Online festival: “The Golden Twenties”

A metropolis made for pleasure

Berlin and its nightlife in the 1920s

In addition to the Scala Girls, the Tiller Girls were among the stars of the famous Scala Variety Theatre.
(Photo: ullstein bild)

Artistically, Berlin was considered the epicentre of Modernism – it had three major opera houses, over 40 theatres and around 20 concert halls, eight of which had more than 1,000 seats. Conductors as diverse as Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber, Hermann Scherchen, Jascha Horenstein, Leo Blech and Fritz Stiedry all performed in the old Philharmonie in Bernburger Strasse. Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck was premiered at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Franz Lehár’s Land of Smiles at the Metropol-Theater. At the Kroll Opera, the state opera’s second venue, Otto Klemperer made a name for himself with sensational performances.

A place to live out dreams and desires

Berlin was known as Europe’s book and press capital. Almost 1000 publishers were based in the city. In 1928, 3356 daily newspapers were published throughout Germany, 147 of them in Berlin alone. The imperial capital was also the centre of the German film industry. More than 90 percent of all German films were shot in Berlin and Potsdam-Babelsberg. In 1928, there were almost 400 cinemas in Berlin with seating for 150,000 spectators. The art trade flourished – gallery owners such as Alfred Flechtheim and Karl Nierendorf opened new exhibition spaces in Berlin. More than 500 galleries displayed works by international artists such as Lyonel Feininger, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin. In museums such as the former Kronprinzenpalais – where Wilhelm II was born – hung the paintings of George Grosz, Oskar Kokoschka and Otto Dix. Visitors from Germany and abroad, such as the two English writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, felt almost magically attracted to Berlin – by the size of the city, its pace, but above all by its nightlife. Everything seemed possible, and everything was possible. Berlin was not only a place you could live out your dreams and desires but also a place that promised a different, a freer, a better life. “The city had a jewel-like glamour,” said American dancer and singer Josephine Baker. “The huge cafés reminded me of ocean liners, driven by the rhythm of their orchestras. There was music everywhere.”

The good life

The starting point for evenings out was often Augsburger Strasse, which was one of Berlin's nightlife hotspots at the time. Where it met Lutherstrasse was the location of the “Scala” – the most famous variety theatre in the city. The Comedian Harmonists, an internationally successful male close-harmony ensemble, performed here, as did the Scala Girls, a group of 24 mostly scantily clad dancers. Next to the Scala was the famous restaurant Horcher. Anyone who wanted to dine here needed a well-filled wallet and a lot of patience, because business was booming and the little establishment was usually fully booked. In addition to actors, the regular guests included many politicians and diplomats. At Horcher, one ate and spoke French. Almost all dishes were prepared at the table. Specialities included “Medaillons Horcher” as well as “Faisan de presse”, whose preparation required the bones of a pheasant to be turned through a silver-plated press, resulting in an extremely rich sauce. All the desserts – mainly crêpes in every conceivable variation – were also created and flambéed in front of the guests.

Diverse subculture

However, the imperial capital Berlin also had a widespread and diverse subculture. Establishments such as the legendary “Eldorado” in Motzstrasse in Schöneberg even made it into the travel guides. The writer Emil Szittya recalled a visit to the transvestite bar “Mikado”: “At the piano sat Baron Sattlergrün who, however, called himself Baroness.” The “Silhouette” was also legendary: a small, always smoky bar that was busy until the early hours of the morning. A pale youth in women’s clothes would sing melancholy songs, accompanied by a blind pianist, while the guests enjoyed chicken soup. Marlene Dietrich and the composer Friedrich Hollaender were among the regular guests of “Silhouette”.

Enjoyment on 2800 m2

Things were much more respectable at the Moka Efti coffee house, which was opened in 1926 by a Greek-born businessman on the corner of Leipziger Strasse and Friedrichstrasse. Three years later, Moka Efti moved into the office building opposite and became one of the hottest places to eat: guests reached the premises via an escalator into an atmosphere evoking the Arabian Nights. In a space of 2800 m2, they could drink coffee, dance and do business – for in addition to catering, there was also a hairdressing salon, a writing room with secretaries for hire, and a post office. The Moka Efti flourished: 25 000 cups of coffee were sold every day. As part of our online festival, actress Dagmal Manzel and members of the Berliner Philharmoniker bring the wild nights in Berlin in the Golden Twenties back to life in a concert entitled A night at the Moka Efti.

Entrance to the Scala Varieté
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Comedian Harmonists at the Philharmonie in Bernburger Straße
(Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)
The Eldorado
(Photo: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons)
Turkish salon in the Moka Efti in Friedrichstraße
(Photo: Imago)
Trude Hesterberg
(Photo: Alexander Binder/Wikimedia Commons)
Josephine Baker 1927
(Photo: Lucien Walery/Wikimedia Commons)