The Invasion of Berlin
From The Observer, October 7, 2007
America's Creative Elite Invade Berlin, City of Cool
By KATE CONNOLY
It's not, is it? Clint Eastwood downing a beer in the Helmut Newton Bar, John Cusack cycling along a cobbled street, Matt Damon strolling through a courtyard of fashion boutiques drawing on a cigarette? Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the cultural life of the city has suddenly exploded again and is propelling it on its way to becoming the new New York.
Hollywood stars are rapidly discovering the once divided city, lured by its sizzling creativity and raw charm. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are just the latest to have bought a home - a loft apartment in the trendy district of Mitte in the former communist East Berlin. Tom Cruise is considering the more sedate lakeside area of Wannsee. Their arrival and that of other celebrities in love with Berlin's grittiness, its disrespect for authority, the lack of paparazzi, even its lax smoking laws, is part of a wider trend - creative Americans are discovering Berlin.
The city is increasingly said to have the edge over New York as an international centre of art and creativity that many say America's cultural capital started to lose 20 years ago, when they began scrubbing the graffiti from the subways.
"Berlin is like New York City in the 1980s," proclaimed the New York Times. "Rents are cheap, graffiti is everywhere and the air crackles with a creativity that comes only from a city in transition."
New York artists have been moving here in droves, lured by low rents and an "anything goes" atmosphere. According to Damaso Reyes of the cultural magazine Krax: "Gone are the days when up-and-coming painters such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg could rent a huge loft in Manhattan for just a few hundred dollars a month."
Naturally the art dealers have followed the artists. A year ago Robert Goff opened a branch of his New York gallery Goff + Rosenthal, citing Berlin's "energy as a city in which artists can actually afford to live."
The creative atmosphere has snowballed, with more and more artists drawn in. David Krepfle has swapped a loft under the Manhattan Bridge for a leafy street in east Berlin. The move has enabled him to concentrate on his bold paintings rather than on worrying about the bills. Those who have left the US because of the Bush administration's foreign policy see Berlin as a land of exile.
Long-term residents of the city who cite high unemployment, empty coffers and smelly drains cannot understand the hype. But glamor is not what lures the "Amis," as Berliners refer to Americans, rather the lack of it. The makeshift nightclubs in railway stations, lofts and warehouses are an antidote to the slickness of Manhattan or LA.
It took Berlin a long time to recognize the value in its creative talent and the extent to which it drives the city whose mayor refers to it as "poor but sexy." Some 114,000 people are employed in the creative industry, a rise of 50 per cent in a decade, and Berlin is home to a tenth of all Germany's creative professionals, many of whom filled gaps left by traditional industries.
Neither has it taken long for the Berlin buzz to seep through to Hollywood. Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, which had its heyday in the 1920s, has had admirable success in recent years in drawing in big-name producers attracted not just by government subsidies and an efficiency that enables them to produce to budget, but by Berlin's coolness.
Several major productions are currently shooting in Babelsberg, including Tom Cruise's controversial Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer, about the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler, while ex-wife Nicole Kidman has just arrived to start filming the adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's novel, The Reader. "It used to be that producers came to us, but now it's the other way round," a member of a Babelsberg investment team says.
The love appears to be mutual. Not since the 1930s, when film directors fled Nazi Germany to find refuge in the US, have Germans been so much in demand in Hollywood. Names of the moment include Marco Kreuzpaintner, Christian Alvart, Sandra Nettelbeck and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, creator of the Stasi drama The Lives of Others
German gossip magazines, which until a few years ago had little choice but to concentrate on home-grown celebrities, now have a field day with news of who's in town. Jennifer Lopez was spotted in the riverside warehouse nightclub Spindler and Klatt, Norman Mailer was observed - but not hassled- wandering through the streets, and Robert De Niro was seen eating schnitzel in the elegant Borchardt restaurant. Pitt and Jolie favour the swish Swiss restaurant Nola's in a converted public convenience in Mitte, while Willem Dafoe is drawn togrittier haunts like Markthalle in rebellious Kreuzberg and Jude Law likes to woo his new flame, 26-year-old model Susan Hoecke, at Shiro i Shiro.
British artists are also getting in on the picture. Helping to shape Berlin's creative landscape is the architect David Chipperfield. Berlin is waiting with bated breath for his reworking of the city's historic Museum Island, a World Heritage site, which, cultural chiefs say, will rival the Louvre. The vision is that Chipperfield's glass and steel colonnade-style construction will turn Berlin into nothing less than the "new Paris."