Monday, August 21, 2017

Comedian Harmonists

Bulgarian Archives State Agency

The Comedian Harmonists were a German vocal sextet. During the interwar period, they were renowned throughout Europe. The Comedian Harmonists separated after being banned by the cultural authorities of Nazism, three of their members being Jews.

The members: Ari Leschnikoff, Roman Cycowski, Erich A. Collin, Harry Frommermann, Robert Biberti, Erwin Bootz. They met especially to form the group, they did not know each other before. Leschnikoff and Cycowski were employed in the Grossen Schauspielhaus, one of the most important scenes in Berlin.

Their success coincided with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Roman Cycowski will say: "We were a bright light in a very dark time". The generalization of radio, and phonograph in homes has also served their popularity.

The band influenced the orchestras of Jack Hylton in Britain and Ray Ventura in France. His style later made many emulators ranging from the Frères Jacques to Max Raabe.

In 1997, Josef Vismaier devoted an excellent film to them, which can be seen on youtube, unfortunately without subtitles in english (but in spanish, yes).

Another film about the Harmonists, a documentary this time, but still without subtitles:

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Berlin's anthem

The song "Berliner Luft" by Paul Lincke is considered an unofficial anthem of the city. It is played every year as the finale of the Berliner Philharmoniker’ season. A bit like Land of Hope and Glory for the BBC Proms at Albert Hall in London.

Here, in the beautiful version of Lizzi Waldmüller, not a Berliner but an Austrian singer  (!).

To hear it, click here:

Thursday, August 17, 2017

It's in the air...

The revue Es liegt in der Luft (It’s in the air) by Marcelus Schiffer and Micha Spoliansky had its first representation in 1928. In the three main roles, Margo Lion (Schiffer's wife), Marlene Dietrich (no so famous yet) and Oskar Karlweis. Karlweis was an Austrian actor who often played in light comedies and operettas. In Berlin, he played one of the three suitors of Lilian Harvey in Die drei von der Tankstelle, a highly successful film, remade in Hollywood in the 50's.

In the film we can also see the German ensemble Comedian Harmonists, a musical band very in vogue.

The best-known number of Es liegt in der Luft was undoubtedly Wenn die beste Freundin (If the best girlfriend with the best girlfriend), a song whose theme could be understood as ambiguous from the point of view of relations between the sexes. It even became a kind of lesbian anthem.

The text of the song:

Wenn die beste Freundin
Mit der besten Freundin
Um was einzukaufen,
Um was einzukaufen,
Um sich auszulaufen,
Durch die Straßen latschen,
Um sich auszuquatschen,

When the best girlfriend
With the best girlfriend
Go do some shopping,
Go do some shopping,
To get some exercise,

Wander through the streets,
Blabbing about everything,
Says the best girlfriend
To the best girlfriend:
My best, my best girlfriend!

And then a trio, where the husband joins both "girlfriends":

Girl 1: You cheated on me with her.
Husband: Because you cheated on me with her.
Girl 2: And you cheated on me with him
Girl 1: Because you cheated on me with him
Husband: What's this for intricate family relations! Don't we want to get along?


Monday, August 14, 2017

Margo Lion

When it comes to the Berliner cabaret, one almost instinctively thinks of the great Marlene Dietrich. But she was not the only star in that heaven far from it.
Marguerite "Margo" Lion, born in Istanbul in 1899, was a French actress and singer. She arrived in Berlin in 1921 and debuted in the cabaret 'Die Wilde Bühne' in 1923. She also appeared in such iconic cabarets as Schall und Rauch and Kabarett der Komiker.

She was married to lyricist Marcellus Schiffer and was a friend of Marlene Dietrich. In the magazine
"It's in the Air" (1928), she sang with Marlene the duet "Wenn Die beste Freundin mit die Beste Freundin "(when the best girlfriend with the best girlfriend ...), which became a lesbian hymn in the 1920s.
In cinema, she played in seventy-five films between 1926 and 1975 and found her most significant role in 1931 in Georg Wilhelm Pabst's The Three-penny Opera (French version) in which Margo, in the role of Jenny, sings The Bride of the Pirate.

She also starred in the film "24 Hours of a Woman's Life," based on a text by Stefan Zweig, Robert Land's board in 1931.

She left Berlin in 1933 and continued her career in France. There, among other productions, she appeared in La Bandera, by Julien Duvivier (1935). Also in Lola, by Jacques Demy.

