the war”. Or something to that effect. “Yes, but we didn’t murder six million Jews” or “Yes, but you started two world wars” also work. Even if the argument is about whose turn it is to mop the living room, The Bavarian will invariably feel a stab of guilt, pick up the mop and start cleaning in the furious manner in which Lady Macbeth scrubbed her hands. It’s a dirty trick, but I’m not the only one exploiting the great burden of German Guilt.

It seems that the EU’s policy of ‘don’t mention the war’, which is essential if Europe is to move on unitedly, is not working. Germany has paid her reparations and shown much good will and support to both Poland and Greece (Walter Wullenweber of Stern Magazine recently calculated that Germans have given each Greek $12,200 since 1981), which begs the question, when will the wounds of the war heal in Europe? Will this guilt trip ever end?

For a full account, Time magazine has a good article covering this Greece-Germany conflict.

Film, Life in Berlin

The Berlinale: Metropolis and Shutter Island

It’s that time of year in Berlin when glitter balls shimmer, red carpets are rolled out and the stars come to town. Kate Winslet is staying in Hotel Adlon, Tilda Swinton is in the Hotel Ritz Carlton, Keanu Reeves, Renée Zellweger and Michelle Pfeiffe are in The Regent Hotel (not together of course), Ben Stiller is in the Hotel de Rome, but as usual most of the actors, directors and Berlinale lot are in the Hotel Grand Hyatt conveniently located in Potsdamer Platz.

Metropolis PosterThe highlight of the festival was Friday night, when Fritz Lang’s Metropolis premiered in full for the first time since 1927 in Friedrichstadt Palace and at the Brandenburger Tor. As we were not special enough to be able to get into Friedrichstadt Palace nor one of the 2000 people brave enough to watch it outdoors in the snow, we watched it on Arte.

Metropolis, the first Sci-Fi film ever made, and influence on everything from Tim Burton’s Batman to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is set in a dystopian world where the poor work tirelessly in an underground maze of machines while the rich live luxuriously in high towers above ground.

Freder, the son of Johann Fredersen, the wealthiest man in the city, leads a blissful life until the evangelical Maria enters his garden one day with some worker children and tells him that they are his brothers. Freder follows Maria to the underworld, where he is so moved by what he sees that he swaps places with one of the workers there. Meanwhile, his father visits mad-scientist Rotwang to enlist his help in thwarting a workers revolution led by Maria. Rotwang creates a robot in her exact image, which causes havoc in the city but ultimatley leads to the dawn of a new era in Metropolis.

It’s incredicle to think that this film was made in 1927; its visual effects, set design and expressionist camera work are so sophisticated and its themes still pertinent – perhaps testament to the fact that it was not only the most costly UFA film ever made, but also the most expensive silent film ever. However, it flopped when it was released more than 80 years ago, which led to the film being cut by 25 minutes. It was believed that the original verison of the film was lost forever until 2008 when a full version was discovered in Argentina. It took two years to restore the 16 mm film, and the process relied heavily on the original film score by Gottfried Huppertz, which was annoted in detail.

Leonardo Di Caprio at Shutter Island premiereYesterday, what did get us out into the cold was the opportunity to see Martin Scorsese, Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio et al trot down the red carpet to the premiere of Shutter Island. The scene was dominated by girls screaming “Leo!”, but apart from him, Ben and Martin, we caught a glimpse of Mark Ruffalo, Wim Wenders, Mario Adorf, Hannes Jaenicke and Detlev Buck. 

I cannot wait to see this film set in 1954, which follows U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels on his investigation to track a missing murderess who escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane on the remote Shutter Island. It releases in Germany on the 25th Feb 2010 – here’s the trailer and a some interviews:

Life in Berlin, News

Berliners track Google’s Street View Car

In Britain we’re used to constantly being watched by Big Brother, but in Germany, due to the country’s history, invasion of privacy is a big deal.

Although things like CCTV cameras are gradually and inevitably growing in this country, it’s nice that the Germans make a bit of a fuss about it once in a while. 

Yesterday, when Google’s Steet View Car was drving around Berlin, members of the Free Art & Technology group (F.A.T.) decided to attach a GPS device to it, resulting in a map tracking the car’s movements – until the good folks at Google realised that someone was watching them and took it off.

