The story of Berlin and Kabaret – Berlin, Germany

The story of Berlin and kabaret

The earliest memory I had of Berlin was when memorizing world capitals as my part of my attempt to improve my General Knowledge– back when I was maybe in my 4th grade. It was just a name for me as late as 1989, when I saw the fall of Berlin wall dividing East and West Germany in on news – mine was a cold-war non-aligned country, so anything related to cold war wouldn’t have been as a big a news there as it must have been in United States. Still, I didn’t think too much about it then.

By European standards, Berlin is a relatively young city with not too much of old or medieval history. It has clearly dominated the 20th century history though. No other city in the world has had a roller coaster ride from villain to vanquished to worn out to victim to a place with all makings of a winner of future in such a short spell. Thats to the indomitable spirit of Berliners, Berlin is now looking very good to claim 21st century entirely its own as well, and this time, for all good reasons.

Berliners haven’t done this by trying to forget the past and starting afresh – a perfectly justifiable and practical approach had it been taken. Instead, under the site of former Nazi secret police headquarters – probably the most shivering address of the third Reich, where the wall stood later, in an exhibit titled “The topography of terror”, telling, in chilling detail, the elements of Nazi infrastructure that unleashed the terror of WWII. If you take away the very disturbing fact that everything told actually occured, it had all the makings of a John Grisham or Robert Ludlum novel. There was much to learn from it – Hitler came to power by perfectly legitimate democratic means in what was till then a perfectly reasonable democracy, but built an infrastructure and unleashed an agenda that was clearly undemocratic. For those like me who had been thinking of democracy as a relatively foolproof system, it was a hard-hitting lesson – democracy works only when kept in check. I have never been a big of political and social activism, and while that is unlikely to change, I can now appreciate their utility.

Another troubled period in Berlin’s history was during the cold war with the dividing wall. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum exhibits the ingenious and brave attempts by East Berliners to flee across the wall – some techniques they used were redesigning cars so that humans could fit in the trunk, homemade parachutes and balloons, tunnels dug from East Berlin into West, in a boat under a hail of bullets, climbing the wall on a rope held by folks on the West, and homemade Soviet war uniforms!

The corridor and pillars outside the museum of natural history still carry the damages from the WWII fighting. It’s difficult to believe that a site that one can now walk through enjoying the scenic beauty was where men were struggling to kill each other in “Saving Private Ryan” kind of setting. Then, there is the church on Ku’dam that hasn’t been repaired after WWII damages – striving to keep the memory of war fresh in minds of people.

If you want to avoid this troubling history, take a stroll on Friedrichstrasse. Its a famous shopping street, but I was attracted by something I clearly wasn’t going to shop– cars! There are showrooms lined with trendiest, jazziest, and the newest of them – I just wasn’t sure if I would be allowed to gawk through them; in my battered clothes and my unshaven look, by no means I looked like a potential customer. I shouldn’t have worried – when I walked in, though the sales agents didn’t seem interested in helping me, they weren’t bothered by my presence enough to throw me out! Plus, the Volkswagen showroom has free toilets on the 2nd floor!

Walking along further, I came across a “kabaret” sign. I had heard the street to be famous pre-war for its cabarets. I hadn’t seen one and was interested. I recalled the not-so-fond memory of having to strip down to an underwear, wear a towel over, and perform what seemed like a cabaret in my 11th grade as part of ritualistic “ragging”. If there was anyway to kill the ghost of that memory, it would be by actually watching one, I told myself. I walked in.

The show was to start in a few minutes. The ticket woman barely spoke English but managed to convey that the kabaret was in German. No problem, I thought; I was there to see more than understand. I bought the ticket. I was surprised to see many old German couples in the performance seating area – cabaret hardly seemed like of interest to couples, much less older ones – I was expecting to see more young guys. But hey, this is Germany, maybe things are different here.

My seat was on a front row table, with a fairly attractive 30-ish young woman as my table mate. We started a conversation in English.
“I from a radio station”, she said, taking out a mike and a voice recorder, “and I am recording the show”.
“I am a tourist, and I don’t speak German”, I replied.
“You don’t speak German, and are watching a kabaret”, she seemed surprised.
“Ummm…yeah, should be interesting to see how much I can make out without the language”, I said trying to look confident, while still surprised by her surprise. Maybe she doesn’t know what guys look for, I told myself.

The lights went dim, and on-stage walked two male artists acting. More surprise for me, but maybe it was just an appetizer before the real show. Scene two, still similar: my hopes were failing me. Scene three, and I had given up. I wanted to leave, but couldn’t – I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my table mate with my stupidity after acting so much in control earlier. Plus, what if the performers picked on me leaving – I won’t even be in the position to respond!

Next scene was particularly testing. One of the actors was dressed like a beggar, with a bowl in his hand, and somewhere in the middle of the scene, started bowing before some visitors, rattling the coins in the bowl as if asking for money. On no response, he persisted, even haggled, till he got his coin. I was scared – what if he came to me? I didn’t have to wait long – he did, and did the same gesture. I was reluctant to part with any useful money, and didn’t want to throw in a small denomination in case he reacted adversely to it. I quietly took out my wallet, and as a gamble, took out a quarter (most currency exchanges don’t exchange coins), and tossed it in. Whether he picked me up because I looked least German and so he could have fun easiest at my expense, or whether it was just coincidence, I do not know. All I know is that I was very relieved when he walked back. I exchanged a few glances with my table mate immediately after, and she smiled at me, as to say “Good job!” In spite of the encouragement, I left at the interval.

“cabaret (show); (satirical) show” is what an the German-English dictionary had for “kabaret”, confirming what I had taken more than an hour to learn that evening while still giving me the comfort that my common sense wasn’t totally off!

Let this fiasco have no one believe that there is no real young nightlife in Berlin. On the contrary, a big chunk of Berlin’s population is young, and the clubs here have far more impressive designs than anything I have seen in Boston – the kind that will put our Avalons and Axises to shame. Honestly! And then, all the new stylish construction happening – take a walk around Potsdamer platz, where Berlin wall ran through not very long ago, and you will see what I mean!

As an Indian, I always took pride in development in India since Independence in 1947. While still wishing for fast development, I believed what I actually happened to be the theoretical limit in the constraints of democracy. Now, after visiting Berlin, there is no doubt in my mind that we could have done much better. As to how, ask the beer-guzzling Germans!