Berlin in the 1920’s was a moveable feast. Known as the Golden Twenties, this decade began with the end of the First World War and ended with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, during the Weimar Republic. In Germany, this period was characterized by economical and political instability, but also by the expansion of liberal values in the society, creating a environment of experimentation in arts.
The actress Marlene Dietrich, the writer Bertolt Brecht, the filmmaker Fritz Lang, the dancer Anita Berber and the painter Otto Dix are among the most renowned artists of that time, as well movements like New Objectivity and the art school Bauhaus, that reflected the new ideas of the era.
Berlin was known by its famous – and infamous – reputation for sexual freedom. The decadent atmosphere, with a grotesque nightlife and an anarchic and bohemian lifestyle, contrasted with fancy cafes and quaint neighborhoods. The German capital was a melting pot that attracted artists from other parts of Europe, including the British writer Christopher Isherwood and his partner in crime W. H. Auden.
Surprisingly, the artistic environment of Berlin still draws young and creative talent from all over the world, seduced by former warehouses turned into art venues and by the very libertarian bars and nightclubs.
Christopher Isherwood moved to Berlin in 1929 and, after a short period living in Kreuzberg, he settled down on Nollendorfstrasse 17, in Schöneberg, where he lived until the Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The Schöneberg district was the epicenter of the gay life and it remains nowadays, like a Berliner version of the Castro District in San Francisco.
The time passed in Berlin served as inspiration for one his most famous books, Goodbye to Berlin, a semiautobiographical narrative of his experience in the early 1930s, where he describes pre-Nazi Germany and the adventures of his entourage on the decadent Berlin cabaret scene. The novel inspired the play and movie I Am a Camera (1951 and 1955), which was later adapted into the 1966 Broadway hit musical Cabaret, and the 1972 Hollywood movie of the same name, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli.
Isherwood’s apartment on Nollendorfstrasse 17, where a plaque celebrates the author, was very close to some of the cafes, bars and clubs he describes on his novels, but unfortunately none of them are still open.
The dance club Eldorado, on Motzstrasse and known for its transvestite shows, is today an organic supermarket; the theater The Scala, on Martin-Luther-Strasse and a famous vaudeville stage, is now a menswear shop, and the gay bar Kleist Casino, on Kleitstrasse is today the sex club Bull. The building’s façade of the Goya theater was spared from the bombs during the Second World War, but the entertainment venue is currently closed.
Despite all that, there are a few places today that still honor the wild 1920’s. Sally Bowles, named after the character in Goodbye to Berlin and in the Cabaret musical and film, made famous by Liza Minelli, is a thematic café with musical performances. In the Wilmersdorf neighborhood, Bar Jeder Vernunft is a venue with a tent, where old-time cabaret shows are presented. It also has a charming Biergarten, perfect for enjoying a summer sunset before a show.
Another atmospheric – and smoky – place that can remind us the golden days is the bar Stagger Lee, just in front of Isherwood’s former apartment. It is a very classy cocktail bar, considered by many one of the best cocktail providers in town!
Green door is another bar that would be an Isherwood’s favorite. This retro-looking cocktail bar serves exquisite cocktails, which can be sipped while sitting in one of the Chesterfield leather sofas.
To know more about the time Christopher Isherwood lived in Berlin, there is a 90-minute-walk tour around Nollendorfplatz that visits the sites he wrote about on his Berlin novels. The tour is accompanied by short readings from his works.
*This article was written by Domingos Lepores and edited by Tulio Edreira.