The phrase “to Christopher, Berlin meant boys” is what resonated when GT planned a visit to Germany’s capital city. Unfortunately the phrase that became more associated with our trip was somewhat less pleasurable.
“It doesn’t exist any more,” our guide informs us, not for the first (and most definitely not the last) time.
You see, instead of the kind of long weekend you might expect when GT hits the notoriously sexy Berlin, we’ve come here to retrace writer Christopher Isherwood’s (see page 34) steps. We’re in good company for doing so – David Bowie recorded his Berlin Trilogy with Brian Eno here as a direct result of having read Isherwood’s work.
While here – distractions from working class boys aside – Isherwood found the inspiration for several novels, including one that would ultimately become the musical Cabaret (see page 168), as the city teetered on the edge of Nazi ruin.
It’s this ruin which makes it near impossible to see the city as Isherwood might have. Yes, it’s still a relatively poor city where everything is cheap and therefore cheap to live, yes attitudes are still incredibly relaxed and all fetishes are catered for, but the past – the very places that created modern history are now part of history themselves.
The Kit Kat Club, as it was, is long gone (although a new, relocated version, lives on) and many of the original locations can’t even be found. For example, where the Institute of Sex once stood (Isherwood spent some time occupying space on the top floor) is now a park.
Although he lived in four properties during his time, there is only one of note worth visiting/still standing, and that’s in the Nollendorfplatz square – the gay centre – in the Schöneberg district.
It’s the property at 17 Nollendorfstrasse, where he met Jean Ross, that is most documented. The street looks largely as it was of the period. “They could shoot the movie here,” our guide suggests.
A plaque (not provided by the city, we’re informed) reads “In this building lived the English writer Christopher Isherwood from 1929 until Jan/Feb 1933”.
The building is now around the corner from shops with gaudy green tinsel and large pride flags, a few doors down from a gay internet café.
It’s a strange feeling to look around and think about the times Isherwood and the real Sally Bowles might have stumbled down the street drunk one night, or the boys Isherwood brought back.
Of course, inside the apartment is modern and occupied. To get an idea of how someone in the period would have lived we headed to the former home of painter Jeanne Mammen (1919-1976) who occupied the same flat for 57 years.
Her work, which has a distinctly gay feel, can be viewed online and features heavily in many interesting books including Immoral Berlin – a 30s guide that lives up to its title.
Her former property was renovated, on the outside at least, a couple of years ago. A Hamburg shipping company now owns the building and they’ve allowed the flat to remain as it was inside.
When you step over the threshold it’s really like stepping back in time. It’s the only place in Berlin that exists like this, where someone lived and worked, and it’s been left exactly as it was when she died, now granted a museum status. The high ceiling reaches up to a giant skylight that crashed in during the war and has been boarded up ever since. The floorboards creak, there are old newspapers in the walls, and stuff (albeit extremely tidy) everywhere.
To see more of 30s Berlin – and more specifically its gay history – we visited the Gay Museum. Of particular interest to us (though the entire museum is fascinating and warrants a lengthy visit) was a detailed model of the now destroyed Institute of Sex Research, along with photos of Isherwood and friends.
Also of note are photos from the 1920s of gay publications being sold alongside the modern press. And given that we’re fond of a bit of drag at GT, adorning the walls are drag legends of the time, including an actual outfit from Miss Eldorado (also pictured being worn during the era). In case of drag emergency break glass. Except don’t do this, obviously.
We spy a rare picture of one of Isherwood’s favourite drinking haunts. Inspired, we venture to 7 Zossener Strafze.
The Cosy Corner, where Isherwood wrote about meeting many of the men in his life, is long since shut and these days it’s just office space. Despite the leather curtain of the Cosy Corner having been pulled closed for the last time, the decadence of the gay scene in the city probably hasn’t changed that much. In our own drunken kind of homage (any excuse) we venture out that night to see the modern equivalent. Everything starts late (“When you’d be going home in London things just start going”) and all fetishes are catered for, though we don’t really want to believe the talk we get from a local about there being a very popular scat club called Smear It, Smell It. Maybe they’re taking the piss. No pun intended.
We start out on a safer scale, and since there are none of Isherwood’s nightly haunts left to frequent we ventured to Roses, a bar which we’re told is like being inside a pink gay Muppet. As the walls are lined floor to ceiling with pink fluff, we’re inclined to agree.
Later, with a few more beers inside us, we venture to the rubber district and try to figure out the story of the porn on large screens around the bar. We soon realise the goings on off screen are more interesting. Despite there being a dark room, the toilets are quite busy. A gentleman bursts out of a cubicle and violently spits in the sink. Someone else follows him out from the cubicle. Now wash your hands! In time-honoured tradition we make our excuses and leave (ie we’re quite pissed).
We might not have found Isherwood’s Berlin, but what’s it like now? Well it’s beautiful, it’s creative, it’s laid-back (it’s like east London three years ago, but with 24 hour tubes at the weekends) and we’re reliably informed that “everyone in Berlin’s a slut”. So maybe, in a number of ways, Berlin hasn’t really changed that much since Isherwood sat smoking cigarettes on the street 75 years ago.
“But really,” our guide tells us as we near the end of our tour, “Christopher Isherwood is nearly forgotten. U2 came here to find Bowie’s Berlin and it wasn’t here anymore.”
At least Bowie got to meet Isherwood, something which will sadly be denied future generations.
We flew to Berlin with super-efficient BMI, flybmi.com. We stayed centrally at Tom’s Apartments, toms-apartment.de. For the Gay Museum, see schwulesmuseum.de. We toured with Sta Tours Berlin, sta-tours.de. For Jeanne Mammen see Jeanne-mammen.de. And visit germany-tourism.co.uk for general tourist info.
Words: Darren Scott, Picture: Luke Morrison