Google Street View Car being tracked on Google Street View
Google Street View Car being tracked on Google Street View
Germany, history, Life in Berlin

Berlin vs. Munich

Every time I mention the fact that my other half is a Bavarian to a Berliner, they raise their eyebrows and ask how he’s getting along. It’s condescending, this idea that a Bavarian in Berlin is some sort of lederhosen-wearing in-bred farmer holding a weiß wurst in one hand and a weiß beer in another as out of place as Crocodile Dundee in New York.  I tell them that he is getting along just fine, which he is – he likes the laid back atmosphere, the brunches, the culture, the coffee places, the cinemas and drinking beer from the bottle on the U-Bahn. Why shouldnt he?

What I failed to understand was that the Berliners were not merely being condescending in their reaction – they were being nasty. When we went to a Skunk Anansie concert in Berlin a while back, Skin informed the crowd that they were performing in Munich the following night: the crowd booed magnificently.

The obvious reason for this antagonism is that Berlin and Munich are completely different. Even the swimming pools are different, as we discovered today when we visited the Spreewaldplatz swimming pool in Kreuzberg. The Bavarian was devasted to discover that there was no bubbling hot-tub that he could laze in, and that the only thing for him to do was swim. It was not only the lack of big slides and water refuges of over 30° that caused him to mumble “everything’s better in Bavaria” but the fact that you had to stick a Euro into the lockers instead of those little plastic entry coins you get in Bavaria, and little coins into the hairdryers as he used to do as a child. Coming from England, where we have functional swimming pools, I’m more or less delighted by every single German swimming pool I visit, but I have to admit, the swimming pools in Bavaria are the best.

Like most things, it comes down to the fact that Munich is rich, while Berlin is poor. But the differences are endless; Munich is pretty, Berlin is a building site; Munich is conservative, Berlin is liberal; in Munich everything opens early, while Berlin eases itself into the day; Berlin is significantly more multi-cultural; Munich is significantly more Catholic….when I asked a school-friend of The Bavarian’s whether these differences were the reason behind the Berlin/Munich divide, he simply shrugged and said that the Münchners didn’t really bother hating the Berliners too much – they had better things to do.

So what prompted the open-minded peace-loving Berliners to rage against the Münchners? It’s the war, stupid.

Munich was the birthplace of the Nazis. Hitler was popular there, while Berlin had always been a leftist city. In fact, Hitler hated Berlin – it was Goebbels’ idea that the new government should set up in Berlin. As a result, the city was damaged by air raids, and especially by the Battle of Berlin. After the war, Berlin suffered once again when she was split among the allies and consequently the divided by The Wall. While Berlin paid for Munich’s mistakes over decades, Munich prospered – and still prospers now, while Berlin, the great building site, is in ruins.

history, Life in Berlin, Literature

Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof

Dorotheenstädtischen friedhof

It’s not true that the Germans are unromantic; The Bavarian takes me out somewhere special once a week. This week we went to Dorotheenstädtischer cemetery off Chausseestraße in Berlin Mitte, where almost every prominent body in Berlin rests, including…

Bertolt Brecht grave

Bertolt Brecht, novelist and playwright

10 February 1898–14 August 1956

Brecht’s second wife, actress Helene Weigel, is buried next to him. Their house, at Chausseestrasse 125, overlooks the cemetery and is open to visitors.


Heinrich Mann grave

Heinrich Mann, novelist and brother of Thomas Mann

27 March 1871 – 11 March 1950

Nearby is a tablet in memorial of his wife Nelly Mann (15 February 1898 – 17 December 1944), who committed suicide in Los Angeles. Heinrich Mann also died in the USA and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica. His remains were relocated here in 1961.


Johannes Rau grave

Johannes Rau, former President of Germany between 1999 and 2004, and Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia from 1978 to 1998.

16 January 1931 – 27 January 2006

Rau’s personal motto was “teneo, quia teneor”: I hold because I am held.


 Johannes R Becher grave

Johannes R Becher, novelist, expressionist poet and politician

22 May 1891 – 11 October 1958

 The inscription roughly translates to: Completion of a dream, Have I completed my work ends, if not as accomplished. For this was my work sacred mission: service to humanity Future completion.


Anna Seghers grave

Anna Seghers, novelist, short story writer and essayist

19 November 1900– 1 June 1983

Anna Seghers (pseudonym of Netty Radványi) is most famous for the novels The Seventh Cross (1942) and Transit (1944), which deal with Nazi persecution. She herself fled to Marseilles and Mexico because of the Nazis, and returned to Berlin in 1947.


