Donnerstag, 17. April 2014
The evening of words, music and images will be hosted by journalist Rosie Goldsmith who began her BBC career — as I began my first book Stalin’s Nose — in Berlin 25 years ago with the fall of the Wall.
Over the years Meet the Germans has had over one million hits and tens of thousands of unique visitors. I have posted almost 300 blogs on all that thrills, delights, haunts and infuriates me in the capital. Even more than the blogs, I have enjoyed — and continue to enjoy — the privilege of interviewing sixty of Germany’s finest artists, from the famous and infamous, the hugely popular and to the almost unknown (all of whom can be found by clicking the above ‘Germans handpicked’ link, and then following the lefthand navigation bar).
Over the same period I have research and written Berlin: Imagine a City. Much like the blog, my 10th book is fired by my love affair with this rich, rewarding, exciting, unpredictable capital. As many of you know, the book is a novelistic tour of the city’s history told through the biographies of the 24 key Berliners ‘handpicked’ from over five centuries. For me, Berlin has been imagined — and shaped — by these individuals, from the ambitious prostitute who refashioned herself as a royal princess to the Scottish mercenary who fought for the Prussian Army in the Thirty Years War; from Frederick the Great and Karl Friedrich Schinkel to golden Else atop the Siegessäule; from Käthe Kollwitz and Christopher Isherwood to Marlene Dietrich, flaunting her sexuality like a dog on heat; from the Cold War spies and JFK to today’s web wizards and techno DJs at Berghain.
If you are in London at the end of the month, please do join us for this one-time-only event at the Goethe Institut on Exhibition Road, SW7. Let us share with you — as we hope you will share with us — our passion for multi-faceted, multi-media, multi-coloured Berlin. Take part in discussion and debate with Rosie Goldsmith and me. Listen to the stories of the artists, the stars and extraordinary men and women. And come to know a little better one of the world’s most volatile and creative cities.
Donnerstag, 10. April 2014
Thick smoke fill the sweaty air. Coloured spots sweep across the throng of semi-naked bodies. Strobe lights flicker and freeze their movement. Strange staircases loom out of the mist. Above all rises the rhythmic, thunderous sound. The bass beat grips the chest and pounds the body in waves so powerful that – in the second when they stop – one feels like a dust mote floating up into the yawning cavern of the building, towards the 18-metre-high ceiling.
In truth Berghain is no secret. The club holds 1,500 dancers. Its scene is both gay and straight, as well as accommodating every intermediate deviation. Around the club move buffed, shirtless boys, slender gleaming girls, a crew-cut dancer with chunky boots and diminutive Hello Kitty backpack, men in lens-less Elvis Costello spectacles, a laughing, bare-chested invalid in a wheelchair. For the most part the dress code is black, minimalist or ‘proletariat’, apart from a dancing queen in white bridal dress and tiara who I once saw standing on a plinth above the throng, stirring the smoke with her magic wand. On another visit a tall, smiling beauty in a long frock stroked my arm, and turned out not to be a woman at all.
Berghain – near the border between (west) Berlin’s KreuzBERG and (east) Berlin’s FriedrichsHAIN – is the reincarnation of Ostgut, a legendary 1990s venue which itself emerged from the male-only fetish Snax scene. In the club there are no mirrors, and no cameras are allowed (hence the frisking), so as to create a safe space where everyone feels comfortable to do as they please. And that is one of the most appealing qualities about Berghain. The club has a raw, grungy, anything-goes physicality, and most straight customers may not want to explore what happens in the basement (or perhaps to ask why 15 people -- 13 men, two women – emerge at the same time from three toilet stalls in the ladies’ loo), yet on the dance floor and at the Panoramabar, the atmosphere feels adventurous but unthreatening -- ‘the perfect setting for parties so good that you feel they must be illegal’ according to one commentator. As longtime resident DJ Prosumer remarked, ‘It’s the most intense place I have ever played. The crowd is wild, open-minded, and willing to party. Sometimes, I am so moved spinning there that I get tears in my eyes.’
