I've been to Berlin three times now: 2006, 2008 and again just recently (10-13 September 2011). Edgy, gritty, punky, cosmopolitan and still steeped in Weimar Decadence, Berlin is one of my favourite cities in the world. Every time I go to Berlin, I want it to be awash with excellent German bier and Schlager music, and to feel like I'm channelling Marlene Dietrich, Hildegard Knef, Rainer Werner Fassbinder films (Fassbinder was actually from Bavaria, though), Christopher Isherwood and Nico -- and it never disappoints. Turns out I'm a total Germanophile -- who knew? (But then I'm also a Francophile and an Italophile: it's just that when I'm in Rome, I'm channelling Pier Paolo Pasolini and Anna Magnani in Pigneto).
Mainlining German Culture: Me in 2008, reading Hildegard Knef's memoirs and drinking Berliner beer at the cafe Cake in Kreuzberg
I joked on Facebook just before my latest trip that when I went to Berlin this time, I intended to recreate scenes from the 1981 film Christiane F: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. (Relax! Obviously I was only kidding!)
Jayne Mansfield singing in German in 1963, Part 1
Nina Hagen In Ekstasy! German clown princess of punk Nina Hagen going apeshit in Alexanderplatz.
My friend Ali and I stayed in the Friedrichshain district this time (when I was there in 2008 we stayed in Mitte; before that, in Prenzlauer Berg). We were walking distance from Alexanderplatz, so ultra-central in other words. We enjoyed (mostly) better weather than poor Nina in this clip. (There was just one jinxed night when we tried to go out bar hopping in Prenzlauer Berg and it was like a freakin' tropical monsoon drenched us).
The Fernsehturm / Berlin Television Tower in Alexanderplatz looms in the horizon of virtually every photo you take in Berlin! It's definitely worth going up to the revolving restaurant at the top of the tower, even if just for a drink (it's very pricey). The views of Berlin are spectacular and the revolving sensation is very freaky.
Me in 2011
I can’t imagine going to Berlin without paying a visit to Filmmuseum Berlin, which is devoted to the history of German cinema. It also houses the Marlene Dietrich archives (donated by her daughter Maria Riva after Dietrich's death in 1992): a whole section is allocated to Dietrich's film, stage and personal wardrobe and costumes, memorabilia and even her home movies and love letters. It's a treasure trove for Dietrich obsessives. Going to the filmmuseum is like a religious pilgrimage!
Me at the Filmmuseum in 2008. Hildegard Knef and Dietrich look on
Me at the Filmmuseum in 2011
The actual sexy / curvaceous Art Deco robot from Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927).
Memento mori: The beautifully macabre death mask of great silent film director F W Murnau (1888-1931). For years it was in the possession of his friend Greta Garbo.
The beautiful gigantic poster of La Dietrich in Blonde Venus (1932) that ushers you into the Dietrich wing of the Filmmuseum
A video of Dietrich's wonderfully insolent 1929 screen test for Der Blaue Engel is played on an endless loop; you can hear the young Dietrich warbling "You're the Cream in My Coffee" echoing through the museum. (I can't embed the video, annoyingly. Watch it here)
Dietrich's top hat in display cabinet
Perhaps it's even this one ...
Genius: Rainer Werner Fassbinder's chair
My all-time Fassbinder film was one of his last: the haunting / haunted Veronika Voss (1981). I read about the death of its unforgettable leading lady, Rosel Zech just before we split for Berlin in September 2011. Here is Zech huskily crooning the Dean Martin standard "Memories Are Made of This", Dietrich-style. What a woman. RIP, Rosel Zech
Conveniently located adjacent to the Filmmuseum is the Billy Wilder cocktail bar.
My martini in 2008. Damn, it was good
Mural of the great director Billy Wilder on the wall of the cocktail bar
In 2008, after visiting the Dietrich collection at the Filmmuseum, it felt de rigeur to go to her gravesite next. Dietrich's grave is in the Friedhof Friedenau cemetary in Schoneberg (where she was born), a very leafy, quiet and elegant neighbourhood. About three graves away is the gravestone of photographer Helmut Newton. The inscription on Dietrich's tombstone translates as: "Here I Stand on the Marker of My Days."