Arnold Zweig grave

Arnold Zweig, novelist, journalist, polititian

 10 November 1887 – 26 November 1968

Zweig fled Germany when the Nazis came to power like many of the writers buried here – he spent time with Anna Seghers and Bertolt Brecht during his time in exile.


Karl Friedrich Schinkel grave

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, architect, urban planner, painter and stage designer

 13 March 1781 – 9 October 1841

Responsible for some of Berlin’s greatest buildings including the Altes Museum and the Shauspielhaus. Before the second world war it was said that he who knew Berlin knew Schinkel.


Friedrich Hitzig mausoleum

Friedrich Hitzig, architect and student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel

8 November 1811 – 11 October 1881

Another great Berlin architect – he is responsible for the Berlin Armory (now the German Historical Museum) on Unter den Linden among others.

Film, Life in Berlin

British Shorts Film Festival at Sputnik Kino

Nicknamed Berlin’s highest cinema, you’ll find Sputnik Kino on the fifth floor of a 19th century business complex in Kreuzberg. The climb to this intimate art house cinema and bar, however, is worth it. It has two screens, a 1950s style bar scattered with sofas and old film artefacts, and a balcony with a view that overlooks Berlin.
British Shorts film festival poster

This weekend the cinema hosted the British Shorts film festival in Kino 1, whose bricked seat rows were filled to capacity for most screenings. The festival is now in its third year and showcases an eclectic range of British films (the loose definition of which seems to be those either made by Brits, set in Britain, or made with British funding and support) from documentary to animation.

The most interesting piece of the festival came from the Gob Squad , a unique British-German artist collective who do performance, video and installation art projects and everything in between.  Live Long and Prosper is a split screen film which aims to bring death into public view. Not only does death occur mostly out of sight in modern society, banished to hospitals or homes, but the actual moment of death is seldom seen in films.

Consequently, the Gob Squad took seven death scenes from seven movies and recreated them in different public places around Berlin. So for example, the scene where Spock dies in Star Trek is recreated in Pfennigland. Although the recreated version is done in earnest – by the performers as well as the film-makers, who attempt to get the camera angles, set and costume details down to a tee, the juxtaposition between the original and the recreated scene provoked much laughter. Eventually however, the laugher died down, and a more contemplative, serious atmosphere pervaded the cinema; it became a meditation on the moment death, and the ongoing movement of the modern world in the background of the recreated scenes became depressing. If you do get the chance to see this film, grab it.

A couple of acts that combined music with video also stood out. Dirk Markham, a Berlin-based Scottish musician mixed electronic music with interesting visuals in the bar on Friday night, and Éda Manó Meggyesházi performed on Saturday – her songs filling the cinema like those of a woodland spirit, reflecting the images of the crooked winter trees that accompanied them.

The selection of short films were of a very hight standard – many of them student projects from the London College of Communications, Edinburgh College of Art or University of Bedfordshire (the festival has links to the University of Bedfordshire). You can see a full programme of all the shorts shown here.

history, Life in Berlin, politics

The Anarchists of Friedrichshain

They cannot be ignored any longer – the anarchists are demanding attention. 

Cars have been burning in Friedrichshain every night over the past few weeks due to police raids and the shutting down of ‘housing-projects’, buildings illegally occupied by anarchists and usually identified by graffiti or the black-and-red flags flying from their roofs or windows. In addition, on 3rd December anarchists attacked police stations, cars and government buildings in Berlin, coinciding with anarchist riots in Greece over the anniversary of the death of a 15 year old boy who was shot and killed by police one year ago. All this proved to be a bit too much for the Interior Senator of Berlin, Ehrhart Körting from the SPD, who further fuelled the fire on Wednesday by comparing the radical left to fascists. 

No doubt, as many an exasperated Berliner will tell you, especially around the 1st of May, when nothing short of a full blown war breaks out on the streets of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, these anarchists don’t really have any ideological purpose – just some vague sense that they are against everything in the world, a tendency toward violence and the knowledge that there is a scene for this kind of thing in Berlin. We’ve all seen the images of anarchists taking part in anti-capitalist riots whilst wearing Nike trainers, but there is also something unique about the anarchists of Berlin that is related to the city’s history. 

