DANCING ON THE VOLCANO. A DAY IN BERLIN IN THE GOLDEN TWENTIES
After defeat in World War I and the demise of the German empire, a new era dawns in the German capital. In times of political turmoil, many Berliners turn to pleasure and indulgence, and dare to dance on the volcano in the pulsating metropolis of 4 million people. Berlin of the Twenties is a city of contrasts. It still remains a place of longing. Let’s take a trip back to this vibrant city which slowly sank under Nazi tyranny. Our author ventured back in time.
A distant clock strikes 12 noon, as I stroll along Neue Schönhauser Straße in Berlin Mitte. I’ve only just landed in the capital of the Weimar Republic, and now I’m surrounded by a state of general restlessness. The people walk quickly, the rattling of buses and trains is incessant. Drawn by the hustle and bustle, I turn onto Rosenthaler Straße and come to an abrupt stop. Just a few metres away, fists are flying, screams ringing out, with sirens blaring in the distance. Where I had expected to find a public festival, a street battle rages. The district is in turmoil.
MOTION, MACHINES AND MELANCHOLY – ALL ON SHOW AT ALEXANDERPLATZ
Just a few hundred metres away, at the bustling Alexanderplatz, there is little indication of the conflict between the Communists and National Socialists. The square seems monumental, teeming with people, trams and department stores. The magnificent Wertheim department store, under Jewish ownership like so many other businesses in the city, offers products from practically every corner of the world.
The people you see at Wertheim are different to those on the square outside – stylishly dressed and sophisticated. The ladies walk by with their bob hairstyles and their shopping baskets overflowing. I pay for my shopping and leave the building, heading towards the underground station. At the entrance to the underworld sits a one-legged man begging. In his left hand, he clutches his Iron Cross from the First World War for all to see.
In the underground transport hub of Alexanderplatz, streams of people pour through a labyrinth of neon signs and train platforms. The sounds of construction and drilling fill the air. Level after level, the machines reach further into the depths. The U-Bahn arrives at the station to a deafening screech, before whipping me inside and spitting me out in a better part of the city.
COSMOPOLITAN FLAIR ON KURFÜRSTENDAMM
I leave the Kaufhaus des Westens behind me on Wittenbergplatz and follow the steady stream of people. They all seem to have the same goal in mind, Kurfürstendamm. The Champs-Élysées, Broadway or Piccadilly Circus of the German capital. I roam along the grand boulevard with its boutiques and display windows, reading the posters on the advertising columns and looking at the women with their dresses blowing in the breeze. The atmosphere on the bistro terraces is dominated by champagne and a cosmopolitan nonchalance.
A DRINK IN THE BOHEMIAN WORLD AT THE ROMANISCHE CAFÉ
When I enter the Romanische Café at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, I am greeted by a boisterous atmosphere. Men in expensive suits are deep in discussion at the bar, while a woman’s laughter fills the room. The waiter is scampering around taking orders. “Bitteschön, Herr Döblin,” he says to a customer sitting at the window and engrossed in his notebook, before placing a glass of white wine on the table. I order a beer at the bar, soaking up snippets of dialogue and broken words. From what I can gather from the conversations, there are just options in Berlin on a Saturday night – the theatre or the cinema.
AN IMPRESSIVE PICTURE SPECTACLE AT THE UFA-PALAST
I opt for the Ufa-Palast am Zoo, the largest cinema in the Republic with 2,165 seats and situated just a short stroll from the ‘Romanische’. On the pavement in front of the cinema, throngs of people are huddled in large groups. Today is the premiere of a film which has been the talk of the entire city for weeks. Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis). “The powerful rhythm of work, the loud sounds of delight, the cries of desperation and misery, and the clattering of stony streets – everything comes together to form the symphony of a metropolis,” according to the promoter. I try to get hold of a ticket, too.
Too late. The showing is totally sold out, the man at the ticket booth tells me. He recommends the new Fritz Lang film instead. “Not all that popular, but call it an insider tip.” I purchase a ticket for 75 pfennigs and soon find myself in a half-empty cinema hall. When the lights go down, a striking, gloomy spectacle begins above me. Metropolis tells the story of a dystopian future society and captivates me with its powerful imagery and epic soundtrack.
THROUGH THE NIGHT AT FRIEDRICHSTRASSE STATION
Back at the bustling Kurfürstendamm, a woman asks me for a light. From the ticket in her hand, I notice that she has also just been to see Metropolis. We begin to talk. Her name is Claire, she comes from Wrocław and is an artist. The cabaret clubs and cafés around the Friedrichstraße station are open late into the night, she says. Would I like to join her? I hesitate, but my new companion has already hailed a taxi. As the lights rush past us, along with the wild sights and sounds of the metropolis, I close my eyes for a moment. It must be like a dream to live in this extraordinary city.