She died in 1989, a little too early to enjoy the sight of the Berlin Wall collapsing.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Berlin cabaret: a film without Liza Minnelli

Berlin Cabaret - Die Wilde Bühne A film by Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir.

The world of the Berliner cabaret of 1919 and 1933 was one of the most fascinating cultural phenomena of the Weimar Republic. It sums up the spirit of the Roaring Twenties and reflects history with bold and innovative ways. From the years of the boom, through the period of depression and inflation, and ending with the seizure of power by the Nazis.

A fascinating film. But don’t take my word for it, watch yourself the movie of Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir:

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Alfred Döblin

Yet another famous Berliner not born in Berlin... The writer Alfred Döblin was born in Stettin, now in Poland. He began his collaboration with Herwarth Walden in 1910, and participated in the Expressionist journal Der Sturm (The Storm).

Established in the district of Berlin-Lichtenberg, in the eastern part of the city, he witnessed the 1919 street-fights in Berlin, which became later the subject of his novel November 1918. During his Berlin period, Döblin wrote numerous articles (about plays and films, but also about life on the streets of the capital), among others for the German-language daily Prager Tageblatt. These articles offer a striking picture of everyday life in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic.

His most famous work is Berlin Alexanderplatz, dated 1929. In this novel, he describes the low life of Berlin from the years 1925-1930. The main character is an anti-hero: a repentant criminal whom fate catches up and who falls back into delinquency. This resolutely modern narrative is composed of biblical and mythological references, collages of extracts from newspapers, and mixes tragedy with popular humor, in a cacophony and a frightful chaos.
This novel is often compared to Celine’s Journey to the end of the night. It has been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions, first in 1931 by Piel Jutzi with Heinrich George in the lead role, then in 1979 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who made it a television series of 14 episodes.

Döblin, of Jewish origin, left Germany in 1933 (like Brecht, like Grosz, like so many others), and in 1936 he became a French citizen.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Bertolt Brecht, a berliner?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Bertolt Brecht, one of the most important playwrights of the twentieth century, was NOT born in Berlin, but in Bavaria. But, does the place of birth matter? Picasso was born in Malaga, but it is as a French artist that he is known for most people.
The same goes for Brecht. He arrived in Berlin in 1924, to join Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater, and it was in the cultural capital of Germany (of Europe some would say) that he wrote The Threepenny opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Saint Joan of the Stockyards.
The year 1933 marked a turning point for him, as for many other artists and writers. This is not an innocuous year, it is the year when the Nazis take power in Germany. Brecht was not Jewish, but he became a Communist, another favorite target for Nazi repression.
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) and his wife Helene Weigel (1900-1971) are buried in the Dorotheenstadt cemetery in Berlin. The playwright wanted a grave "where all the dogs would want to piss".
In the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, a former theater of variety, Brecht made the first performance of the Opera de quat'sous in 1928 and his first triumph. With its overflowing of gilding, its cherubs, its caryatids with swollen breasts, the contrast couldn’t be more marked with the miserly staged by Brecht, with his clear and rigorous theater. The poet liked this distance between the stage and the audience. After the war, when he chose to settle in the communist half of Berlin, it was this theater that Brecht obtained to set up his troupe of the Berliner Ensemble.

Michael Bienert, a guide to literary walks, takes lovers to other parts of Berlin, exploring Brecht's relations with the Nazi regime and then with the GDR.
From the Berlin of the 1920s, which Brecht, the young provincial born in Bavaria in Augsburg, discovers with avidity, there is not much left. The cafes and cabarets that Brecht used to visit around the Kurfürstendamm are no more. But there remains a letter written to a friend in 1920: "Berlin is a wonderful place, can’t you steal 500 marks and come?"
Thank you for the informations borrowed from the site

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Billy Wilder, his life before Hollywood