DDR Flats
DDR Flats

Most of the city’s artists, intellectuals and generally unruly types have traditionally lived in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain because this is where all the old houses are. In the 1970s the totalitarian communist state calculated that it would be cheaper to build brand new blocks of flats fully equipped with modern amenities rather than to renovate the old houses – which resulted in these beautiful buildings you can see in the photo. 

Consequently, lots of people moved out of their old apartments into brand new homes, leaving many of these old buildings empty. The people who replaced them and deliberately chose  to squat in these old flats with only one toilet per floor and no central heating or hot water, did so because they refused to have every aspect of their lives controlled by the state. 

To this day, these houses have not been renovated and the people living there are still sharing toilets and so on. There’s something admirable in that, as is there in being alternative in a country where people will stand at a crossing and wait for the green man to flash before they step out into the road even when there isn’t a single car in sight. It is also quite an achievement that the anarchists of Berlin set fire to so many cars that there’s a special website that keeps count of just how many Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Volkswagens, are lost to them everyday.

It’s a shame that these housing projects are being shut down in Friedrichshain- they make Berlin colourful and original.  Just as the DDR tried to dictate how people should live, the capitalist ideology is forcing itself on these buildings which will all eventually be renovated and occupied by richer, more agreeable types.  In Prenzlauer Berg this gentrification has already happened – the Bavarian and I are part of the new, trendy crowd that are replacing the alternative lot. The result? Prenzlauer Berg is boring. Most of the houses have been renovated and look the same – a classier and subtler homogenisation than the DDR blocks – but a homogenisation none the less. 

I think I might have to go and set a car on fire….

The Spiegal has a good Berlin squat eviction gallery, as does the Taggespiegal.

Life in Berlin, politics

The Art of Political Lobbying

This week German parliament was fully underway, which meant that various pressure groups were swinging from the chandeliers of the lobbies desperately trying to find a way in.

I’ve never understood political lobbying – it all seems so simplistic and corrupt. Take for example E-Plus´s attempt to limit free access to content on the web on Wednesday night, when they hosted a Mobile meets Movies evening.

No matter how much wine they plied you with, nothing could shake off the corporate atmosphere that clung to the whole affair. This was partly due to the fact that E-Plus’s Unter den Linden offices are…very officey; photocopiers, bland abstract art and grey carpets all the way.

Moreover, the people at E-Plus did not really care about the topic Mobile meets Movies, and scarcely bothered to hide the fact. We expected something vaguely in line with Virgin Shorts, The Pocket Film Festival and creative uses of new media; we got two short films – one from 1981 and the other from 1989 – shown in a meeting room normally used for PowerPoint presentations. Now why would they pick two very old films when there are thousands of brilliant short films made every year, especially in Berlin? One; the people organising the event had no interest in movies, and two, one of them was made by Lutz Dammbeck, filmmaker and Professor of New Media, which brings me to the low point of the evening.

After the films, we were subjected to a lecture from the aforementioned Professor and Christoph Keese, a journalist who works for Axel Springer AG, Germany’s largest newspaper publishing company and owner of the Bild.

Both of them spent the next hour and a half pleading for the limitation of free content on the web using the stupid arguments. For example, that free web content would result in there being less artists in the world, which is the stupidest statement I’ve heard since Elton John suggested that the Internet should be cut off for 5 years to encourage creativity.  If anything, the Internet democratises and encourages creativity – and it’s not just losers like me that are using it – Elfriede Jelinek, the feminist anti-capitalist former Nobel Prize Winner is shunning massive advances to publish her latest writings online for free.

In short, both the journalist (for the profit of his paper) and the filmmaker (for his art) were dancing around like apes trying to protect their territory.

It was with this attitude of annoyance that I went to an event hosted by Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest energy companies, who wish to extend the service life of nuclear power stations, the following day. While I had previously not really cared one way or another about free content on the web (although by Wednesday night my opinion very strongly against that of E-Plus), I have never really been in favour of nuclear power stations so I was geared up to start an argument with the first suit I saw.

However, when we arrived at The 12 Apostles, the party was in full swing and there was no one round to have a serious argument with. The restaurant, situated under three arcs of the S-Bahn between Friedrichstrasse and Hackesher Markt, had a self-service buffet in each room as well as a flying buffet. There were also several wine bars, beer bars, cocktail bars, a fresh sushi bar and a cigar bar where you could get a genuine latina to roll you a fresh cigar (unfortunately not between her thighs).  In the red smokey atmosphere, surrounded by religious frescos with the train rumbling occasionally overhead, we felt like we were having a party in the depths of hell.