Me putting flowers on Dietrich's grave in 2008
Mostly, though, Berlin is dreamy for simply bar and cafe-hopping, sampling the excellent variety of German biers, or eating kaffee und kuchen.
In conclusion, my favourite bars in Berlin:
Möbel-Olfe in Kreuzberg: This place kills me. Seriously -- it almost makes me cum. The bleak green-tinged neon lighting makes everyone look interestingly ashen, and the place exudes such a brooding, dissolute atmosphere it feels like you’re starring in your own Fassbinder film. I would live here if I could.
Roses in Kreuzberg: fun, trashy, kitsch gay bar with great decor (Our Lady of Guadalupe mural; pink-fur covered walls like something out of Barbarella). It feels like an early Pedro Almodovar film. Always a rowdy, boozy vibe.
Beers at Roses
Portrait of me at Roses in 2008
Pinguin Club in Schönberg: Wonderfully atmospheric punk-y and grunge-y rock’n’roll dive bar.
Old movie star portraits on the wall at Pinguin Club. See if you can spot Gary Cooper, Alain Delon, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, Jayne Mansfield and Ingrid Bergman. Brigitte Bardot (circa Le Mepris) is there -- but in a black wig
Barbie Bar in Kreuzberg: Like Roses, this bar (painted Jayne Mansfield pink) has the kind of kitsch decor Berlin excels at. I love this place, but have never managed to get here when it’s really buzzing (probably because am getting there too early!).
Barbie doll chandalier at Barbie Bar
Neues Ufer in Schöneberg: Nice laidback gay cafe, but mainly of historical interest. It dates back to 1970, and used to be called Cafe Nemesis. It was one of the favourite hang outs of David Bowie and Iggy Pop when they were based in Berlin in the 70s, recording their masterpieces Low, Heroes, The Idiot and Lust for Life and competing for the favours of drag queens; they lived in a flat virtually next door.
What used to be one of my favourite Berlin bars ... I went to White Trash Fast Food in Mitte with friends on my first trip to Berlin in 2006, had a blast and I always go back when I’m in town. It’s in a beautiful venue: a baroque and palatial old Chinese restaurant with all the old fixtures intact, transformed into a hipster restaurant / bar with an American white trash / hillbilly / punk sensibility (hence the name). It holds punk gigs and features DJs and serves trashy carb-heavy American-style fast (comfort) food. Sadly, it was a let-down this trip. Yes, it was extremely busy (the crowd seemed to be 100% American tourists, which might suggest Berliners themselves are avoiding the place these days) but the service (from the unsmiling harridan with the dyed-black Goth hair who “greets” you at the door demanding the one Euro cover charge to the embittered and queen-y male bar staff) was inept bordering on hostile. And for a place that seems to pride itself on being hipper-than-thou, it needs to sort its music out. While Ali and I were there (long enough to drink one round of drinks and split ‘cause it was so unwelcoming) we heard the likes of Hall and Oates and The Bangles! Hell-o. Raise your game, White Trash Fast Food!
At White Trash Fast Food in happier times: Anne, Jonathon, me and Philip at White Trash in 2006. If anyone knows whatever happened to Jonathon Long (my Irish friend who used to be based in Berlin as a translator), tell the mofo to get in touch. I lost track of him many years ago.
Hildegard Knef (aka "Die Knef"): The post-Dietrich German chanteuse with the guttural whisky-and-cigarettes voice is synonymous with Berlin (she's their equivalent of Paris's Juliette Greco. Like Greco, she went to Hollywood for a brief and unhappy stab at American stardom in the 1950s). Her ultra-deep, nicotine-stained baritone babe (almost drag queen-y) vocal stylings are definitely an acquired taste (like all the best things in life), but I've grown to love her. I was introduced to her by my German friends in London, who revere her and collect her old records. Like Dietrich, she's Berlin personified.
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