One of Billy Wilder's first films

Where did Billy Wilder, the director of Some like it hot, The apartment and Irma la douce, begin his career ? In Hollywood ? No, in Berlin. 
He was born in Galicia under Austrian rule, in 1906, as Samuel Wilder. In 1926 he came to Berlin, where, before achieving success as a writer, he allegedly worked as a « taxi dancer », at Hotel Eden. 
After writing crime and sports stories as a stringer for local newspapers, he was eventually offered a regular job at a Berlin tabloid, where he writes articles but also short stories and feuilletons, often about crime. His research bring him into contact with various circles and different people and lead him to become familiar with a variety of sets and characters that are found later in his films.
Developing an interest in film, he began as a screenwriter. He collaborated with several other newcomers (like Fred Zinnemann and Robert Siodmak) on the 1929 feature People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag). He wrote the screenplay for the 1931 film adaptation of a novel by Erich Kästner, Emil and the Detectives.
He makes a good living and begins to collect works of contemporary art, notably furniture signed Mies van der Rohe.
After the rise of Hitler in 1933, Wilder, who was a Jew, left for Paris, then Hollywood, where he, over the years, became one of the most brilliant and versatile filmmakers, winning several Oscars.
You can watch the film Menschen am Sonntag here :

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Old Berlin still exists

What is left of the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties? Anyone who’s seen the photographs or filmed reports on the Berlin of 1945 has seen the havoc that Hitler's madness inflicted on the Berliners. All reduced to debris.

Apparently. Because, in fact, destruction affected mainly the central districts, with the official buildings of the Wilhelmstrasse, the Chancellery of Hitler, the main ministries. But as soon as one moves away, either towards the West or towards the East, one finds the pre-war style of buildings. A district like Prenzlauer Berg, for example, has much the same appearance today as in 1939. Or in 1920. On the west side, although the facades of the Kurfürstendamm have changed considerably since the golden years, Wilmersdorf or Charlottenburg do not appear to have been affected by allied bombing or Soviet artillery.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tourism in the 20's

Tourism was already well developed in 1920’s Berlin. When Bang, the Dane who wanted to open a bar in Berlin, first met Geza, the hungarian journalist, the later asked him, sarcastic :
"So you are a tourist ? One of those they take on Thien's the open buses to show them the Brandenburg Gate, the Tiergarten, Potsdam and its peerless baroque palace?"
"Don’t you see he's not a tourist ?" Paul said. "Bang is an intelligent person and tourism is by definition a silly activity."
"And useless," adds Heinz. "In your village you will reach the universal, Tolstoy knew it already."
"Tolstoy, and I. You forget that I was a tourist guide," says Geza.
"And, mind you, when he had just arrived from Budapest, when he did not know the difference between Alexanderplatz and Potsdamerplatz," Paul explains.

Excerpt from the novel "L'exposition" by Hugo Walter, available on

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Café Schimmel

Excerpt from the novel "L'exposition" by Hugo Walter.

"The Schimmel was the meeting place of the review Der Bruch; None of them had neither the space nor the comfort to receive. In addition, they preferred a public place, to feel in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. The Schimmel also had the advantage of being close to other Westend meeting places.

Recently redecorated in a style that Paul called "art-deco" but which according to Heinz was a late "art-nouveau" and which Harry defined as "Bastard of viennese café and cocktail bar", the establishment had two parts at different levels, clearly circumscribed by a balustrade or metal grille, crowned by a wooden railing. The large columns, which divided the room into smaller spaces, made it appear larger than it was.

Each section had its clientele. The level at the bottom, closest to the entrance, was favored by the elegant ladies. The newcomers to the cafe also tended to settle there, no doubt because they were the first tables they met on entering.

The regulars preferred "the parterre". For the conversation, it was quieter and from there they had a view over the whole place.

Table eighteen, where Harry and his band sat, was known by the waiters as "the table of philosophers." There was also "the teacher's table", just by the railing.

The only one of the group that was actually a professor was an old gentleman who had taught history in high school. But there was also a certain Gregorius, who called himself a professor and whose specialty was "experimental astrology". He usually leaned on the grid to better observe the tables from below. Another regular at the table was a retired colonel with thick white mustaches and monarchist ideas.

But if the Der Bruch team spent much of their time at the cafe, they had little contact with the staff. Not by class prejudice but because they did not feel quite welcome. Perhaps because, always mowed, they left little or no tip. Harry had made this necessity virtue: "Tipping makes of the client a lord and of the server a serf, it is a feudal remain."

Vittorio was the only one who bothered to interact with the staff. Since he did not belong to the group strictly speaking, he was free to wander around the room. He came every other night, arrived about nine o'clock, and shortly after ten o'clock he set out again. To the Romanisches. He came to the Schimmel because he liked the young people of Der Bruch, but to maintain and enrich his social network, the Romanisches was irreplaceable. "

The French novel "L’exposition" is available on the Amazon site.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Romanisches Café

The Romanisches Café was situated in the Breitscheidplatz, about where Europa-Center is today. It opened in 1916. As the old Café des Westens had shut in 1915, it developed into the most important artists' cafe in Berlin, especially after 1918.

