Wednesday, August 04, 2004
Hard Times At Cafe Moskau
Here's where I was last night. Not in the middle of the street -- only for a moment as I crossed. But in that low building in the middle, the one the Fernsehturm, the big knitting-needle-on-a-stick, seems to be rising from.
What you're looking at is Karl-Marx-Allee in the middle of the '60s. (Image courtesy of the mighty Francesca Ferguson, who sent it as her Christmas card last year). There's an improbable number of cars in the picture, given the ten-year wait for even a Trabant (that blue-and-white number in the foreground is a Trabi, as are the white ones all in a row on the other side of the whitish station wagon with the yellow stripe), but this is East Berlin's Miracle Mile, the showpiece of the Warsaw Pact, and, now that renovations have taken care of the worst of the damage, still a breathtaking view of a communist utopia that never arrived.
Its state of preservation has made it hip. Commie chic is still big here in Berlin, particularly among the former East Germans who've gone on to accomplish something, thereby proving that being an "Ossi" is no handicap. They live over here, socialize over here, and maintain, not without reason, that there was a part of the culture in which they were raised that's worth retaining.
If you were to turn yourself around from this picture and keep walking, you'd soon be at Frankfurter Tor, the beginning of the most beautiful part of this collection of buildings. Once past that square, the name of the street turns to Frankfurter Allee, indicating that it leads (as it does) to Frankfurt. Not Frankfurt am Main, the horrendously dull city of financiers and Germany's biggest international airport, but Frankfurt an der Oder, a city I wasn't even aware existed until I moved here. Yes, Germany has two Frankfurts.
Frankfurter Allee is amazing, lined with imposing apartment houses that were designed to house all segments of society under one roof. Special apartments for artists, workers, intellectuals, handworkers, and so on, shaded in the front by huge trees, facing each other across the wide boulevard with the park down the center. I walked down this street in 1988, and found it disorienting: there being no private ownership, the shops on the ground floors of these behemoths all had the same name and the same artwork, so you'd be walking along, past Hair Salon, Fruits & Vegetables, Hardware, Bookshop, Travel Bureau (I remember scenes of a beach in Romania in one of these: anyone locating an ocean in Romania is urged to get in touch), Sausages, Fruits & Vegetables, Hair Salon...wait, weren't we just here? But the street is a straight line, so no, probably not. In fact, this street, which, in the other direction, is known as Karl-Liebknecht-Str., Unter den Linden, Strasse des 17. Juni, Bismarckstr., Kaiserdamm, and Heerstr., is Route 1, and runs to the Polish border, which, by the time you get to the Berlin city limits, is only about 40 miles away. It's the route the Russians took when they crossed the Oder near Seelow and marched into Berlin.
But last night, I didn't get that far, because my goal was the low, flat building in the picture there, the Cafe Moskau. Once, this was the pinnacle of Commie Chic: the finest expression of '60s DDR public architecture, it was a cafe/restaurant/nightclub serving the finest Russian food and drink. Some parts of it were a bit hard to get into if you weren't, shall we say, the right kind of person, but it reassured the Russians that their German friends loved them. Which, you know, they sort of had to. When I first came here, the restaurant was still in full swing, but the word was that there was much better Russian food to be had just about anywhere else. Then the restaurant closed and things behind the glass got dusty. Still, the polished wood on the walls was still there, the porcelain bas-relief of Moscow, with the dove flying over it. There was a Sputnik replica on one corner, all polished and neat, but it tarnished.
Several friends of mine looked into reopening it as a club at various points. They all walked away: the owners were very certain they had a major cultural treasure here, and priced it accordingly. That it was falling apart while they dithered didn't seem to matter. That the place would need a couple million in repairs before it could see any use bothered them not. And so it sat.
It's in use now. My pal Ina throws her swing parties there every second Thursday of the month (next one is Aug. 12), and last night was the opening of an art show there called Hip-Hop Immortals, which a photographer a friend of mine represents was in. It was definitely a strange contrast, a notably incompetent German DJ doing violence to beats while a (very) few invited guests milled around, possibly wondering who'd be dumb enough to open a show like this in a place like this at a time like this when everyone who can rub two Euros together is on vacation.
I stayed long enough to note the incongruity and admire some of the photos, although I have little love for the performers or the music. But after a while, I left. One of these days, I hope to end a visit to this part of town by walking further, through Frankfurter Tor, and to the CSA bar, the former headquarters of the Czech National Airlines, which is the best Ostalgia art-directed place I've ever seen, and gaze into the eyes of a lovely East Berlin maid.
But tonight, I just watched for traffic (not a Trabant in sight) and walked across to the companion building to Cafe Moskau, the Kino International. This was East Berlin's grandest movie palace, and one of the tragedies of the current Berlin Film Festival is that it's all concentrated in Potsdamer Platz, that Jersey mall on steroids, and filmgoers don't get to go to the many idiosyncratic little (and, in this case, big) screens around town.
Kino International is currently playing Fahrenheit 911, and there was a line out onto the sidewalk.
I refuse to draw any conclusions.