thomas m wilson

Hallo Berlin

August 11th, 2023

Arrived in Berlin last weekend. The other morning I walked alone to the Jewish cemetery near where I’m staying.  The place is full of illustrious marble graves, and stone columned mausoleums, sinking in green ivy and sprouting ferns.  The descendants of this nineteenth century Sachs or Lieberman or whoever else I was looking at were mostly killed during the second world war by the Nazis, and thus so many of these graves and tombs are untended and unkempt.  Walking in under grey sky and cloudy light this place was peaceful, with hardly a visitor, and also melancholy.  A rain shower made me run for shelter under a mausoleum, and sit, contemplating the slick stone and lush greenery around me.  Cold rain falling on cold grey stone. No one left to mourn the family tomb. 

To leaven proceedings, I went to Liquidrom the next day with a friend.  It’s a spa under a concrete dome with an oculus at its centre.  One floats in low light in warm water, head and legs buoyed by flotation devices, eyes closed, electronic music dimly heard through the water as your ears are also submerged.  It is deeply soporific.  It feels good to be held like this, floating, weightless, warm, quiet.  $34 Australian dollars for two hours entry.  Beautiful warm showers afterwards, and a locker where one can leave one’s worldly belongings and forget about them. 

The following day I went on a walking tour of the centre of the city. We started at the Brandenburg Gate, symbol of the city. It is a beautiful gate with classical architrave, triglyphs and elaborate metopes – and it gave it added depth knowing that the bronze statue of horses and chariot and rider had to be recast years after the city had been bombed to smithereens in WW2.  The gate stood triumphant throughout the war incredibly, as it does today. 

The car park where the Fuhrer’s bunker once stood underneath the ground was a place to reflect on what a crazed megolomanaic lead ‘Germania’ in those days.  As the last bit of Nazi architecture is the tax department building today – it does indeed look forboding and grim, square and grey slabs of stone, looming above.

The Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie brought to mind how long ago the 1960s and 70s feel these days – casting one’s mind and imagination into the gulf of all those years brings up a drab and constrained East Berlin and a sad shadow of Soviet style communism.  There is a flicker of glamour from having watched spy films in this setting but generally I think it must have been more depressing than anything else. 

Last night I went to see the film Oppenheimer at the old Soviet-era cinema Kino International on Karl Marx Allee.  The cinema is rectangular concrete with a large glass counter-leavered front first floor.  The room with the bar and candy store is a stunning recreation of life at its best in 1960s East Berlin – a time warp even down to the slightly musty smell mixed with popcorn, and huge glass wall looking out over the boulevard below.  The film leaves the viewer unsettled by the dawning of the age of the nuclear bomb, and I was not feeling entirely cheerful when I set out on my cycle home…

Cycling home along Karl Marx Allee by myself that night around midnight the grand boulevard – described as the last great street built in Europe by some – built by the Communists in the 50s, was an erie but impressive experience.  90 metres wide, flanked by ten story buildings in the style of Socialist Classicism, the buildings are ‘palaces for the people’ – apartment blocks covered in cream coloured tiles with tall windows.  A Soviet Empire feeling to the place but it was hard not, despite having misgivings about the police state nature of Communism at the time, to be very impressed by what a canyon of austere pomp they had created.  The whole street, even down to the names of the cafes, is now listed and has been refurbished (soon after many of these were built they were already losing tiles).  As I cycled along, ant like in the dark, by myself, I looked up at dimly the lit facades and entrance lobbies, and felt like I was in Gotham City, or Metropolis by Fritz Lang, or some other dark and futuristic vision of glory.  Or indeed in a sequel to the film I’d just watched, Oppenheimer.  “Man is the victim of an environment which refuses to understand his soul” says Charles Bukowski, in Tales of Ordinary Madness.  Socialist architecture is in general not something which I feel designs an emotional utopia – rather it is in general, like much twentieth century modernism at least for me, overly distant and dehumanising.  But here at least the classical elements, fused to the idiom of Soviet style, were grand if they were not charming.    

And as an absolute contrast…. This morning I and a friend went to Vabali, a day spa of countless relaxation rooms, outdoor pools, countless saunas and steam rooms and plunge pools and showers, and Buddha statues and wood and stone everywhere, and sprawling green grassed gardens full of deck chairs.  People walked around with a towel around them but otherwise were nude.  I don’t know how the Germans can do this kind of thing – they did it better than most of the day spas in Bali – larger, cleaner, cooler, more well run, and probably cheaper. This is a place with a sense of luxury and relaxation and conviviality – what the ancient Roman thermae were thousands of years before.  

One of the many untended graves in the Jewish cemetery in Berlin.
An allotment garden near the cemetery – spots rented by the middle classes – makes me wonder if I really am in a big city…
Can these prices really be correct? (Wonders someone from a country where alcohol is heavily taxed…)
Good solid bricks of German bread. Delicious.
Hanging out at Tempelhofer Feld, former airport now park, and the place where the West responded to the Berlin Blockade after WW2 by flying supplies in to West Berlin.
Another funky little Berlin cafe, Cafe Plume, run by some young French guys and stacked with French editions on the shelves.
Is Karl Marx Allee (once called Stalin Allee), the last great street in Europe?
The most interesting cinema I have visited, Kino International.
Drinks at the bar before the film begins (were were there to see Oppenheimer, appropriate film for a street built a few years after Hiroshima).
Cycling home along Karl Marx Allee at midnight, alone and ant-like.
The Berlin wall is what springs to mind when many people think of the city…
Another Berlin – at this spa you can lay in warm water and listen to electronic beats and relax to your hearts content. To me this architecture recalls the ancient Roman baths and the hammans that were their legacy in later centuries.
A summer’s morning at another day spa, Vabali, where I forgot you that I was in the middle of a busy city of 3.7 million people.