There were no speeches, no-one telling you what they wanted and why, just pure, sinful decadence. Sure there were lots of evil-looking Mr Burns types around, however, there were also quite a few well-known faces – Andrea Nahles (deputy and gerneral secretary of the SPD), German soap stars, Peter Scholl-Latour (non-fiction writer and documentary filmmaker) and Heiner Bremer (former anchor man and TV journalist). What were they all doing there? Who cares. What do I think about nuclear power stations? Well, here’s a short piece of free web content to help express my thoughts:

Film, Life in Berlin

Premiere of The Line, Kastanianallee 77

Former Mayor of Berlin Klaus Wowereit described Berlin as “poor but sexy”, and there is nothing poorer or sexier in Berlin than its film-making community.

Berlin has provided the inspiration for films such as Cabaret, Wings of Desire and The Lives of Others, and is home to over 100 cinemas (see list) and the Berlinale.  In Berlin, film-makers even get their own little places to hang out, such as Cinema Café in Hackescher Markt or Filmcafe in Prenzlauer Berg.

The Line PosterLast night Xavier Agudo premiered his short film The Line at the very sexy, very intimate cinema at 77 Kastanienalle, which has a cool basement bar and is decorated with Truffaut and Bergman film posters.

The film was very ‘Berlin’; made with hardly any money, an international cast and crew and inspired by The Wall. It’s a beautifully shot little film about divisions – the line between east and west, past and present, the living and the dead. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who’s interested in watching it – it is due to be shown at HHU Filmfest Düsseldorf shortly – but here’s a teaser.

art, Life in Berlin

The Gemäldegalerie

Not many people visit this gallery in Potsdamer Platz due to its slightly out of the way location in relation to Museumsinsel. However, it holds one of the most important collections of European art dating from the 13th to the early 19th century.

Rembrant self portrait at the Gamaldegalerie in Berlin

Most notably, it is home to the second largest collection of Rembrants in the world after the Rembrant Museum in Amsterdam. The collection would have been bigger, had not a fire at the end of the second world war destroyed 11 Rembrants as well as hundreds of other works. 

The gallery currently exhibits about 1500 works, including those by Eyck, Bruegel, Dürer, Raphael, Tizian, Caravaggio, Rubens and Vermeer.  If you don’t have time to take all of them in, here are my top three highlights.

Caravaggio Amor Vincit Omnia
Amor Vincit Omnia

This painting caused a big fuss, not only because of the erotic representation of Cupid, but also because of the realistic touches Caravaggio gives him – such as dirty feet which are unbefitting of a god.

The painting has a photographic quality and striking chiaroscuro lighting. A recent article in The Guardian explains why Caravaggio may have been ” the first master of photographic technique, two centuries before the formal invention of the camera”, and it is interesting to view his paintings in the gallery with this in mind.

Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel
Netherlandish Proverbs
This painting is a lot of fun. A first glance it looks like the lunitics have taken over the asylum, but it’s a pictorial depiction incorporating 119 proverbs.

You can spend hours trying to make sense of it all – be warned, Dutch proverbs are very different from English proverbs. However, we have quite a few in common as well, such as “To bang one’s head against a brick wall”, “It depends on where the cards fall”, “The die has been cast”…

Raphael Terranuova Madonna
Terranuova Madonna
Raphael’s Madonna was ground-breaking as it imbues her with a human, earthly quality, which diminished some of the distance and respect previously attributed to her, but at the same time brought her closer to the people. For example, the background shows that she is on earth, not in heaven surrounded by angels as was traditional.

To her right is St John, from whom her child accepts a scroll on which is his fate as the sacrificial lamb of God is written. In a motherly response, Madonna’s left hand is half raised – which became a noted gesture.
bureaucracy, Life in Berlin

Why German bureaucracy is worse than Italian bureaucracy

The German and I had just picked up a coffee table and boarded a tram.

At this point I have to correct myself, as The German dislikes being referred to as The German and insists on being called, at the very least, The Bavarian. This is because although Bavaria is technically part of Federal Republic of Germany, the Bavarians hardly think so – they have their own bureaucracy and even central government bureaucrats are divided into those who deal with Bavaria and those who deal with the rest of Germany due to the long and bureaucratic history concerning the sovereignty of Bavaria involving Napoleon, its status an independent kingdom, mad kings and all sorts of nonsense – that, however, is another story. The German shall now be referred to as The Bavarian.