Berghain occupies an enormous former power plant near to the Ostbahnhof and – with its gifted DJs and energetic dancers – one could be excused for thinking it’s still making electricity.
Donnerstag, 3. April 2014
’Frankly I don’t have a clue why I developed a sensitivity toward things,’ he told me when we met at his home-studio in Berlin. ‘There was no art, no literature, no music in my upbringing.’
Yet today Schmid — who I profile this month elsewhere on the site — is the country’s leading practitioner of ‘found photography’. ‘I started buying photographs not to accumulate a collection but rather as study material,’ he said to me to explain his beginnings. ‘I wanted to understand why we take photographs. Eventually I had over 100,000 prints which I put in a big, empty room and began to sort. In the process of looking I saw patterns, motifs, themes. The material itself began to pose questions.’
In his found photographs — most of which were bought for pennies at flea markets — Schmid discovered a common cultural record that was overlooked by museums. In his work as both creator and critic, he argued against prevailing, conservative notions of ‘art photography’, favouring instead a broad, encompassing critique of photography as a form of cultural practice.
‘Rather than “found photography”, I prefer the term “adopted photographs” as in an adopted child who is given a second chance, and in time will take on a life of its own,’ he pointed out.
The fundamental richness of Schmid’s photographic raw material – along with his sardonic wit – derails any attempt to read his work as pure anthropology or social science. Instead — by organising and recycling pictures into ordered arrangements — he creates witty and perceptive insights into our collective fascination with documenting our existence. Indeed, as well as an ‘accidental artist’, Schmid can be considered an archaeologist of the ordinary and everyday, asking us — the viewer — to reconsidered ‘unworthy’ photographic material.
‘My work is like my entire life, I don’t have a plan,’ he said. ‘I expose myself to a situation, and see what comes out of it. But in the end I like to think that I have managed to get some of those “everyday” photographs into museums … by the back door.’
Donnerstag, 27. März 2014
Spreepark — built in 1969 and first known as Kulturpark Plänterwald — was the only amusement park in the Communist East. After 1989 the place hobbled along for about a decade before the owners declared themselves bankrupt and shipped its six biggest attractions to Peru. Two years later one of them was arrested for attempting to smuggle 180 kilos of cocaine back to Germany in the masts of the Flying Carpet Ride.
On the green banks of the Spree, the abandoned and forgotten park became a magical wasteland, filled with overgrown goose boats, toppled concrete dinosaurs, a beached pirate ship and noisy frog colonies in the log flume ride. For a decade urban explorers and local graffiti artists scaled the fences to embark on nocturnal adventures. The top thrill – apart from avoiding the thuggish Schöneweide security guards – was to ‘ride’ the rotting ferris wheel which turned idly in the breeze. When the wind dropped, joy-riders could be stranded for hours high above Berlin.
Last year the owners put the 295,943 m², central Berlin property up for sale, attracting a bid from a local concert promoter — until it was stipulated that the land had to remain an amusement park until 2061. Now — for better or worse — they are trying their luck on eBay.
The asking price is ‘only’ €1.62 million, about the same price as an ordinary three-bed semi in London's Putney. So why not club together half-a-dozen mates and make an offer? Unfortunately there is the matter of substantial debt — the finance ministry is owed €600,000 in back taxes plus another creditor, Deutsche Bank, is claiming €10.2 million as well as another €22 million in interest.
In a way the Spreepark illustrates the huge changes taking place in central Berlin: vacant lots are vanishing, property prices are on the rise, investors are pouring cash into bricks and mortar, and all the while dozens of easyjet and Ryanair flights circle above the city awaiting landing slots at BER. At night the city’s streets are safer than they have ever been, perhaps safer than any other European capital. No surprise that last year the Berliner Morgenpost trumpeted the town’s popularity and safety by declaring it to be a tourism ‘superpower’.
