Berlin Stories: an expert guide to Isherwood’s queer Cabaret Berlin
From A for Adolf to Z for Zille, Berlin has had its fair share of famous residents down the years. Then there’s B for Bowles – Sally Bowles, the central character in the 1966 musical Cabaret which then confirmed Liza Minnelli’s inter-galactic stardom in the 1974 silver-screen adaptation.
Cabaret’s literary roots trace directly back to the author Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical stories set in Weimar-era Berlin during the Jazz Age. TLDR; drink and drugs and kinky sex with strangers!
Who was Christopher Isherwood?
Isherwood had moved in 1929 from London to Berlin in order to live his best life as an openly gay man and to enjoy the city’s raunchy nightlife. Granted, that was almost a hundred years ago and the city has gone through a century of profound change, with much of Isherwood’s adoptive home having been literally bombed off the face of the earth.
But, there are ghosts and echoes at every turn.
You just need an expert guide and all will be revealed. Meet Brendan Nash
Brendan is a born and bred Londoner who, by happy accident of birth, has been blessed with the Irish story-telling gene and whose first Berlin apartment backed on to Frau Schneider’s home at Nollendorfstraße 17 where Isherwood himself roomed.
That fortunate happenstance reignited Nash’s interest in Isherwood’s work and was the genesis for his “Isherwood’s Neighbourhood Walking Tour” which can now proudly boast over 300 5-star Tripadvisor reviews.
Setting off from and ending back at Nollendorfplatz in Schöneberg, Brendan’s two-hour tour retraces Isherwood’s steps around the neighbourhood he called home. The gentle, fact-packed walk includes poignant readings from Isherwood’s books and diaries, takes in the sights he wrote about, and introduces us the cafés, bars and clubs he frequented.
Nash is also keen to contextualise the era and the economic madness which kicked open the door for the Nazis. Hyper-inflationary, bazillion-mark banknotes demonstrate just how much existential fear and panic was the order of the day.
There are even a few genuine “goose-bump moments” – take, for example, standing outside today’s rather anonymous organic supermarket in Motzstraße and learning that this site formerly housed the legendarily anything-goes Eldorado nightclub which, in turn, was the inspiration for the Kit Kat Club in the Cabaret musical and movie.
With Brendan’s vivid and anecdotal narration, it is easy to close your eyes and imagine the place being raided as a “homosexual dance pleasure” by the Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) goons of Kurt Melcher – then Berlin’s top cop – and directed by the reportedly gay but definitely hypocritical-to-the-core Ernst Röhm, the co-founder and leader of the SA – the Nazi Party’s ultra violent paramilitary wing – and who had actually been a regular at the club prior to its closure.
Schöneberg’s Winterfeld Platz market (Wednesday and Saturday) is an evergreen draw for the West-Berlin fooderati. The Thai imbiss is especially good – and fine lunch for a handful of loose chance.
Sex and politics
For some participants, the Isherwood’s Neighbourhood Walking Tour is much more than simply following the author’s well-trodden path; with the introduction of lesser-know supporting characters, it unearths an historical insight in to Queer and gender-identity politics, prejudice, and the sexual repression which became a mainstay of Nazi tub thumping. Moreover, it isn’t a great stretch to draw parallels with the latter-day political movements which are on the march across the globe.
Nash confirms this to us over a coffee in the Impala hipster-haunt on Maaßenstraße. “The Isherwood story is fascinating in itself, but people are much more aware these days. Straight or gay, young or old, they are so keen to understand the past and what leads us to where we are today. It is partly why the tour has extended to at least two hours, often we overrun.”
He also shares with us his thoughts about how the city gets into your blood. “Isherwood came to Berlin with the English colonialist mindset and with his early rather patronising prose.”
“And then the savages civilised him!”
Need to know
Tours usually take place on Saturday mornings at 11am, but other times are available by arrangement. Price is just €20 per head.
The U1 / U3 will rush you to U-Nollendorfplatz in 20 minutes from Die Fabrik and the Isherwood’s Neighbourhood Walking Tour will leave you plenty of time to mooch around the Winterfeldplatz Saturday market which is renown as a foodie paradise for discernible locals and visitors alike.
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