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  • Beyond Cabaret: Berlin through the eyes of Christopher Isherwood

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Beyond Cabaret: Berlin through the eyes of Christopher Isherwood

Comprised of two short novels—“Mr. Norris Changes Trains” and “Goodbye To Berlin”— Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” has been thrilling readers with its fascinating insights into the overlapping worlds of the Weimar era and Nazi ascendancy since being published in 1945.

The inspiration for John Van Druten’s play “I Am A Camera” (and a film version by Henry Cornelius) in the fifties, and stage and film versions of “Cabaret” in the 60s and 70s respectively, the “Berlin Stories” are dotted with an eccentric cast of characters who have come to define the bohemian, sexually liberated, politically charged stereotypes of the era—most notably the ‘divinely decadent’ singer and actress Sally Bowles.

The camp capital of Europe

The son of a colonel, and a close friend of poet W. H. Auden, Isherwood came to Berlin in 1929, at the age of 25, to teach English, write and—as he admitted in his later memoirs but couldn’t in his earlier ones—enjoy the city’s vibrant gay scene; by the late 1920s, Berlin had at least 160 gay bars and clubs and was known as the camp capital of Europe.

Isherwood (L) with close friend and fellow writer W. H. Auden (R) (Photo: imago images / United Archives)

In one early paragraph he describes the two centres of the city: “Berlin is a city with two centres, the cluster of expensive hotels, bars, cinemas, shops round the Memorial Church, a sparkling nucleus of light, like a sham diamond, in the shabby twilight of the town; and the self-conscious civic centre of buildings round the Unter den Linden, carefully arranged. In grand international styles, copies of copies, they assert our dignity as a capital city—a parliament, a couple of museums, a State bank, a cathedral, an opera, a dozen embassies, a triumphal arch; nothing has been forgotten.”

But aside from a few mentions of Friedrichstrasse (mostly regarding prostitutes), Leipzigerstrasse (running battles), and Alexanderplatz (mostly visits to the famous Polizeipräsidium that used to be located there), the novels are set almost exclusively in the west of the city—which is where Isherwood himself lived and moved around. Zoo station is name-checked several times, as is Tauentzienstraße (KaDeWe gets a mention) and the Kurfürstendamm, but his real focus is on innercity residential areas like Kreuzberg, Schöneberg and even Neukölln—spelled, curiously, as Neuköln, like Bowie’s song of the same name—for the occasional communist meeting.

Before settling at his now-famous Schöneberg address (Nollendorfstrasse 17), where he met Jean Ross—the bohemian political renegade, writer and critic that became the inspiration for Sally Bowles—he lived temporarily around the Tiergarten (next to Magnus Hirschfeld Institute for Sexual Research), in a cramped attic apartment around Hallesches Tor with a family of five (the Nowaks), and in an apartment on Admiralstraße, close to Kottbusser Tor.

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret as Sally Bowles, the iconic character inspired by Isherwood’s Berlin acquaintance Jean Ross (Photo: imago images / Everett Collection)

At that time, the area around the Landwehr Canal in Kreuzberg seems to be one of the more downtrodden. The entrance to his Wassertorstrasse apartment, a “leaky little attic that smelt of cooking and bad drains”, was “a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammer and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deeply shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears.”

Parallels with present-day Berlin

His descriptions of his apartments in the novels are reminiscent of the kinds of residential tenements many of us dwell in today. Though notably poorer and shabbier than today’s iterations, they sound strikingly familiar…

“Lying in bed in the darkness,” he writes in one highly memorable paragraph, “in my tiny corner of the enormous human warren of the tenements, I could hear, with uncanny precision, every sound which came up from the courtyard below. The shape of the court must have acted as a gramophone horn…Straining my ears, I heard, or fancied I heard, the grating of the key in the lock of the big street door. A moment later, the door closed with a deep, hollow boom… Somewhere on the other side of the court a baby began to scream, a window was slammed to, something very heavy, deep in the innermost recesses of the building, thudded dully against a wall.”

A children’s birthday party in the Hinterhof of a Berlin apartment building, ca. 1929 (Photo: imago images / Seeliger)

As well as inside their apartments, Isherwood’s characters gather around cafes, bars and the occasional wealthy Grunewald villa (where he teaches his English students), all of which are long gone by now, but which will also feel familiar to contemporary readers. One bar, introduced to him by Auden, was the “Cosy Corner” at Zossenerstraße 7, which was apparently a neighbourhood restaurant called Nosters.

Today this address is an unspectacular Altbau building neighboured by a few quirky businesses like the button shop Knopf Paul, and a pharmacy with a 19th century interior called Zum Goldenen Einhorn.  But in his memoir, “Christopher And His Kind”, Isherwood describes the Cosy Corner as…

“…plain, homely and unpretentious. Its only decorations were a few photographs of boxers and racing cyclists, pinned up above the bar. It was heated by a big old-fashioned iron stove. Partly because of the great heat of this stove and partly because they knew it excited their clients, the boys stripped off their sweaters or leather jackets and sat around with their shirts unbuttoned to the navel and their sleeves rolled up to the armpits”.

Other fragments in the book that could have been lifted from today’s café-bar scene include lines like “the cigarette smoke made my eyes smart until the tears ran down my face”, a barman’s complaint about customers who “order a beer and think they’ve got the right to sit here the whole evening”, and—reminiscent of party spaces like Kumpelnest 3000 or Wilde Renate perhaps—“dancers, locked frigidly together, swayed in partial-paralytic rhythms under a huge sunshade suspended from the ceiling and oscillating gently through cigarette smoke and hot rising air”.

The area around Nollendorfplatz in Schöneberg, where Isherwood once lived, remains a hub for Berlin’s queer community today (Photo: imago images / Emmanuele Contini)

But it is of course “Nolli” and Schöneberg more broadly that’s most synonymous with Isherwood. Not only did he meet his Sally Bowles here, he also frequented the area’s many theatres, cabarets, and clubs that appear in the book’s pages. Of course many of those haunts were destroyed in the war after he had left, or have been physically transformed, though some traces remain.

Notably the Kleist Casino, on Kleiststraße, which was open right up until 2002, is now a gay bar under another name (Bull); the Metropol Theatre, which started life in 1906 as the Neue Schauspielhaus, was reopened as the Metropol in 2019; and the Eldorado, at Motzstrasse 24, which was known for its transvestite shows, and famous patrons like Marlene Dietrich and Claire Waldorff; today the building hosts a supermarket (“Speisekammer im Eldorado”).

A transvestite couple dance at the famous Eldorado queer club on Berlin’s Motzstrasse in 1926 (Photo: imago images / Leemage)

And not only is Schöneberg still proudly the epicentre of the city’s LGBT+ scene, the city prides itself once again on its openness and tolerance. There are even many tributes back to the sparkling Weimar period, from retro cabaret bars like Bar Jeder Vernunft and Kleine Nacht Revue to flamboyant events like House Of Red Doors, Chantal’s House Of Shame and Pornceptual, which transport today’s decadent demimonde back to the era that Isherwood so fabulously preserved for us.

A memorial to Isherwood at his former home in Berlin (Photo: imago images / Manja Elsässer)

Paul Sullivan is a guidebook author, travel journalist and the founder/editor of Slow Travel Berlin. His words and images have appeared in The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Times Travel, The Telegraph, Nat Geo UK and more. He has lived in Berlin for 10 years.


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