Berlin - a literary guide

Our literary guide to Berlin explores this iconic city through the eyes of the writers who have left an indelible mark in our consciousness and understanding of the city.

Above: Eldorado nightclub interior

Christopher Isherwood in Berlin

In 1929 Christopher Isherwood followed his friend WH Auden to the city, where the liberal Weimar Republic offered a small island of permissiveness, in contrast to most countries (including England) at the time where homosexual activity was illegal.

As he recalled much later in his autobiography, written in the third person: ‘To Christopher, Berlin meant boys.’

Christopher Isherwood (left) with W H Auden

When Isherwood first arrived in March 1929, aged 25, he stayed for a week with Auden. By the time of his third visit, in November, he had decided to stay indefinitely. In December 1930 he took up lodgings at Fraulein Thurau’s boarding house at Nollendorfstraße 17, in the Schöneberg area of Berlin, a district to the south-west of the city centre. 

In the 1920s (and again now) Schoneberg was the hub of the city's gay community, which in turn centred on the Eldorado nightclub, just around the corner from Nollendorfstraße. 

The plaque on the building, with (regrettably!) incorrect dates

This is where the story begins in his semi-autobiographical account of his time in the city, Goodbye to Berlin

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

This collection of stories offers a vivid portrait of the city with many finely drawn characters, each in their own way struggling to survive and adapt amidst the chaos and mounting tension - some being raided or ‘in hourly danger of arrest’, others quietly changing their spots. 

Amongst the latter was ‘Herr Issyvoo’s’ landlady Frl. Schroeder, for example, retreating to an ever smaller part of the house in order to accommodate the increasing numbers of tenants necessary to make ends meet, and reorienting her outlook to fit in with the prevailing climate:

This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Fuhrer’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatising herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Sbroeder are acclimatising themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

Life is a cabaret, old chum

Of all the characters, the irrepressible nightclub singer Sally Bowles, with her ‘air of not giving a curse what people thought of her’ has become the most famous. She originally appeared in a novella Sally Bowles, published by the Hogarth Press in 1937; the story was later republished as part of Goodbye to Berlin.

The character of Sally was partly modelled on Jean Ross, who was also a lodger at Nollendorfstraße 17. She was in town working as a nightclub singer, and also performed in the chorus in Max Reinhardt's production of Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, though much more politically engaged than the Sally Bowles of the book.

Sally Bowles became the central character in the John Van Druten play I am A Camera and the Broadway musical and Oscar-winning film Cabaret, in which she is portrayed in a spellbinding performance by Liza Minnelli. 

Divine decadence, darling!

In the late 1920s and early ’30s the many nightclubs and cabarets in the area, such as the Eldorado on Motzstraße, attracted the most outrageous and unconventional characters of the time, and featured leading performers such as Marlene Dietrich.

But in 1933, as the Nazis consolidated their grip on power and initiated outright persecution of the Jews and other minorities, they began closing down the nightclubs and boy bars. Joseph Goebbels established the Reichsmusikkammer (Reich Chamber of Music) which forbade the broadcasting of American Jazz. The Eldorado was closed down and turned into the local Nazi party headquarters.

Isherwood left to travel around Europe with the young German with whom he had fallen in love, Heinz Neddermeyer.

The Speiskammer Bio Supermarket now occupies the Eldorado site. They have retained the name and have a small display of period photographs in the foyer.

My knowledge of Isherwood’s Berlin is much indebted to Brendan at Cabaret Berlin who gave me a tour of the area. If you are able to visit the city, don’t miss Brendan’s tour of the Schöneberg. Highly recommended.

Coming soon: Philip Kerr's gumshoe Bernie Gunther and Alfred Döblin

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