The café was a meeting place for the intelligentsia, for the leading writers, painters, actors, directors, journalists and critics of the day. At the same time it became a place for newbies, who would try to start their artistic careers by establishing contacts here. The already established artists, for their part, would group into séparées in an attempt to distinguish themselves from the mass.

Towards the end of the Weimar Republic, as the political situation in Germany became more violent, the Romanisches Café gradually lost its role. As early as 1927 the Nazis instigated a riot on the Kurfürstendamm during which the café, as a meeting place for the left-wing intellectuals they hated, was among the targets of violence. The coming to power of the Nazi Party and the subsequent emigration of most of its regulars signalled the final end of the café as an artists' haunt. The Romanisches Haus was completely destroyed by an Allied air-raid in 1943.

Famous regulars : Bertolt Brecht, Otto Dix, Alfred Döblin, Hanns Eisler, George Grosz, Sylvia von Harden, Erich Kästner, Irmgard Keun, Else Lasker-Schüler, Erich Maria Remarque, Joseph Roth, Ernst Toller, Kurt Tucholsky, Franz Werfel, Billy Wilder.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Berlin's Eiffel tower

The Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of Berlin, was erected in 1791. It is crowned by a quadriga, the work of Johann Gottfried Schadow, representing the goddess of victory in a chariot pulled by four horses.

 In 1806, Napoleon took the quadriga with him, to decorate the triumphal arch of the Carrousel in Paris. But finally he preferred the Venice horses he had stolen from St. Mark's Basilica during the Italian Campaign. Unused, the Berliner quadriga will remain eight years in Paris, admired by no one because it was locked up in boxes.

In 1814, after Waterloo, the quadriga returned to Berlin in triumph.

Enclosed by the wall, the Brandenburg Gate was inaccessible to Berliners both from the West and from the East, as it was in the middle of the no man's land which separated the two parts of the city. Ttherefore it became the symbol of the division of Berlin.

The gate is now represented on the German coins of fifty centimes of euro and others, as a symbol of the recovered unity.

The picture was taken in 1925.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Berlin: a moveable feast

Berliners were known for their love of feast and spree. On summer holidays, the favorite plan was to go swimming at the lakes or take a walk in the woods of Grunewald. But when the night came, the woods and lakes became peaceful again and it was the restaurants and cabarets "with guaranteed good atmosphere" that assumed the main role.
The inhabitants of the capital demanded entertainment and amused themselves frantically, but at the same time conscientiously, taking advantage of every opportunity to have a good time, just as at work they used each hour in the most rational way.
And it was not difficult to be entertained: the ‘revues’ of Erik Charell had little to envy the Folies Bergères and the "risky" shows went beyond the most daring of Parisian scenes.

From "L'exposition", novel by  Hugo Walter, available on Amazon. An English translation will be shortly published

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Harmony or disharmony?

Notes by Gaston Morel, a French art dealer who visits the city two or three times a year, from 1929 to 1933:

"Berlin is the opposite of a harmonious city; It is made up of disagreements and dissonances. The effervescence of Alexanderplatz against the calm of the residential districts. The bucolic Tiergarten and, close by, the feverish movement of Potsdamer Platz, the largest traffic node in Europe.
It is cosmopolitan and provincial. Cosmopolitan ? Actually, there are not so many foreigners here, two out of a hundred, no more. Russians fugitives from communism, but also Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Swiss, Swedes, people from all the Balkans. And
a few Englishmen, attracted by the depreciated mark and the rich and varied sexual offer.
Cosmopolitan nevertheless, less by its population than by the circulation of ideas: this city
is quick to adopt the latest trend, whether it comes from Paris, Chicago or Moscow. She fears, above all, not to be up to date with the latest fashion. A little snobs the dear Berliners, perhaps because this city does not have the traditions of Paris or Rome, because it is an upstart among European capitals.
German cities with tradition are Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, and also Vienna. Ex-sieges of the Holy Roman Empire, the Aulic Council, the Imperial Diet. Berlin is a recent capital city.
Most palaces and ministries, museums and faculties, were built when the city became the center of the German Empire. Before that, it was only a regional capital.
That is precisely why she is so impatient to become something today. To become, if possible, everything.
My visits to Berlin are an injection of adrenaline. The rhythm of the city transmitt
s to me, and I feel this tension, a positive tension, still weeks after coming back to Paris. "

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Weimar = inflation

The "golden twenties were also the years of the hyperinflation in Germany, especially between 1921 and 1924, and more dramatically the year 1923, when prices rose ridiculously rapidly from day to day and even from hour to hour.