Back to the tram. We get on, settle the table down, then stamp our tickets. Immediately, a man asks to see our tickets. We show him our valid tickets, but he refuses to accept them as, according to him, we stamped them too late. We haven’t even got to the next stop yet, and it’s taken us all of 20 seconds to stamp the tickets, we protest. There are now two ticket inspectors in front of us, protesting otherwise. We get off at the next stop – table and all – to continue the discussion on the street.

The Bavarian, waving madly at the coffee table on the pavement, explains that we stamped the tickets as soon as we were able, and refuses to give them the 80 Euros they are asking for. The ticket inspectors, as blind to the table as to any sense of reason, issue us with a fine. The Bavarian asks for their names; they explain that they do not have names but are identified by numbers. We note their five digit numbers down, as well as the telephone number for the BVG office, and carry the table the rest of the way home.

The man on the other end of the line is apologetic – apparently the BVG have outsourced the job of checking tickets to a bunch of morons who work on commission, and to dispute the claim we have to go to the BVG offices in Jannowitzbruecke. I suspect, however, that ticket-checkers have always been morons, outsourced or otherwise. The protagonist of Berlin Blues describes the ticket-checkers of 1989 as “intolerably loquacious men in ill-fitting uniforms” – a definition that still stands.

The next day we go to the office – a long grey room packed with people all waiting their turn to dispute their fines. We take a ticket and find a somewhere to sit. We are number 589; the board displays number 544, and only three counters, of about ten, are open.

This is the type of thing that one would expect in Italy. It is precisely because one does not expect this of the Germans, who are supposed to be efficient, reasonable people, that makes it even worse. Additionally, in Italy there would at least be a lively atmosphere – the Italians would be shouting, gesturing, smoking and drinking espressos in a situation like this.

Anyway, while we are waiting to be seen, it might be illuminating to give the reader some information about the BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe: Berlin Transportation Company). Most of the S-Bahn trains it runs do not work as they neglected to do regular safety check-ups for the last few decades. These line closures are also related to the fact that Deutsche Bahn (DB), of which the BVG is a subsidiary, want to float on the stock market and need an increased profit to do so. The achieve this aim, they’ve decided to f*** the BVG up the arse for as much money as possible. Again, this reeks of the way things are done in Naples.

Our number is called. The woman behind the counter looks stupid like an ox. Every movement she makes and every word she says is slow and drooling, as if she is a hippo finding it hard to move in the oppressive heat of the Sarengetti. The Bavarian explains the situation. She takes it in, in her own time, then asks, “A table?” The Bavarian replies “Yes, we were carrying a coffee table.” She stands, slowly, goes off and come back with a massive book. We watch her reading the contents and opening it up to the relevant page. After a minute she declares, “Hmmm, yes, you are allowed to carry heavy objects, including furniture onto the tram.” She then looks back at the book, and reads on in silence for another twenty seconds or so, as if it’s one of her favourite novels that she occasionally re-reads passages from. She eventually gets up, replaces the book and comes back to the window.

The Bavarian guides her back to the matter at hand, which prompts her to go to the massive filing cabinet behind her and look for the report filed by the ticket checkers; it is not there yet. Despite being presented with our valid tickets, explanations etc, she cannot make a decision until she has looked at this report. She promises to call us back by the end of the following day. The Bavarian asks for her name; she provides us with a five-digit number. I’m beginning to understand why Kafka could only have come from the German-speaking world.

The next day, we go to register as residents in Berlin at offices that are, rather disconcertingly, located in an ex-stasi building. For some reason they open are business at 11 am. We get there at ten to eleven and find that we are already number 67 in the queue. We are led into an office with lots of filing cabinets that are labelled 102.27.892 – 202.76.334 etc etc, and the nice lady asks us lots of questions like “What is your address?”, “Is it in the front or the back of the building?” “When you reach the top of the stairs, do you turn left or right to get to your flat?” It’s a tiring business, but we manage it.

Exhausted, at the end of the day, I remember the ox. “Did she call back?” I ask The Bavarian. “No, not yet,” he sighs, “The Prussians aren’t as efficient as The Bavarians.”