The legend of 1920s Berlin is well-known. It is a story of decadence, political failure, social revolution, financial collapse and a murderous flight to the extremes. There was fighting on the streets, Spartacist revolts and nudity in the clubs. Studios and theatres burst with some of the world’s best artistic talent.
One of the legendary haunts of those years was the Romanisches Café. It was, at first glance, simply another coffee house of Mittel Europa. But it was a stage – it drew in the artists, con-artists, demimonde, startled bourgeoisie, thrill-seekers, prostitutes and thugs. Reading the rose-tinted memoirs, a visit to the Romanisches was like pulling up a ringside seat to watch the dance of death that was the Weimar Republic.
In one corner you might find painters George Grosz and Otto Dix giving expression to the horrors of society in the midst of utter moral collapse; in the other, Bertolt Brecht would be puffing a cigar and fuming about the hypocrisy of the bourgeois world from which he had escaped. At the next table a young Billy Wilder would be wondering how to make ends meet; by the window, perhaps, Erich Kästner – who likened the café to a “waiting room of talent” – gazing out at the street urchins who would later reappear in the pages of Emil and the Detectives. And that was just a quiet day.
They may all be long gone – the Romanisches was an early target for Nazi vandals intent on “cleaning up” Berlin – but one can hardly blame modern Berliners for wanting to reclaim that heritage. Now, for the cost of a cup of coffee, you can have a sense of that world in the ersatz Romanisches Café that has just “reopened” at the feet of one of Berlin’s newer skyscrapers, towering over Zoo station.
Or at least that is what the owners claim. In truth, the new café is little more than a borrowed name to add a bit of definition to one of the latest products of a massive building project. The real Romanisches was across the square on a spot now occupied by a lumpen 1960s shopping centre. And today’s cultural scene – whether real or just in the form of the countless self-certified “artists” knocking around Berlin – is mostly across town in the east.
The Romanisches is playing into something of a trend. Further along on the Kurfürstendamm in one of the hulking, fin de siècle buildings lining the commercial thoroughfare of west Berlin is Grosz, a café and restaurant named after you know who, whose paintings mercilessly captured 1920s Berlin. The walls are lined with prints of works by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele; willowy waitresses with white aprons on black dresses; a mountain of international newspapers; and lots of snippets of Russian.
The only thing missing is a copy of Grosz’s picture, Die Stützen der Gesellschaft, a searing take on the morally bankrupt “pillars” of society. But that is perhaps unnecessary as all the characters represented in that bleak portrayal can be found in the café, sipping coffee from Meissen cups or tucking into huge steaks in the restaurant out back.
The legends of the 1920s, stoked by the novels of Christopher Isherwood, films such as Cabaret and scraps of pulp fiction have always been one of Berlin’s calling cards. They form one of the keys to the capital’s pulling power. Figures released last week show that tourists are flocking to Berlin in record numbers. Last year there was an 11 per cent annual increase in overnight stays to 25m.
Berliners are pleased. “Comeback as a world city”, ran the triumphant headline in one local paper. “London and Paris are coming closer into view” was the assessment of one commentator, who noted that the goal of 30m visitors by 2015 is “completely realistic”.
Berlin is not just bringing in day-trippers. The city has long had a reputation as a place where you can live freely and cheaply, dipping into “alternative” lifestyles. It is where you go when you don’t yet want to grow up. But in the crisis-stricken Europe of 2013 it is also where people are heading for work and the offer of a better future. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers of incomers to Berlin from the crisis-battered periphery of Europe is rising fast.
These people are not looking for Weimar. They are leaving it. Anyone looking for the cultural drama and political rage of 1920s Berlin today should go south to Athens, Madrid and Rome. In Berlin, you get only a Disney tribute to the excitement of a more dangerous time, some racy legends and, depending on your choice of haunt, overpriced coffee.