I knew a gentleman who lived these years in Cologne. He told me of a day when he was sent to the hairdresser with a bundle of notes to pay for his haircut. But the shop was just closing. So he came back in the afternoon to learn that his bundle wasn't enough any more. The cut, which cost ten millions of marks before noon, now demanded twelve millions. And at the moment of closing the shop, the price had reached fourteen millions.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The marshal

April 1925, campaign for the presidential elections. The statue, in cardboard-stone, depicts Marshal Hindenburg, a former monarchist and chief of staff of the German army during the First World War.

The photo is taken in the Tauentzienstrasse, only meters from the Kurfürstendamm and the Gedächtniskirche, in the heart of West Berlin.

Hindenburg was elected president. Hitler did not deem himself strong enough to stand for election. The man in uniform in the seat of the truck is branding a red-white-black flag, the imperial flag (the Weimar Republic adopted the black-red-yellow, the same as the current one).

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Election day

The Weimar Republic was the first democratic regime in Germany. Already under the Kaiser there was a parliament, but it was the emperor who ultimately decided, especially in matters of foreign policy.

The photo shows sandwich-men at the entrance of a polling station during the second round of the 1932 presidential election. Strict equality: two for Marshal Hindenburg, two for the communist Thälmann, two for Hitler. Who won? Hindenburg, 53%, ahead of Hitler, 36% and Thälmann, 10%. No candidate of the powerful Social-Democratic party, which supported Hindenburg in order to block the Nazis. Note that in the first round, 0.6% of the voters had chosen the candidate of the Party of Victims of Inflation ...

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Berlin, the german capital

The German Empire
Berlin became the capital of the German Empire in 1871. At that time, as can be seen in the map, the city was in a central position, in the heart of Germany.

The red line marks, approximately, the present boundary, the parts to the East having gone to Poland and other countries. Today, Berlin is quite off-center in the German context.

Moreover, it can be seen that in 1930 Berlin was closer to Poland and Czechoslovakia than to France or the Netherlands. Not quite a city of the East, it was not part of Central Europe either (like Vienna was). Neither oriental nor western nor central. "Berlin is located exactly where Berlin is", as an old Berliner phrased it.

The Weimar Republic

The Potsdamer Platz was, in 1930, the largest traffic node in Europe. The first traffic lights (of the world?) Were installed in this square. Several tram lines, plus the lines 1 and 2 of the U-bahn, had their stops here. This square was the symbol of the dynamism of the city. Berlin was one of the most populous cities in the world at the time. But then the war came, and the population of Berlin is less important today than in 1930.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Berlin in 1930. The Weimar-republic has yet 3 years to live.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Why a Berlin blog? No explanation, needed, I think. Berlin is one of the most dynamic and vibrant cities in Europe. Many young people dream of moving there.

But Weimar? Why on earth ? Weimar is one city, Berlin another. Three hundred kilometers separate them. Why then Weimar? What’s this talk about Weimar-Berlin? Well, because it was in Weimar that the Constituent Assembly met in 1918, after the defeat of the German Empire, to promulgate a constitution for what would be the first German republic.

When we speak of Germany in Weimar, or, as here, of Weimar Berlin, we speak not so much of a form of government, but above all of an epoch: the period 1918 -1933. The twenties, which some think "golden". And so they were, but they were also years of conflict, often bloody. And, in the German case, they were the time of great misery, inflation which added zeros every day to the price of bread. The Weimar years begin with defeat, which soon turns into turmoil. A Communist revolution met with pitiless repression, para-military bands that kidnapped, killed political enemies. But at the same time, an abundance of artistic creativity, painting, literature, theater and cinema. And a lifestyle, carefree for some, a gaiety of life that was expressed mostly at night. The Berlin-nights. The cabarets. We think of Marlene Dietrich and her blue angel. And also, closer to us, to Liza Minnelli, in the 70s film. I will share with the readers of this blog, not my memories, I am not old enough to have experienced this time but my readings, my conversations. As well as photos, links to movies, songs.

Auf wiedersehen, then!