Much like a funfair, new Berlin wants to retain an illusion of edginess, so as to add a frisson for residents and visitors alike, but to remain as safe as houses. Yet in historical terms, Berlin has never failed to shock the world – for better and worse. Even the capital grows safer, and more predictable, one can trust in its ability to surprise — both on and off the Flying Carpet Ride.
Donnerstag, 20. März 2014
Where did Leni Riefenstahl’s journey to fame, and infamy, begin? In her childhood obsession with fairy tales? As a vivacious, headstrong Berlin teenager who seduced a Jewish banker to finance her dance debut? As a slender, topless servant girl in her first movie Ways to Strength and Beauty? Or as a grasping, ambitious film star reading Mein Kampf?
All her life Riefenstahl had wanted to be famous. At school in Berlin she was sporty, not academic, excelling at swimming, skating and gymnastics. Her father, a busy plumber-cum-entrepreneur, forbade her to go to parties or the cinema and because of him she learnt obstinacy and deception. Her striking good looks invited her into the excitement of the adult world, and she schemed to free herself from her family. She left school in the last year of the First World War and, as gunfire echoed along the Kurfürstendamm, signed up in secret for the Grimm-Reiter School of Dance.
She used every moment and every attribute to advance her career. In Munich’s Tonhalle she performed the Three Dances of Eros in a scandalously brief tunic. Appearances followed in Dresden, Frankfurt and half-a-dozen other cities. Critics were enticed to attend and their reviews were quoted in her press book with words like ‘problematic’ and ‘sentimentality’ removed. A general remark in the Berliner Tagesblatt – ‘the glory of the dancer who appears once every thousand years with consummate grace and unique beauty’ – was cited as if it referred to her. The paper’s conclusion that Riefenstahl’s ‘superficial perfection is not blessed with the grace of an inner gift, with the grandeur of genius, or with the flame of the demonic’ was cut from her publicity material. She also chose to overlook the comments of the capital’s most discerning dance critic, John Schikowski, who wrote ‘All in all, a very strong artistic nature, that within its own territory is perfectly adequate. But that territory is severely limited and lacks the highest, most important quality: that of the soul.’
A lack of soul only helped Riefenstahl in advancing herself, as I examine in my book about Berlin’s 24 most influential residents, Berlin: Imagine a City. In the years before the Second World War, Riefenstahl became a film director, harnessing her considerable skill — and colossal ambition — to promote and propagate National Socialism. In hypnotic and powerful films like Triumph of the Will and Olympia, she helped to bedazzle and blind the nation. At the height of her terrible, seductive folly she wrote, ’…if artists knew what great tasks were reserved for them in a more beautiful Germany, they would join the movement with greater enthusiasm. Today every artist realises, as does every German, that reality yields more than any artist could have imagined. Greater Germany has become a reality’ and artists are obeying ‘the call to fall in with the troops of millions to declare their allegiance to the Führer and his deeds for Germany’s freedom, honour and greatness.’
‘Just imagine what would happen if, a thousand years from now, people could see what we have experienced in this era,’ Hitler told Riefenstahl in 1942. Across the world’s silver screens she perpetuated his messianic vision, glorifying his murderous regime, deceiving and dancing on the broken bodies of millions. Perhaps she was naïve. Perhaps she was reaching only for beauty and truth, as she later claimed. Or perhaps the dictator’s celluloid muse was so wilful and greedy that she simply sold her soul.
Yet her work endures, its impressive images attracting the admiration of modern myth-makers. Her persuasive techniques – startling camera angles, tracking shots, emotive juxtapositions -- have influenced generations of advertisers, enabling them to perfect marketing and ad campaigns that manipulate our everyday lives. Even modern political candidates are promoted utilising methods which she initiated. Yet Leni Riefenstahl herself, the most technically-talented film maker of her age, must remain a pariah. She was the only woman to play a significant role in the rise of National Socialism, and she never showed remorse, convinced – in her self-deceiving, fairy tale world -- that she had no reason to do so. In all modern history there are few more powerful, no more shocking examples of moral compromise.