Else Lasker-Schüler’s Berlin

James J Conway takes a tour of the writer’s main haunts during her time in the German capital…

Else Lasker-Schüler is celebrated as an artist, as a prose writer, and above all as one of the great German poets of the 20th century. In 2019 I translated Lasker-Schüler’s episodic collection The Nights of Tino of Baghdad, which she wrote in Berlin and published in 1907, which set me on the path to a more comprehensive collection of her pre-World War One prose (to be published by Rixdorf Editions in spring 2022). It also made me curious to know more about her time in the city. Where did she live? Who did she know? Did any of the stone witnesses to her existence survive the firestorms of modern German history?

Else (Elisabeth) Schüler was born to an assimilated Jewish family in Elberfeld (Wuppertal, in the Rhineland) in 1869 and died in Jerusalem in 1945, yet Berlin was home for the majority of her adult life, the stage for her creative personae and the crucible of most of her greatest works. She arrived in 1894 with her first husband, Berthold Lasker, but within a decade she had divorced him and married Herwarth Walden, by which time she was a fixture of bohemian Berlin.

Before World War One Lasker-Schüler had established her uncompromising artistic vision, combining Jewish and Arab motifs to form an idiosyncratic Semitic realm of her mind. This construct was never confined to the page or the canvas; Lasker-Schüler appeared in public dressed as “Tino, Princess of Arabia” or “Jussuf, Prince of Thebes” and assigned roles in her imagined world to friends and associates.

Revisiting these figures and their physical settings evokes a whole German avant-garde milieu of the early 20th century. It introduces us to writers, publishers, artists, gallerists, anarchists, utopians and café habitués searching for meaning beyond the reactionary confines of the Wilhelmine mainstream and even the more liberal Weimar Republic. Many of the buildings associated with Lasker-Schüler were destroyed during World War Two, but these erasures themselves form a poignant memorial to a writer forced to absent the city at the peak of her renown.

Here, in approximately chronological order, are the key stations of Else Lasker-Schüler’s life in Berlin.

BRÜCKENALLEE

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THEN: In 1894, Else Lasker-Schüler moved from Elberfeld with her husband Berthold Lasker and settled in Brückenallee in the central Berlin district of Hansaviertel. Lasker, a physician and chess master, hired a studio for his wife in the same street where she took art lessons. Nestled in a loop of the River Spree, the Hansaviertel was a prestigious neighbourhood at the time although it retained a creative edge, numbering both government ministers and artists among its residents, with two synagogues to serve its large Jewish community. Lasker-Schüler departed after the breakdown of her marriage in 1899.

NOW: This area was almost entirely destroyed during World War Two and the streetscape radically altered when it became a post-war showcase of high-rise modernism designed by the likes of Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer and Alvar Aalto – West Berlin’s response to progressive urban development on the other side of the Wall. The building that stands where Lasker-Schüler once lived on Brückenallee, now Bartningallee, inhabits a somewhat less exalted class of post-war architecture.

Bartningallee by James J Conway

CABARET PETER HILLE

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THEN: Else Lasker-Schüler was present at the very dawn of Berlin’s fabled cabaret tradition, which flourished well before the Weimar era. In 1901 she joined Peter Hille, a prophet-like bohemian figure and the subject of Lasker-Schüler’s first prose work, for two evenings of cabaret presentations on Bellevuestraße, one night “erotic”, the other “tragic”; the former was – surprise – the more popular of the two. And Lasker-Schüler was there again in 1902 when Hille opened a cabaret under his own name at Dalbelli’s, a canalside Italian restaurant which was a popular bohemian meeting place.

NOW: Intensive wartime bombing left little standing around here other than the adjacent Matthäikirche (the tip of its spire is seen here). The site was cleared for an ensemble of cultural institutions, including the Neue Nationalgalerie which opened here in 1968. The design was a late work by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe originally earmarked for the Havana headquarters of Bacardí before post-revolutionary Cuba decided a modernist temple to an international consumer brand was off-message. The museum is currently closed as it undergoes extensive renovation. (Update: all finished! But still closed.)

Neue Nationalgalerie (under reconstruction) and the tip of Matthäikirche just behind, by James J Conway

CAFÉ DES WESTENS

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THEN: The one Berlin location indissolubly associated with Else Lasker-Schüler was the Café des Westens. This was the main bohemian hub of pre-World War One Berlin, with artists, writers and camp followers hatching plans which earned the venue the nickname of “Café Größenwahn”, or Café Megalomania. Lasker-Schüler was a frequent visitor with second husband Herwarth Walden, whom she married in 1903, and her infant son Paul. Actor Tilla Durieux remarked disdainfully that “the little family lived, I suspect, on nothing but coffee.”

NOW: The café fell out of favour with artists and writers around the start of World War One and closed in 1915; only the replica street lamp outside now suggests anything of the early 20th century streetscape. The space was later used as a cabaret, and in the 1920s “Dada Baroness” Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven could be found selling newspapers on this corner after her return from New York. The building was destroyed in the closing stages of World War Two, and the post-war Café Kranzler that arose in its place is now history as well, leaving only its sign and its festive Wirtschaftswunder canopy as an incongruous adornment to a branch of the weekend custody dad’s outfitter of choice, Superdry. Pro tip: don’t cycle around here. You will die.